by Leah Quinn
"Tales from the South’ reclaims the stories of Mediterranean women whose narratives have long been misshapen and misstold by patriarchal institutions and male-dominated academia."
As I walked into the prestigious Richard Saltoun gallery in Mayfair,
the overwhelming smell of straw washing over my senses wasn’t what I expected. In the back room of the gallery, it engulfed the floor, as water trickled gently from an industrial-looking fountain at its centre. This might have been calming if, two days earlier, Naples-born performance artist Romina de Novellis hadn’t explained to a room full of art fans and journalists that the fountain was once a torture device.
A comforting calm in Romina’s art often sits alongside an aggression that’s far more complex than at first glance. She's worked as a contemporary artist for almost two decades, having performed all over Europe. She was the nude phantom Gradiva dragging her chariot through Pompeii’s ruins; sharing her Italian roots with Parisians, projecting films onto the walls of the city; erasing her body behind white roses whilst knelt in a cage.
Her latest exhibition ‘Tales from the South’ is her first solo show in the UK. ‘Tales from the South’ reclaims the stories of Mediterranean women whose narratives have long been misshapen and misstold by patriarchal institutions and male-dominated academia.
When I speak to Romina, she has just finished a four-hour long performance of Veglia (2011), which she first performed in the Parisian apartment of art critic Marc Lenot. Veglia sees Romina kneeling nude on a low platform, captured behind a wall of red thread. Her hands furiously tie knots into the threads which gradually descend little by little as the hours crawl by. As onlookers navigate the gallery, Romina watches them in return.
“For me,” Romina tells me, “performance is about connecting with the spectator. I can’t perform without them. It’s a shared ritual. I want them to feel like we’re experiencing the same thing. We are sharing the same moment. The spectator is part of the performance. I, too, am a spectator of you.”
Romina’s gaze seems to invert what she has felt at the gaze of others. Speaking to Italian curator Paola Ugolini some days earlier, Romina explains that she has always been perceived as the stereotypical southern Italian woman. Tanned. Long dark hair. Dark eyes. An explosive energy to her gestures. But Romina feels as though she’s at an intersection of identities.
When she was four, her Napolitan parents moved to Rome and Romina began to ingest the contrasting cultures of these two opposing cities. “I speak Roman,” she tells me, “But the Roman I speak is the digestion of the Napolitan I eat each day. I feel Napolitan in my body and Roman in my expression.”
Southern Italy has long been the less wealthy half of the country. Its people tended to work the land and became pejoratively referred to as terroni by their northern neighbours. “The world,” Romina tells me, “is in the north and the west.” Italy, she says, sits on the border between the wealth of the so-called Global North with its powerhouse economies in the UK and the US, and the precarious economies of what some call the Global South which still recover from the degradations of colonialism.
Romina’s art takes a magnifying glass to these boundaries and breaks them open. Si tu m’aimes, protège-moi (2020), or the carpet of straw in the back room, exemplifies a shift from earlier anthropological investigation to Romina’s growing interest in ecofeminism and intersectional politics. What began with an old video of a southern Italian couple on their farm, opened Romina’s eyes to a practise long-performed by Italian women.
Farmers discovered that noise could startle a chicken and cause infertility, inhibiting them from laying eggs. To protect against this, women would wrap white cloth around the birds’ ears in, as Romina expresses, a touching act of feminine solidarity. In Si tu m’aimes, protège-moi, Romina recreates this, wrapping the cloth around her own ears and then the chicken’s.
Translated, the title reads, “If you love me, protect me.” But, as ever in Romina’s work, feminine bodies are rarely far from danger. The water in the fountain at the room’s centre was once electrified, to stun chickens before slaughter. Here, an image of life is haunted by death.
Romina doesn’t like to work alone. Four years ago, she bought a house in Salento, Italy. “I really need the south,” she tells me, “I need the Mediterranean sea.” The house became home to an artist residency programme, DOMUS, that she founded in 2019 that studies gender and environmental politics.
The house is situated in Galatina where, until the 1960s Tarantate women would visit once a year to ask St Paul for forgiveness. In Italy, to be labelled tarantate, or possessed by the tarantula, was to be considered hysterical and transgressive by the strict social norms of a patriarchal Catholic society. However, women quickly learnt that to be considered tarantate could be used to their advantage. Once a year, they could reclaim their bodies in performative madness and act out against patriarchal societal constraints in the name of tarantate.
Romina has reclaimed this feminine performative body in her work. After recovering from a tragic accident in 2002 that left her paralysed and forced her to spend a year in hospital, she tells me that her body “became a cage.” Now, she uses that body “like a painting or a sculpture. It’s my language and my medium. I feel absolutely comfortable. My work is poetic and my body is part of the poetry.”
By diving into the aggression, pain, and hysteria, she recasts long-restricted bodies into a continuous, confronting exhibition of autonomy and freedom.
‘Tales from the South’ is showing at the Richard Saltoun Gallery until 26th June 2022.