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.”