Performing the Archive: on the Feminist Group Le Nemesiache

The exhibition From the Volcano to the Sea at Rongwrong explores the archive of the Italian feminist collective Le Nemesiache, active in Naples in the 1970s and 1980s. Giulia Damiani, curator and research fellow of art organization If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want to Be Part of Your Revolution in Amsterdam, translated the group’s practice in dialogue with Arnisa Zeqo, director of Rongwrong, and curator Sara Giannini (If I Can’t Dance), making the archive public for the first time.

Entering the exhibition space, I receive a stamp with the logo of Le Nemesiache on a hand-out. It gives me a nostalgic feeling, reminiscent of entering a nightclub, where you receive a stamp on your hand to signify that you’ve been granted access. Receiving the stamp by ‘host’ Arnisa Zeqo, director of Rongwrong in Amsterdam, creates a performative dimension that lingers during the rest of my visit. 

Rongwrong, a three-level art space and residence, is the stage of From the Volcano to the Sea, an exhibition centered on the archive of feminist collective Le Nemesiache. The group was founded in Naples, in 1970, by the artist, philosopher, and writer Lina Mangiacapre. The collective consisted exclusively of women, who celebrated mythology in art, literature, and film to enhance an embodied impulse to the female struggle for liberation and equality. The group’s name, Le Nemesiache, is derived from the Greek goddess of retribution, Nemesis, who punished mortal pride and arrogance on behalf of the gods. Reading all their names on self-produced pamphlets, zines, and manifestos, I notice how the members of the collective adopted the names of Greek mythological women. Niobe, Daphne, Medea, are amongst some of these mythological identities. 

'From the Volcano to the Sea. The Feminist Group Le Nemesiache in 1970s and 1980s Naples', installation overview. Courtesy: If I Can’t Dance. Foto: Baha Görkem Yalim.

Sequined costumes, a metallic-blue corset, and cat-eye-shaped sunglasses from the 1989 theatre production Elagabulus are exhibited in the front space. The costumes recall a Camp aesthetic, as Susan Sontag described: “Camp is esoteric — something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques.” [1] This also relates to the performative act of receiving the stamp at the entrance, which feels like a private code, of being part of a (secret) group. The constellation of photographs gives an impression of their political actions, such as the drag action Cross-dressed as the Sibyls in 1984, when they interrupted the all-men municipal meeting, demanding to partake in the political decision-making.

'From the Volcano to the Sea. The Feminist Group Le Nemesiache in 1970s and 1980s Naples', installation overview. Courtesy: If I Can’t Dance. Foto: Baha Görkem Yalim.

Next to the photographs hangs the Manifesto for the Appropriation of Our Own Creativity, calling for a feminist (Italian) art history, which still feels extremely relevant since Le Nemesiache remains widely unknown, even in Italy. The manifesto was signed by all the members of the collective on International Women’s Day March 8, 1977: “We FEMINISTS are protesting to take back our creativity. We don’t want to be the nourishment of male culture anymore, today all our energies are converging for the CREATION OF OUR OWN HISTORY.” Symbolic to the international women’s liberation struggles, they signed many of their manifestos and performance documents on this date. Another performative element occurs when Zeqo asks if I can read the manifesto out loud to the other visitor in the exhibition space. We read the sentences together, noticing how it has more impact when you give voice to the translated words on the piece of paper. 

Le Nemesiache, Manifesto for the Appropriation of Our Own Creativity (1977). Courtesy: Le Nemesiache, Rongwrong, If I Can't Dance.

The mezzanine floor shows sketches of the costumes from the feature film Dido Is Not Dead (1987), alongside Dido’s feathered-wings and pink scribbled letters on the wall that read ‘Dido is not dead’. In the feature film, Le Nemesiache re-enacted the classical myth of Dido, the queen of Carthage who took her own life after being abandoned by Aeneas. The re-enactment of myths was part of the collective’s method of what they termed the ‘psycho-fable’ (psico favola); an activity of raising consciousness by reinterpreting the social content of these mythic stories. They reinterpreted the story and reversed the women’s submissive position by letting her return, alive, to Naples’ volcanic landscape. The surrealist film portrays how their interest in mythology and ritualistic embodiment was set against the Western patriarchal thought of objectivity, logic, and abstraction. Despite the length and the language barrier (the subtitles are missing), it gives an impression of their cinematic aesthetics and references to the cinematic work of Pier Paolo Pasolini (a friend of Mangiacapre) and Ulrike Ottinger. 

Walking down the stairs, I discover a place that looks like a secret clubhouse, called The Sibyl’s Cave. Upon entering the cave, a text written on the wall states: ‘Men can enter only with a woman who can guarantee for them.’ As I identify myself as female, I’m allowed to enter the cave – I don’t even have to show my stamp. Like a clubhouse, the walls are plastered with photos, postcards, poems, and newspaper articles. I take a seat at the improvised bar and watch the short film The Sibyls (1977). The experimental film is set in Naples' volcanic landscape: a woman is lying on the rocks, dancing, and moving along with the rhythm of the waves. As if in a trance, she recites the words: “No, not just a woman’s silhouette.” The hypnotic voice made my mind go adrift : is she becoming a rock? How can the female body become part of the surrounding nature? It reminds me of Ana Mendieta’s Silueta series (1973–78), for which she created imprints of her body into the landscape of Iowa and Mexico as a way to ‘become one with the earth.’

'From the Volcano to the Sea. The Feminist Group Le Nemesiache in 1970s and 1980s Naples', installation overview. Courtesy: If I Can’t Dance. Foto: Baha Görkem Yalim.

The exhibition ends upstairs, at the so-called Portal of Posillipo, normally used as a dining room or place of togetherness and exchange. Zeqo invites me and the other visitor for a Tarot card reading, another performative dimension that adds to the exhibition’s aim to keep the group’s embodied mythology alive. The performative elements that are added by the curators create a certain intimacy, asking the visitor to participate in the performing of Le Nemesiache’s archive. This opens up questions on the traditional role of the archive and the notion of displaying. How do we understand the archive, does it have to be performed to be understood, and who is telling these stories?

More information on Rongwrong and the exhibition on Le Nemesiache, which lasted from 23 October 2020 until May 1 2021,  here

This text has been written and edited as part of het AICA-mentorschap

[1] Susan Sontag, Notes on 'Camp', Partisan Review. Fall 1964. 31 (4): 515–530.

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