BY Barbara Casavecchia in Reviews | 06 SEP 13

Maria Lai, Legarsi alla Montagna (Bound to the Mountain), 1988, performance documentation

In her catalogue introduction, exhibition co-ordinator Uliana Zanetti explains that ‘Autoritratti. Iscrizioni del femminile nell’arte italiana contemporanea’ (Self-Portraits: Inscriptions of the Feminine in Contemporary Italian Art) took as its point of departure the old slogan ‘Let’s start with ourselves.’ Initially the (almost entirely female) staff of MAMbo had planned a series of ‘interventions’ to give more visibility to the work of women artists in the museum’s collection. After many discussions, much enthusiasm and the additional involvement of several women artists and independent curators, the project morphed into the polyphonic and highly contentious format of a gender-based group exhibition. It included the works of 43 artists, divided into nine individually curated thematic sections, though the layout was so seamless that it was often hard to discern the chapters.

Traces of the original stages of ‘Autoritratti’ were evident in some site-specific works. Agonale (2013) by Anna Scalfi Eghenter, invited by the collective a.titolo, is a game to be played by two teams of visitors, occupying opposite ends of a field traced on the floor; the participants must debate a theme of their choice, but can score points only when a mutual agreement is reached. The installation Some kind of solitude is measured out in you, you think you know me, but you haven’t got a clue (2013), by Ottonella Mocellin and Nicola Pellegrini, was based on interviews conducted by the artists with eight women working at MAMbo, on the subject of difficult relationships. It was a wallpapered room, with a table cut in two; whenever the light went off, at frustratingly brief intervals, a recording of Mocellin’s voice reading a ‘remixed’ transcription of the interviews was interrupted.

The exhibition title pays homage to one of the leading figures of the first wave of Italian feminism, Carla Lonzi; a talented critic, she quit art writing after the publication of her seminal book Autoritratto (Self-Portrait, 1969) – a montage of conversations with artists – to found the collective Rivolta Femminile with Carla Accardi and Elvira Banotti. Their book Sputiamo su Hegel (We Spit on Hegel, 1970) marked a radical break with ‘the monologue of patriarchal culture’.

The first section of the exhibition, curated by Emanuela De Cecco, was the most convincing: not only because De Cecco addressed the question of how to historicize the often immaterial ‘inscriptions of the feminine’, but also because she included the work of three exemplary projects by Valentina Berardinone, Anna Valeria Borsari and Maria Lai that focus on how to narrate or record encounters with the public. Lai stole the show, but not only for sentimental reasons: a legendary figure, she died aged 93 during the preparation of ‘Autoritratti’. In 1988, Lai was invited by the municipality of Ulassai, the Sardinian village she came from, to create a war memorial; she proposed that instead of building a monument for the dead, they create a monument for the living – and she involved the village’s population in her work Legarsi alla montagna (Bound to the Mountain, 1988). For it, everyone had to transfer blue ribbons from house to house, to link both the buildings and the community.

For the ‘(M)others’ section, curated by Arabella Natalini Brunton, Chiara Camoni collaborated with her grandmother on a series of star drawings (Di)segnare il tempo (Drawing Time, 2006), while Moira Ricci’s photographic series ‘20.12.53/10.08.4’ (2004–9) and Antonella Cattani’s video Novella (2001) explore nostalgia and loss. ‘Autoritratti’ includes very few ‘bad girls’, which is surprising given the sexism of Italian culture. In 2011, after yet another Berlusconi sex scandal, millions of (mostly female) protesters took to the squares shouting ‘If not now, then when?’ in response to what they called ‘the repeated indecent representation of women paraded naked as a sexual object of exchange offered by newspapers, television, advertising’. For their collage series ‘Dispositivi di rimozione’ (Devices for Removal, 2010–12), the duo Goldiechiari (Sara Goldschmied and Eleonora Chiari) covered black and white photos of violent episodes from 1970s Italy, such as terrorist bombings, with cut-outs of Playmates, to symbolize the post-traumatic erasure of our past. Daniela Comani paid tribute to the Guerrilla Girls with her poster Queen Kong, as well as with the installation Daniela Comani’s Top 100 Films (both 2012), a collection of DVDs with fake covers, where she reverses gender roles and Hollywood clichés: ‘Scent of a Man’, ‘All the President’s Women’ and ‘Papà Roma’ – a dig at the (unbearable) neorealist stereotypes of the Italian mamma.

Barbara Casavecchia is a contributing editor of frieze and a freelance writer and curator based in Milan, Italy.