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Issue 229

Romina De Novellis Engages with the Hardships of Rural Life

At Richard Saltoun Gallery, London, a trilogy of works delves into the domestic exploitation of Southern Italian women

BY Lauren Dei in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 16 JUN 22

As I enter Richard Saltoun Gallery to find Romina De Novellis sitting naked behind a see-through screen of red threads, my politeness reflex prompts to move me on swiftly, to give her privacy. Nonetheless, though I have invaded an intimate moment, I feel innately comfortable under her electric yet detached stare; she is ablaze with quiet purpose.

Romina De Novellis, Si Tu M'aimes, Protège-Moi (If You Love Me, Protect Me), 2020, video still. Courtesy:  © the artist and Richard Saltoun Gallery, London and Rome

‘Tales from the South’, De Novellis’s first UK solo show, contains a trilogy of works that, by engaging with the hardships of rural life in southern Italy – a region with complex tensions deriving from a historical division from the country’s more affluent north – seeks to examine how interterritorial and patriarchal dynamics impact the lives of local women. An anthropologist and former professional dancer, De Novellis centres her performance-oriented practice on unpacking themes of oppression; endurance is an integral part of her work, extending the present moment into an arc of reflection.

De Novellis sets the exhibition across a day in time, where elements of past and present converge. Beginning at the end, Veglia (Veil, 2011) is the sunset of the show, a performance in which she slowly unravels the threaded screen of red wool that separates her from the audience. It is a four-hour ritual repeated daily in homage to the claustrophobic domestic conditions historically endured by women in rural southern Italy. Throughout, a recording of lamentations sung in an ancient Griko dialect by female farmers from Salento brings a historical note to the artist’s present bodily confinement.

Romina De Novellis, Veglia, 2011, performance documentation. Courtesy: © the artist and Richard Saltoun Gallery, London and Rome

GRADIVA (2017) takes its title from the Roman bas-relief that became the foundation for Sigmund Freud’s famous study Delusion and Dream in Jensen’s Gradiva (1907). The installation – comprised of photography, sculpture and video – documents a 12-hour nocturnal performance in which the artist pulled a cast of her body on a cart through the ruins of Pompeii. The naked trek across historically male territory serves as an act of shedding societal expectations; here, the cast resides on a bed of dried flowers, a reclining sarcophagus for a past compliant and smaller self.

The installation Si Tu M’aimes, Protège-Moi (If You Love Me, Protect Me, 2020) returns us to De Novellis’s piercing gaze. In a room strewn with hay and illuminated yellow like the sunrise, a series of photographs and a video show the artist bandaging her own ears and those of a chicken, creating parity through shared fragility. Southern farmers conducted this practice to shield hens from loud sounds known to disrupt their fertility – a small kindness performed by women afforded scant tenderness by society. The fibreglass fountain installed at the room’s centre serves as a symbol of life, subverting the electroshock slaughter of chickens (Chicken Spa, 2000).

De Nouvelles
Romina De Novellis, Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (In The Blue Painted Blue), 2019, polaroid, cement tile (old house paving from the South of Italy), resin, wax, 20 × 20 cm. Courtesy: © the artist and Richard Saltoun Gallery, London and Rome

De Novellis documents the impact of such historical injustices, underscoring where more reparation is needed. In a conversation with curator Paola Ugolini held to mark the show’s launch, the artist noted that the country’s derogatory treatment of recent immigrants from the Global South has helped unify northern and southern Italians against a new common enemy. The centring of the body in her practice provides a common ground that opens a dialogue of understanding, reconsidering our shared humanity and looking at complex areas of society with an unflinching gaze. Self-acceptance is the compass guiding De Novellis as she depicts the vulnerability required to examine the harsh truths that lead to change.

Romina De Novellis ‘Tales from the South’ is at Richard Saltoun Gallery, London, until 26 June

Main image: GRADIVA (detail), 2017, colour print mounted on aluminium, 1.1 × 1.5 m. Courtesy: © the artist and Richard Saltoun Gallery, London and Rome.


Lauren Dei is a writer based in London, UK.