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Review: Through the Female Gaze – women and work in Italy since the 1950s

According to Laura Mulvey, the world is perceived through a male gaze: a gaze that frames femme presenting individuals and women as sexual objects independently from the gender of the person looking. Scholars thus wondered whether the emancipation of a female subject in art could be achieved through the mediation of a female gaze. I had only encountered this vision in academic theory, as a highly contested utopic idea whose practical expressions have often felt disappointing, unable to keep up with its theoretical promise of a representation of the feminine that didn’t feel objectifying.

 Through the Female Gaze: women and work in Italy since the 1950s hints at this curatorial vision as it seeks to overcome the male-gaze framework by presenting female subjects and their relation to the idea of work through the lens of female Italian photographers. The exhibit includes over one hundred selected images by twelve women artists and two collectives that span from the 1950s until modern days. Inaugurated on International Women’s Day at the Italian Cultural Institute and organised in collaboration with ASMI, Through the Female Gaze delivers on this abstract idea of an intimate view on female identity, being a refreshing and replenishing exhibit for self-identifying women. The curator Maria Chiara Di Trapani presents the idea of reciprocal gazing with respect and empathy as the connecting theme of the exhibit: a mutual gazing between the photographers, their subjects and the exhibition viewers. The expert curation of Di Trapani wisely connects the highly diverse content of the photographs to create an intricated narrative about female identity as expressed through its relation to work and labour. The dual presence of female subjects behind the camera lens and as subjects create an intimate but never voyeuristic look into the experiences of its subjects.

A sense of collective potential energy and nostalgia can be perceived as one wonders around the first room of the exhibition. The black and white photographs bring back the viewer from the creation of the Italian Republic in 1945 until the late 1970s to present a multifaceted history of the female experience of labour. The pictures speak of Italian women’s effort for the right to work, for the right to choose a profession they want and to be treated with dignity and respect while carrying out their jobs. As an Italian woman who emigrated to Scotland, the collective experience of those women who came before me feels at once empowering and melancholic. As women of different ages are portrayed together, a collective intergenerational force emerges from the photographs: one made of struggles as well as irony and revolutionary joy that traces a legacy of women that feels part of my history. 

Regional Demonstration promoted by UDI Emilia Romagna and Lega delle Cooperative
Regional Demonstration promoted by UDI Emilia Romagna and Lega delle Cooperative ‘Against, inflation, for employment and reform’ 22 October 1972. Courtesy of UDI Archive of Bologna

Among the most emotional pieces of the exhibition are two issues of the publication Noi Donne– communist women journal- printed in 1945 celebrating the end of World War II, the beginning of the Italian republic and the first time Italian women were allowed to vote.

“Noi Donne” issue encouraging women to take part in the first referendum where Italian women were allowed to vote. Image courtesy of Sofia Cotrona.

Alongside, this already politically charged archival material is a second publication that could pass undetected at first sight. The curator showed it to me explaining that this was one of the clandestine editions that Noi Donne circulated during the war and the German occupation to allow Partisans to communicate fundamental information and allow the resistance to organise.  

Issue 1 of the clandestine publication of “Noi Donne” promoting Partisans’ resistance efforts against Fascism. Image courtesy of Sofia Cotrona.

As powerful and key in this exhibition is the ironic 1978 series by Collettivo Donne Fotoreporter that critiques the stereotypical ways that female photographers were downplayed in the collective imaginary. The group staged a series of shots aimed at reversing gender roles using satire to dispel the inequalities female photographers faced trying to do their job.

Through the Female Gaze image
Through the Female Gaze - image
Images courtesy of Collettivo Donne Fotoreporter 1978

In their manifesto- included in the exhibition- Collettivo Donne Fotoreporter lament the restrictions imposed by the binary dimensions of gendered expectation of work. This critique emerges in another moment of the exhibition that pairs together representations of work traditionally performed by women- like the series about rice weeders or Mondine from the Union of Italian Women- with tasks usually performed by men- like the series La Donna e La Macchina (The woman and the Machine-1980) by Paola Agosti. 

Rice Weeders or Mondine with Vittorina ‘Gianna’ Tarozzi in a rice field, 1950-55
Rice Weeders or Mondine with Vittorina ‘Gianna’ Tarozzi in a rice field, 1950-55.
Courtesy UDI Archive of Bologna
Images from the series La Donna e La Pacchina 1980 by Paola Agosti.
Images from the series La Donna e La Pacchina 1980 by Paola Agosti. Courtesy of Collezione Donata Pizzi

An underlying theme in the narrative of gendered labour is the concept of social reproduction. Silvia Federici defines it as those processes necessary for the replenishment of labour power and maintenance of human life – through care, emotional labour, and sexual labour. Traditionally social reproductive labour is performed for free by women in their homes and labelled as a ‘labour of love.’ The unwaged nature of this labour creates a hierarchy of work that consistently limits the emancipation and freedom of women. The exhibition explores this theme openly in photographs like that by Gabriella Mercandini. In this 1976 shot, two women stand on the side of a protest with their children holding the banner ‘We kill ourselves working, but we are all unemployed.’ 

Gabriella Mercadini, Roma 1976
Gabriella Mercadini, Roma 1976. Courtesy of Collezione Donata Pizzi

More subtly, the issue of social reproductive labour emerges from photographs like those of Lori Sammartino that blur the distinction between work and life. As the photos capture women performing ‘domestic labour’- doing the laundry, carrying water, spinning wool- the visitor is confronted by the ambiguity of these actions. In the collective imagination, if these tasks were remunerated, they could be considered a profession, but if unwaged they’d represent those ‘labour of love’ that traditionally have been socially expected from mothers and wives.

Lori Sammartino, Untitled, 1960
Image Lori Sammartino, Untitled, 1960
Lori Sammartino, Grassano [Basilicata] 1960
: Lori Sammartino, Grassano [Basilicata] 1960

Through the Female Gaze manages to explore a complex and multi-layered topic such as that of gender identity and gendered experience of labour in a witty and moving way. It integrates at every step of the way the plurality of women’s life experiences. This is exemplified in the work The Invention of the Feminine. Roles, 1974-80 by Marcella Campagnano which encouraged women to dress up and impersonate different professions and identities. By interpreting a prostitute, a bride, a pregnant woman, a housewife or a hippie, these women demonstrate the plurality of their gender experience and challenge a monolithic female identity.

Marcella Campagnano, The Invention of the Feminine. Roles 1974-80
Marcella Campagnano, The Invention of the Feminine. Roles 1974-80 Image courtesy of Marcella Campagnano Archive

Through the Female Gaze is open until April 30th at the Italian Institute. I would like to extend a special thanks to Maria Chiara Di Trapani and the ASMI team that kindly walked me through the exhibit.

Cover Image courtesy of Marcella Campagno Archive