Le Nemesiache from Naples: Amplifying Women’s Art History
By Giulia Damiani.
What is in our existence that is still mythical? The philosopher Mircea Eliade posed this question in his 1967 book Myth, Dreams and Mysteries, unaware of anticipating an artistic phenomenon that would materialize the potential of cyclical and mythical thinking.
Between the seventies and eighties, the feminist collective Le Nemesiache and its leader Lina Mangiacapre celebrated mythology as the origin of our culture and a new beginning for women’s history; myths were the alternative society where emotions and metaphors would liberate the true female nature. Referring to her 1987 film on the legendary Queen of Carthage Dido is not Dead, Mangiacapre said: ‘there is a mythic philosophy at the base of logic philosophy. It is an androgynous thought, where the cyclic unity of night and day, of dream and of reality, and of sight and blindness materializes itself (…) . Logic is a rift in thought; it was born out of a wound, a cut. This rift produced an alienating philosophy (…) . Gender difference was established by men after the inventions of concepts, when they killed the Amazons’.(i)
Le Nemesiache were artists from Naples who allowed only women to participate in their productions. Ranging between six and twenty in number, they were active between the seventies and eighties. The founder of the group – the artist and philosopher Lina Mangiacapre – worked as cinema critic and journalist for national Italian papers, such as L’Unità. In 1976 she founded one of the first women’s international film festivals in Europe, called ‘Rassegna del Cinema femminista di Sorrento’; in 1990 she was awarded the Italian National Culture prize, and since her death in 2002 the Venice Film Festival has celebrated her feminist preoccupations by awarding the ‘Lina Mangiacapre’ prize. Mangiacapre exhibited her paintings in France, Germany, Greece and the U.S, and yet her manifold practice has been waiting to be put down on the page for a long time.
An elf, an angel, a punk-rock celebrity, an activist, a feminist, a beauty or simply someone who made art in Naples throughout her life. An exhaustive portrayal of Lina Mangiacapre’s personality should include all of these attributes and more. Her Neapolitan house in via Posillipo is an expanding archive filled with photographs, scripts, paintings, costumes and videos documenting Le Nemesiache’s historical actions.
In the seventies, Italian feminist collectives had fluid and shifting memberships. In the city of Turin, example, ‘groups grew, fell apart, reformed, engendered new ways of being, sought homogenization, fought, clashed and fragmented’.(ii) This led to schisms, trails and mutual accusations.
By contrast, Le Nemesiache represented a close community. Their mythic references encapsulate the group’s shared attributes and objectives. The name Le Nemesiache derives from Nemesis, the Greek goddess of revenge against hubris, which means arrogance; a quality that the Neapolitan feminists considered inherent in the personality of men. Niobe, Ilythia and Daphne are amongst some of the mythological identities adopted by these women, while dryads, naiads and oreads were the legendary nymphs who inspired them.
Feminists from other local groups stressed how Le Nemesiache were very much the artistic and female voice of Naples. The collective considered the arts and the written world as forms of protest, as scenarios from which women’s liberation could be engendered. Imagination was a weapon in women’s hands.
Throughout their activity, Le Nemesiache sought to enhance the non-rational aspect of what is visible to release women’s emotions and imaginations. ‘Abundance, oceans, energies from the stars, energies from the planets and boiling water showed me how I have nourished my brain only, forgetting my body. Yet my instructions are to be found in my blood, in my cells. (…) Schools and laws are not enough for women: their everyday has to be magic’. Lina Mangiacapre voiced the need of a new sensuous language and the possibility of an emancipatory use of the body. She declared that women are ‘able to express, through the body, the abstract world, to make visible what is invisible, to bring forth, to give birth: this is the most difficult and active task, in a society that has utterly destroyed its sensibility and sensitivity’.(iii)
The re-enactments of myths, fables and dreams were part of the method of the ‘psycho fable’ (psico favola): this was an activity of consciousness raising that was pioneered by Mangiacapre. Following this method, the social content of ancient stories was reinvented, liberating women’s dreams and anxieties. Not words, but bodies and images would permeate through this exceptional practice.
The group predicted a future where the false masculine concepts would be defeated by images and the truth of aesthetics. Cinema, theatre and visual arts were the territory of women’s vengeance. Cinderella, Snow White, Ophelia are some of the plays they devised and performed around Italy, triggering protests as well as women’s participation and solidarity. In 1973, a basement in the buzzing area of Arenella in Naples hosted Le Nemesiache’s first theatre piece entitled Cinderella. A Feminist Psycho-Fable. Behind a small door, in a cellar that was converted into a theatre using simple props and a red paper lantern, the collective enacted their alternative reading of the story of Cinderella, reversing men’s spatial and narrative power.
Can the pursuit of faraway meanings allow for future strategies to emerge? Le Nemesiache’s art practice shows how their mythological exploration nourished social imagination. Their present became the start of their own history.
i Lina Mangiacapre, Cinema al femminile 2, (Padova: Mastrogiacomo, 1994) p.2 (Giulia Damiani, trans.)
ii Aida Ribero, Una questione di libertà. Il femminismo degli anni settanta, (Turin: Rosenberg & Sellier, 1999) p. 139
iii Lina Mangiacapre, Cinema al femminile, (Padova: Mastrogiacomo, 1980) p. 15 (Giulia Damiani, trans.)
* This text is part of a major study on Le Nemesiache by Giulia Damiani