Another aspect that the exhibition Scrivere Disegnando highlights is the indissoluble link between writing and power—between language and gender. Since the early 1900s, many women have used compulsive, often illegible handwriting to express an existential need for personal affirmation, often in response to a patriarchal world that preferred them to be politically invisible and socially voiceless.
Ksenia Sadilova, guide at the Centre, will help you discover the exhibition from a feminine perspective with two monographic texts about Hélène Smith and Chiara Fumai.
1 – Hélène Smith: spiritualist, medium and creator of languages
They may be women artists, but at the dawn of the 20th century, endowed with a creative and free thinking spirit, they are described as hysterical, crazy or even infantile.
This was the case of Catherine Élise Müller. At the age of thirty-one, she experienced trances that took her to faraway lands populated by extra-terrestrials with whom she came into contact. Müller wrote her experiences down and translated them into unknown graphic signs representing the Martian, Uranian and ultra-Uranian languages that she discovered.
In 1899 a curious book titled, Des Indes à la planète Mars: étude sur un cas de somnambulisme avec glossolalie was published by Théodore Flournoy. Intrigued by Catherine Müller’s abilities and inventions, the Geneva based psychiatrist Flournoy looked into her case and made her a subject of his scientific study involving De Saussure. Thanks to Flournoy’s merit and his confirmed status in academic circles, Catherine Élise Müller became Hélène Smith, the famous Genevan spiritualist and medium of the 20th century for the duration of his research. As linguistics and psychoanalysis are male dominated fields, it is men who have the power of words, speech and thought.
Flournoy sought to understand, categorize and define the strange language of Hélène Smith, making dreams and imagination subjects of academic research. In this process he seemingly omitted the artistic qualities of her work and writings. The power of Smith’s imagination effaced many boundaries, in its longing for outer space and extraterrestrial languages. Hélène Smith’s work was great, creative and innovative. Unfortunately, as a result of the investigations conducted by Flournoy and De Saussure, the Martian, Uranian and ultra-Uranian languages documented and practiced by Hélène Smith were publicly discredited. This profound betrayal destroyed the young Hélène Smith’s desire to pursue her activity as a medium of imaginary languages. Her voices were forever silenced.
2- Chiara Fumai, I say I
A single line threads its way through several blank pages. It draws letters with a pen. The cursive writing forms words and the meaningless line turns into a long sentence. What does this signify? Is it a scream of revolt? Around the drawn writing, cut-out faces float, emptied of their mouths, their eyes, their identities. Unrecognizable pieces of female portraits wander around like ghosts. Who are they?
Entitled I say I from 2013, the six drawings currently on display at the Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève are by the Italian artist Chiara Fumai. The text represents the Second Manifesto entitled Io dico Io [I say I] by the Italian feminist group Rivolta Femminile published in 1977, which counted Carla Lonzi as one of its eponymous contributors. A feminist, author and art critic, Lonzi was a fervent militant activist. Their first Manifesto di Rivolta Femminile, published in 1970, deals with the identity of women and the different social structures and constructions to which they belong.
In particular, they criticize the definition and rights of women, who, always in a relationship and thereby a power relationship, are dominated and determined by men: “Up until now the myth that the one complements the other has been used by men to justify his own power”. Rivolta Femminile fervently condemns the construction of the family and the institution of marriage. Deprived of their names, women lose their identities. “We do not wish to think about motherhood all our lives or to continue to be unwitting instruments of patriarchal power.”
The text I say I is of a more enigmatic nature. Akin to a poetic sequel to the first manifesto, it is a cry of anger, of opposition, of an ever-evolving voice searching for its identity. This ghostly, wandering scream finds refuge in Chiara Fumai’s hand. In her projects the artist is interested in the stories of those who have been marginalized from History, persecuted by society. Fumai does not limit herself to mentioning their names, but physically commits herself to resurrecting important female figures that have been intentionally forgotten. She is a performer, even “tinker”: she appropriates names and identities by lending her body and voice. Chiara interprets the Italian spiritualist medium of the 19th century, Eusapia Palladino, who recites the feminist manifesto S.C.U.M. Manifesto written by Valérie Solanas in 1967, which speaks of a total eradication of the male gender. Like a contemporary witch, the artist mixes revolutionary statements with figures such as Ulrike Meinhof, considered in Germany as an extreme left-wing terrorist. Chiara Fumai rebels against this kind of consideration on the part of a dominant and patriarchal society. Through a process of collage, she cuts out narratives and reassembles them in order to interrogate, to surprise, even to the point of discomfort. For each new project, Fumai changes appearance, takes a new identity or invites other performers. Did she try to escape from a kind of institutional determinism? Chiara Fumai left us a strong, committed and feminist body of work. The Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève is honoured to present this piece by her, as part of her explosive universe, which still continues to surprise.