/ 12 June 2019

The Week of the Festival: Parole Spalancate, Genoa, Italy

An Excavation of the Ordinary, Beautiful, Violence

Review of Silvia Giambrone's works

In her 2012 performance art piece, Teatro Anatomico, ( the feminist Italian artist, Silvia Giambrone, warily puts her hair up, undoes the top few buttons of her shirt, and then lifts  the lace collar from her lap and beckons the man. He proceeds to stitch the collar into the artist’s skin – four slow stitches. He dabs her blood away with cotton wool. It is macabre, violent and bewitching. Throughout the stitching, Giambrone does not utter a sound. Nor does the audience: we witness the violence in a silent complicity.

The lace collar is symbolic on many levels. Historically, handcrafted Italian lace was – and still is – prized. Through the centuries, it was women who spent many hours painstakingly creating these detailed and delicate lace fashion appendages. These status symbols were symbols of oppression: the women were kept busy making lace – a repetitive task – while the men managed business, political, creative and religious affairs. The lace collar in itself is both a work of beauty, and a work of violence. The four brutal stitches that Giambrone endures in silence is a testament to this slow, simmering, historical oppression. 

Globally, women artists are still rarely as treasured as male artists. Italy is no exception. Silvia Giambrone is one of the artists taking part in a campaign launched by the London gallery Richard Saltoun in March 2019: a year long 100% women programme. The campaign seeks to redress the gender imbalance in the art world ( “Today less than 30% of artists represented by major commercial galleries in London are women, with only 5% of galleries representing an equal number of male and female artists. In most aspects of the art world – from sales and auction results to solo exhibitions in major institutions – male artists continue to outnumber their female counterparts in the majority of activities that signify the development of an artist’s career.”

In October 2019, Giambrone’s exhibition will show at Richard Saltoun Gallery: Around an idea of new Italian Feminism.She has also been selected as one of 2019s Exibart “222 Emerging artists worth investing in” – the artists were selected by respected curators, art galleries, critics and journalists from around Italy.

Giambrone is an intriguing contemporary artist. According to her statement ( “Through several media including performance, installation, sculpture and sound, I explore body practices and contemporary body politics making viewers aware of the silent and hidden ways power enters everyday life and affects relationships. I am interested in material culture and image culture and I dig into everyday life and practices to reveal, as it was almost an archeological operation, the signs of both the physical and invisible evidences of the strong connection between violence and the ‘subjectification’ process.”

Many of her works explore what we consider to be banal, domestic objects. She decodes them: “almost an archaeological operation”, deliberately, slowly, excavating meaning – and her art opens up insightful and dark new ways of seeing objects that are so familiar that we take them for granted.

In a 2013 interview (, Giambrone says, “I have been working on the relationship between beauty and violence, what links them and at the same time divides them. I am really interested in this subtle separation and conjunction line within these two monuments of everybody’s life.” This fascination with beauty and violence is a prevalent force in much of her work – and is evident in some of her latest work on her website.

Frames(2018) are a series of sculptural works in which vicious acacia thorns, set in resin and wax, jut through various frames. Giambrone is deconstructing the frame – a holder of an image – and asks us to apprehend the power of the image. What are these images we frame? What hold do they have over us? Why do we choose them? What do they tell us about ourselves? 

Similarly, Mirrors(2018) are hanging sculptural works, employing the same barbed device – acacia thorns spike out from both sides of the mirror frames. There is no reflection, simply the angry acacia thorns set in their waxy beauty. Giambrone is asking: What is a mirror? What do you see in a mirror? How is our gaze reflective of our barbaric society? Mirrors are significant for women who have, for the most part, been at the receiving end of the societal gaze: objects to be visually consumed. Giambrone revels in the mirror as a violent symbol of oppression. And yet, the artworks are beautiful, evoking a sense of our own entangled complicity in violence. The acacia thorns are naturally violent, and so is the human species. All genders have been complicit in the gaze, and contemporary ideas of beauty – thin, youthful, blemish-free – are violent, both on those who conform to these ideals, and on those who do not fit into the constraints of that image. 

Bouquet(2018) is a site specific artwork in which a striking bouquet of fresh flowers is chained to a wall. Arranged flowers represent a form of nature-taming – a cultural statement of our power to oppress nature and mould it to our desires. The bouquet is also symbol of wooing, and has a manipulative edge. Chaining such a symbol of adoration to a wall makes explicit many of these observations – observations which do not enter into the way we have been trained-chained into seeing a bouquet. 

The beauty of Giambrone’s art is in its resistance: do not take for granted the ordinary. The mundane has slowly suffocated women for centuries. Her work is also an acknowledgment of our own fascination with violence, and a call for us to acknowledge our own violent impulses as a species – impulses we bury in the ordinary. She is a remarkable social commentator and her work calls for us to acknowledge the duality of what we are: both violent and beautiful. 

Written by Terry Westby-Nunn who is an award-winning novelist and filmmaker. She has a doctorate in Creative Writing, specialising in ecofeminism and speculative fiction. From July 2019 she will be a postdoctoral fellow at Rhodes University in South Africa. She adores dark tales, the carnivalesque, and unlikeable protagonists.