The Day Tomaso Binga Married Themselves
A new show at Mimosa House, the artist's first solo show in the United Kingdom, looks back at the artist who constantly challenged gender norms in her work.
Bianca Menna e Tomaso Binga Oggi Spose, 1977, Black and white photographs, framed, 2 pieces. Courtesy Archivio Menna-Binga and Mimosa House. Photo by Tim Bowditch
In June 1977, invitations were sent out announcing the marriage of Bianca Menna and Tomaso Binga. The ceremony would be hosted at Campo D Gallery, located in the centre of Rome. On arrival, guests discovered the room completely empty, except for two small black and white photographs of the bride and groom framed and hung on the wall. Dressed in her wedding dress, the bride posed with a large bouquet of white flowers in hand. The groom stood at a writing desk, sheets of papers in hand. On closer inspection—despite the sharp suit, slicked back hair, and large glasses—it became clear that the groom was the same individual as the bride. Tomaso Binga was Bianca Menna in male drag. Intended as a celebration to mark the union of her two selves, the artist mingled at the event dressed androgynously in a loose white shirt and trousers, a sartorial combination of both personas. The guests, including friends, family, and fellow artists, left wedding cards and presents, becoming active participants in the construction of the installation. The work was titled Bianca Menna e Tomaso Binga Oggi Spose, with ‘oggi spose’ translating as ‘today’s brides.’ The deliberate use of ‘spose’ as opposed to the conventional ‘sposi’ was a queering of language, a coded signal that this was a marriage between two brides.
Menna, born in Salerno in 1931, adopted the male pseudonym of Tomaso Binga in the late 1960s as a way to parody the favor that had been reserved for her male counterparts within society and within the art world. The wedding performance sealed her commitment to the nom de guerre. She has worked under the name ever since. “Assuming a male identity was intended as a provocation,” she wrote to GARAGE, “an ironic and paradoxical way to denounce the privileges that men enjoyed.” The choice of the first name, Tomaso, was inspired by the futurist poet Tommaso Marinetti, “who I loved as a child because of the genius of his verbal hyperboles.” Word games and embodied language recur as both medium and motif throughout her artistic career, associated with the avant-garde activities of the Poesia Visiva (visual poetry) and Nuova Scrittura (new writing) movements. These groups “were confronting the linguistic-visual change determined by the new means of communication,” she notes, “however, they did not open up visibility to women artists.” Binga, alongside other Italian women artists like Ketty La Rocca, pioneered a radical new visual-verbal rhetoric. Her images, poetic gestures, and sound performances manifested as a creative form of resistance against the suppression of female voices.
The exhibition Silenced Victory, at London’s Mimosa House marks Binga’s first solo presentation in the United Kingdom. The earliest works in the show, from 1971 and 1973, represent her early foray into assemblage, cutting recycled Styrofoam into symmetrical sculptural reliefs and laying collaged photographs underneath. The immersive installation Casa Malangone will be recreated in the lower galleries. In 1976, Binga papered a set of rooms in a friend’s house with a wallpaper she had designed. It was patterned with her “asemantic writing”, a subliminal and illegible calligraphic script. “The writings grow and multiply like living beings, they proliferate like cells, they invade the spaces and the walls of the environment,” she comments on reflection. For the 1977 performance Io sono una carta (I am paper) at Bologna’s Galleria d’Arte Moderna, Binga recreated the wallpaper installation, delivering her poetic reading wearing a dress made from the same material, in order to fuse with the environment. Eventually, the dress was removed and left hanging on a chair. A hopeful comment on the female body’s eventual emancipation from the domestic space; “the work speaks of the condition of women and their redemption”.
Each week, every Sunday, throughout 1977, Binga typed and signed a letter written to an anonymous friend. “They were short letters, small images of everyday life, thoughts, talking about a postponed journey, it tells a tale of solitude and hope,” she says. After a year, the letters became an artwork entitled Ti scrivo solo di domenica (I write you only on Sundays). Binga wrote on Sunday because in Italian ‘domenica’ is the only day of the week that is in the feminine. The letters and envelopes are typically exhibited in sequence. The minimal spatial aesthetics of the installation are contrasted by the durational experience of a spectator reading each individual letter. As a result, the objective order of the material and the display becomes infused with the subjectivity of Binga’s personal experience.
On the subject of relinquishing male-dominated language through her work, Binga comments, “it is my body that shows itself as writing, freeing itself from the tyranny of the sign, in order to give to writing a more concrete physicality and a polyvalence of meanings.” This is particularly palpable in the collage series Mural Alfabetiere and Living Writing, known as the ‘body alphabet’ works from the 1970s, in which each letter of the alphabet was combined with a photograph of a female nude. Earlier this year, Maria Grazia Chiuri of Dior invited Binga to recreate the Mural Alfabetiere for their Fall 2019 show in Paris. “Meeting with Maria was a rendezvous with destiny,” says Binga, “The event was an opportunity to keep the attention on gender disparities alive. The provocative scenography confronted the models who challenged the public as warriors, parading with heavy jackets and fluffy skirts, stiff hats and mischievous veils. After forty years, the work’s meaning is even more incisive. As women and feminists, we must shout our outrage, not only with the voice of poetry but with our whole body becoming word.”
- Tomaso Binga