Chiara Fumai, Annie Jones reads Valerie Solanas, 2013, filmstill.
In the Spirit of Chiara Fumai
DJ, medium and artist Chiara Fumai speaks in the voices of others in her work. Disturbingly direct, poetic yet penetrating, Fumai calls attention to the marginalized and oppressed, mainly women who have sometimes been dead for ages. On the five-year anniversary of Fumai’s own death, Kari Conte portrays an artist whose voice only resonates stronger after her passing away.
Chiara Fumai (Rome, 1978-Bari, 2017) arrived in New York City in early 2017 after the presidential elections, a time that was particularly arduous in the United States. Most of New York City’s inhabitants — a Democratic stronghold — were still shocked by the election results. A dark cloud was looming on the horizon, and disbelief slowly morphed into sorrow, anxiety, and fear for the upcoming Trump inauguration. Amid this tumult, Fumai began her six-month artist residency at the International Studio & Curatorial Program (ISCP) in Brooklyn.
On January 21, the day after the inauguration, I attended the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. This historic protest brought nearly half a million people together in D.C. and millions more worldwide in defiance of Trump’s misogynistic actions and remarks. At that time, it seemed like society had regressed a hundred years in the fight for gender and racial equality. However, at least feminist ideals became an integral part of everyday struggles. Within this milieu, I first encountered Fumai’s work, and it seemed like an apt time for her ideas and energy to exist in New York City. Understandably, this negative political and psychological environment heavily weighed on Fumai, and she returned to Italy after six weeks. I often wonder what she would have produced if she stayed longer in New York. Many of her artistic comrades — Vito Acconci, Jonas Mekas, Jack Smith, and Valerie Solanas among them — were shaped by the city’s intellectual and aesthetic forces.
This lost opportunity, along with much else about Fumai, will forever remain an enigma. That August, Fumai tragically died at the young age of 39. She left behind a body of artistic work produced in only a decade, which will be contemplated for a long time to come. Rooted in radical feminism (or in her own words, ‘ultra-feminism’), her practice also embraced alternative knowledge forms, from occultism to ritual, magic to esoterism. Most of all, in her installations, performances, videos, drawings, collages, and photographs, she argued against the imbalance of power and the silencing of oppressed and marginalized people — especially women. Considering the current rise of global social justice movements, her work is increasingly relevant, even prescient.
Fortunately enough, several European cultural institutions joined forces to present the travelling exhibition Poems I Will Never Release, a retrospective of nearly all of Fumai’s output between 2007 and 2017. Opening last year at the Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève, the Centro per l’arte contemporanea Luigi Pecci, Prato, Italy, and La Loge, Brussels, Belgium, this year the exhibition will travel to La Casa Encendida, Madrid, Spain. In collaboration with curators at each institution, the retrospective is curated by Francesco Urbano Ragazzi (Director, The Church of Chiara Fumai) and Milovan Farronato (Director and Curator, Fiorucci Art Trust), and the installation varies in content and scale between each of its presentations.
The constellation of signs, symbols, archives, people, and texts found in Fumai’s work are articulated in the exhibition; her references were irrespective of chronology, originating from vastly different periods and geographies. It has often been cited that her former career as a DJ particularly influenced her artistic process: she deftly remixed, collaged and borrowed sources and objects from her extensive trove of clothes, props, books, and records. Much of this fascinating archive is housed at the CRRI – Centro Ricerca Castello di Rivoli in Turin. In certain ways, Fumai was a medium herself, not only in a spiritualist sense but also in how she transmitted and amplified other people’s ideas and words through her work.
Language was a vital anchor in her work; however, she rarely wrote herself. Instead, she utilized the words of others and put unlikely historical figures in conversation with each other that had never been associated before. Throughout her practice, texts are both orally and materially resuscitated. Fumai recited texts in her performances and videos, and she reproduced them in her drawings and diagrams. Her practice incorporated a substantial web of literary references that acquired renewed significance through her work.
To know Fumai’s work, one must become acquainted with the historical women that accompanied her throughout her oeuvre. Among them are Eusapia Palladino (1854–1918), an Italian spiritualist medium widely acknowledged as a fraud; Ulrike Meinhof (1934–1976) a militant and founder of the Red Army Faction (RAF); the circus performer and Circassian beauty known as ‘Star of the East’ Zalumma Agra (ca. 1840); Annie Jones (1865–1902), the bearded lady from nineteenth-century entertainer P.T. Barnum’s renowned circus in New York; Dogaressa Elisabetta Querini Valier (1628–1709), the only dogaressa in history to wield any power; feminist activist Carla Lonzi (1931–1982) and her organization Rivolta Femminile; Valerie Solanas (1936–1988), writer and radical feminist; and philosopher and revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg (1871–1919).
By layering fact and fiction to rewrite history, Fumai imagined new ways of speaking for these women that would have been impossible during their lifetimes. They were her company, and she channeled their presence in performances while traveling from work to work with her army of misfits, the downtrodden, celebrated, reviled, all literally worlds in time and space — apart yet connected by their shared non-conformity. The lives of these women spanned over four centuries; they pushed the status quo in different ways, yet have been forgotten to varying extents. One could even say that Fumai embodied parts of each one of these women; she knew herself as an artist through them and their legacies.
To know Fumai’s work, one must become acquainted with the historical women that accompanied her throughout her oeuvre.
Fumai’s protagonists reappeared in her work as a collective voice of resistance and are the foundation of Poems I Will Never Release 2007-2017. Three of the works included in the exhibition were the result of a long-term ‘collaboration’ between Fumai and Eusapia Palladino, an illiterate Italian medium. The first work, Criminal Woman (2011), is a video and installation based on the 1893 book about the seances of Palladino, written by criminologist Cesare Lombroso. Composed of archival photographs and drawings, the video narrates the book, which recounts first-hand witnesses to Palladino’s so-called psychic powers, with many of the participants doubting the veracity of her séances.
In the second work, The Book of Evil Spirits (2015), Palladino reappears at Fumai’s séance table in dynamic communion with Zalumma Agra, Annie Jones, and Ulrike Meinhof. Performing as all four women, Fumai delivers excerpts from an early twentieth-century book by astronomer and author Camille Flammarion, who attended Palladino’s seances and wrote about her life. Fumai (as Jones, Agra, and Meinhof) recites a further series of texts, including the feminist manifesto I Say I (1977) by Carla Lonzi and Meinhof’s open letter (1967) to Farah Diba Pahlavi (wife of the Shah of Iran) about the torrid living conditions of the Iranian people. Existing in a shared plane, the women are conjured by Palladino, sending ideas from the past that carry meaning in the present. At the same time, the opportunity to ‘speak’ frees them from the oppression they experienced in their lifetimes.
The third work based on Palladino, Less Light, My Dear (2016) is composed of fifteen photographs encircled by what appears to be automatic drawing, although it is Flammarion’s quote of a line uttered by Palladino. The photographs each show a letter from the phrase ‘Less light, my dear’ spoken by Palladino, presumably to mask her skillful deception.
Several of Fumai’s works invoke the specter of Valerie Solanas. Best known for shooting Andy Warhol 1968, Solanas wrote the S.C.U.M. Manifesto (Society for Cutting Up Men) the year before this egregious act, which is a text that incites the total eradication of men to create a radical feminist society. Despite her instability, Solanas made a few good points in the manifesto, and Fumai draws attention to these rather than the shooting, recuperating her from a single incident that unfairly defined her life. In fact, Solanas was a constant touchstone for Fumai, who often referred to her practice as ‘unwork’, a term used by Solanas in the manifesto. Fumai also enacted the ‘S.C.U.M. Elite’, Solanas’s imagined revolutionary assassins, in multiple openings and performances.
In the video Chiara Fumai reads Valerie Solanas (2013), Fumai, as Solanas, reads the S.C.U.M. Manifesto in a setting reminiscent of the one former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi used to deliver the 1994 speech that announced his entrance into politics. The video is accompanied by six photographs titled Dogaressa Elisabetta Querini, Zalumma Agra, Annie Jones, Dope Head, Harry Houdini, Eusapia Palladino Read Valerie Solanas (2013), that show Fumai performing as those listed in the titles. Each of the women (and Harry Houdini) pose in the same setting as where Solanas reads her manifesto, in front of a quote from the manifesto that reads ‘A Male Artist is a Contradiction in Terms’. There is humour in how Fumai deals with the legacy of Solanas. The seriousness with which Solanas acted in all her endeavors is lightened by Fumai’s approach towards the material.
A similar drollness and absurdity are present in many of Fumai’s other works, such as The Moral Exhibition House (2012), a small performance-based pavilion created for dOCUMENTA (13) that contained many other pieces and people within its walls. Within the fairytale-like interior, Fumai performed as two women who were part of P.T. Barnum’s nineteenth-century circus: ‘Star of the East’ Zalumma Agra and Annie Jones, the most famous bearded lady of the Victorian era. The otherworldly, almost mystical installation features a cross-pollination of Carla Lonzi’s Let’s Spit on Hegel (1970) manifesto, I Say I (1977), a text on feminist self-awareness by the Rivolta Femminile, and fictional letters written in admiration to Jones.
During her short residency at ISCP, Fumai completed a study for This Last Line Cannot Be Translated (2017). Recreated posthumously for the Italian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2019, this study is central to Poems I Will Never Release. Essentially, it is a wall drawing containing myriad references to the ‘Mass of Chaos’ published in Liber Null & Psychonaut by Peter J. Carroll (1987), an occultist who practiced chaos magick theory, which focused on obtaining specific goals through belief, in contrast to many other magic practices. Fumai interpreted the work as a protection against the patriarchy and it ostensibly served as a kind of talisman. The drawing spanned the walls of her studio and depicted a cave steeped in symbols and ‘sigils,’ pictorial signatures or symbols of condensed letters that indicate wishes to be fulfilled. The edges of the drawing showed irregular pointed lines, invoking stalagmites and stalactites with lines from the book written on the walls within the ‘cave’. The studio itself was in fact already cave-like, it did not have windows, only skylights, and its inherent function in the residency was to provide a contained nurturing space. This Line Cannot Be Translated extended this idea by summoning desires into a space intended for imagination.
Ultimately, Fumai’s work is underpinned by love in the sphere of politics. She allowed those that had been excluded or suppressed in their own lifetime to speak and converse freely with a new, contemporary voice. Fumai remixes these voices across space and time into a collective sound of revolt that only seems to echo stronger since her death. Breaking down worlds with words, Fumai’s work is an enduring reminder that the multitude is stronger than the individual.
The retrospective exhibition Poems I Will Never Release 2007-2017 is now on view at La Casa Encendida, Madrid. More information via this link. A Dutch translation of this text was published in Metropolis M Number 5/2021: Fluïditeit
is a curator and a writer