Francesco Bonami curates an exhibition at the Museo di Palazzo Pretorio in Prato where twenty-two female artists dialogue with the Annunciation and the act of creation
Hi Woman – la notizia del futuro
From December eleven to February twenty-seven, the Museo di Palazzo Pretorio in Prato, a city just twenty-four kilometers north of Florence, will host the exhibition Hi Woman – la notizia del futuro curated by Francesco Bonami. The exhibition – the first of its kind ever hosted inside the museum directed by Rita Iacopino – features the works of twenty-two female contemporary artists – Huma Bhabha, Irma Blank, Koo Donghee, Marlene Dumas, Isa Genzken, Jessie Homer French, Roni Horn, Jutta Koether, Andrew LaMar Hopkins, Maria Lassnig, Babette Mangolte, Lucy McKenzie, Aleksandra Mir, Susan Philipsz, Paola Pivi, Maja Ruznic, Jenny Saville, Fiona Tan, Genesis Tramaine, Andra Ursuta, Marianne Vitale and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye – that engage in a conversation and a confrontation with the Renaissance and historic works enshrined in the museum. While the genesis of the exhibition was by pure chance – Bonami was visiting the museum with a friend and found himself captivated by it and its collection of nine Annunciation paintings that space from the mid-Fourteenth century to the end of the Nineteenth century– its theme is a precise attempt at opening a dialogue on creativity and the act of creation.
Francesco Bonami and the role of women
The title of the exhibition is a reinterpretation of the «Hail Mary» the greeting that the archangel Gabriel directs to the Virgin Mary, before announcing to her she’s destined to become the mother of the savior of the world, the Son of God, that she will call him Jesus whose conceptionshe will have to bear, won’t happen through a physical act but it will take place through the Holy Spirit. «It’s an aggressive greeting, the one that the archangel Gabriel directs to the Virgin Mary», states curator Francesco Bonami, «the Virgin Mary, finds herself custodian of the future of the world. She takes upon herself the responsibility of giving birth to the savior Jesus without having the chance to share the pleasure of this responsibility. At the risk of sounding blasphemous, it’s as if Maradona’s mother had never gotten the chance to see her son play in a stadium or watch him on television. The archangel Gabriel doesn’t give her a choice. A lack of choice which in the history of humanity becomes a condemnation and a tragedy. A condition that women have had to put up with forever. Absolute creators without being given full credit for their creativity».
The Annunciation of Gabriel to Mary
The Annunciation paintings in the museum, painted over the years by the likes of Filippo Lippi, Giovanni da Milano and Giovanni Bilivert, represent this pivotal moment which not only marked the life of one woman – the Virgin Mary – but of all women throughout history. Through these paintings we are shown the surprise that Mary felt at the visit of the archangel as described in the gospel of Luke as well as her initial fear when called to this mission and yet her response seems fearless, as she states «Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word». These are the few words that Mary speaks not only in this instance but in the whole Bible.
Despite being the mother of Jesus, Mary only speaks four times in the gospels – three in the gospel of Luke and one in the gospel of John – to what amounts to around two hundred words. The woman who dedicated her life to the upbringing and the protection of the son of God doesn’t get to tell her story, share her point of view or be present in recounting the life of her own son. If the gospels where to be measured by the Bechdel test – a test named after American cartoonist Alison Bechdel which measures the representation of women in fiction by asking if a work features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man – they’d fail it as Mary herself, who is arguably the most famous woman in literature doesn’t get more than a few words. Regardless, she has managed to become a central figure not only in Christianity but also in Jewish and Islamic religions and ended up shaping, through those few words, the destiny and role of women for centuries to come.
While the exhibition doesn’t aim to right centuries of wrongs and misconceptions about women and their role in society, it does aim to offer to the twenty-two artists selected the chance to show their own annunciations, to take a proactive role and affirm their message to the spectators. «This exhibition is far from being an exhibition about women, feminism or politically correct», states Bonami, «it’s an exhibition that features twenty-two artists who happen to be women. Therefore, they simply share a common destiny. Their points of view are different from another, their art is declined in various ways and not necessarily feminine ones».
The artists featured in the exhibition all come from different backgrounds and are of all ages; their works cover various mediums and techniques and the themes they deal with are all distant from that of the annunciation, and yet they all become messengers of our humanity. Such is the case with Fiona Tan’s Saint Sabastian (2001), the video installation that greets the visitors as they enter the museum. The video shows the Toshiya, the traditional Japanese ceremony celebrated in Kyoto. During this ceremony, teenage boys and girls from all over Japan gather to practice the rite of passage of the kyudo, the archery.
Tan’s video focuses on the young archers, all women, portraying them in the moments before they shoot the dart. «The artist’s camera only lingers in the effort and the exertion it takes these girls to shoot their dart as if to state that the passage from being a child to being a woman is in itself a strenuous one» comments the curator. Another passage, this time a physical one, is portrayed in Marianne Vitale’s Burned Bridge (2011), which represents a bridge that has been burned and thus is fragile. The artwork is displayed at the center of the first room of the museum, and it serves both as a physical connection between the contemporary artworks and the historic ones of the museum as well as a reference to the Annunciation.
In Bonami’s view, the bridge becomes a symbol, connecting the mystery of the divine enunciated by the archangel Gabriel and Mary’s humanity. This symbol is however a fragile one as it must battle the two natures of Mary’s experience: on one hand there’s the human experience, that of a pregnancy like all other women have experienced, which is concrete, and on the other hand there’s the divine experience, the knowledge that this pregnancy has been wanted by God and that she has been chosen to give birth to the savior of the world. Duplicity is also at the core of Roni Horn’s work Isabelle and Marie (2005), a photograph in which we see two close-up portraits of actress Isabelle Huppert. In one image she’s just being herself and in the other one she’s interpreting the character of Marie from her movie Story of Women. This work sets in motion the personality split women have faced and still face when being represented: woman and creator, woman and mother, attraction and love.
The role of art
As with most exhibitions of this kind, where the past meets the present, each of the works exhibited gains new perspective and meaning when put in conversation with the museum’s permanent collection. « At Palazzo Pretorio I tried to build, while knowing it was a contradiction in terms, a chance meeting. Works of art that meet by chance and by chance find out they have something in common. Not so much an aesthetic or a topic as much as a sensibility». Indeed, the twenty-two artworks merge with the works of the Pretorio, combining past and present, clerical and laic, in a game of mirrors and short circuits.
«The museum’s works are like the residents of a village, set in their contexts and ways. The exhibition’s works are like travelers who come and go; but in this coming, in this stay and in this going they leave something behind to the villagers and take something back for their travels. Art is this constant exchange. Ancient art yearns to be freed from history and contemporary art is constantly looking for a fixed home and a history of its own». The exhibition is an intimate one, not just because of its size or its display, but because it was conceived as an attempt to find and give back that intimacy that’s present in the various Annunciation paintings but that from that moment on will be lost in Mary’s life.
«The archangel’s greeting encapsules the whole history of humanity. It’s the man who imposes his decision without the possibility of a contradiction and the woman who’s beatified through the gift of creation but deprived of her free will. Being an artist is the opposite condition to that of the Virgin Mary. It’s a choice, not an imposition. All artists strive to give birth to their savior, the artwork that can change the world. It’s what the artists in this exhibition try to do. Their works are embryos which are part of a transformative process that accompanies the artist throughout its life. The life of an artist, no matter how long, is an endless pregnancy».
Hi Woman – the news of the future
The exhibition will be open from the eleven of December to the twenty-seventh of February at the Museo di Palazzo Pretorio in Prato. The museum is directed by Rita Iacopino and holds works that range from the early Fourteenth century to the Twentieth century. The exhibition is curated by Francesco Bonami, art curator and writer.