by Alessandra Mazziotta
[…] “Man is a mystery. I delve into this mystery because I want to be a man,” said Dostoyevsky. And it is from this quote that Fatima Messana’s fascination with human nature seems to come, a human nature in which she perceives a profound contradiction of the instinctive-rational “beast”, identifiable in a “social animal” that creates and destroys – at the same time creating and destroying itself – generating a chain of historical processes that usually repeat themselves. This repetition becomes memory, blending past and future into a present coexistence. We have before us an artist who wants to deal with the truth by measuring herself in a dialectically open relationship with reality, a powerful source of reflection.
For Messana, sculpture becomes the fruit of this reflection, transformed into an incredible means of communication; what Fatima Messana herself defines as creatures, are the result of important research into existential themes, which tackles the contemporary social delirium without filters. The form’s realism takes on a very central role, even achieving a hyperrealism and allowing the message to become transcendent for the viewer, an emblematic and sometimes mocking message.
Messana is an artist who has identified and chosen her path well, and she does this with the consistency of someone who has much to express. She investigates life and death, but also burning topics such as religion and politics, until she arrives at the most spiritual reflection for mind and body in the state of intolerance and appearance that assails the Being, in a perverse cyclical pattern that must comply with Man. Her humanoid sculptures are redolent of a potential allegorical reflection that is even more original than the contemporary influences.
The most striking example can be found in the work entitled “Testiculos qui non habet, Papa Esse non posset” taken from “Prova di virilità (Virility Test)” by Francesco Sorrentino. The sculpture is inspired by the myth/legend regarding that probable and unique female who ascended to the papal throne, and who may have governed the church under the male name of Giovanni (John) VIII from 853 to 855.
According to the narrative, the papess did not exempt herself from sexual practices and became pregnant. In the solemn procession of Holy Easter, the papess, after having celebrated mass in the Basilica of St. Peter, returned to the Lateran; during the Papal Procession, the crowd’s enthusiasm frightened the horse ridden by the Pontiff. Following the animal’s violent reaction, the papess went into premature labour. Once the secret was discovered, the papess suffered the indignation and anger of the crowd, which dragged her by her feet through the streets of Rome and later stoned her to death. There are numerous versions of this story such as the one reported in the texts by Martino di Troppau, according to which Pope Joan may have died as a result of the labour or, once her identity had been discovered, was locked away in a convent.
The crucial part of the legend is a ritual that was never actually performed, but idealized and taken up again, in an anti-Roman key, by 16th-century Protestant authors. There was an assumption that every pope, before ascending to the throne, had to be subjected to an embarrassing intimate examination attesting to their virility. The examination consisted of making the future pope sit on a red porphyry commode, in the presence of a forum: the young deacons had to ascertain that the future pope had masculine attributes.
For this and all her other works, the artist starts by creating a preparatory sketch to make the armour: the soul-skeletons of the sculptures that are made of iron covered with plastic material and modelled like clay; following this she makes plaster or silicone moulds according to the shape she intends to create, then goes on to use resin as the final material.
In the work “Testiculos qui non habet, Papa Esse non posset”, the body that Messana has modelled is dressed in a hand-sewn garment in which the portrayal of a woman is recognizable, a papess, to be precise, devoid of a face and an identity. It becomes an even greater critical reflection, on the part of the artist, on the theme of exclusion, still in existence today, of women from exclusive and secularized positions, the prerogative of the male gender. But it is also a reflection on the truths and lies that can hide behind a white robe. The sculptural figure elegantly flaunts a blessing hand wearing the papal ring, with the other holding the orb. There is symbolic tradition in this, with the exception of the cross hanging from the neck, where there seems to be no crucified Christ, but a body with feminine features.
This artistic work bases all its essence on the controvertible cyclical nature of a present absence and an absent presence, attributable to the eclectic and elusive movement of postmodern philosophy. But it tends to become, metaphorically, a voice for liberation from convention, schemes, true or fantastic histories. But above all, it wants to put forward a fertile seed for deep reflection and legitimate questioning.
Messana’s ability lies not only in the impeccable and sage nature of her artistic production, but also in her suggestive ability to win over the curious eye of the viewer who, apparently unaware, finds himself having to tackle open questions; the artist grants the viewer the gift of free interpretation: only then is the work complete. The contemporary essence in this art comes from the message that the work conveys, and while its rendering is even more suggestive, the viewer will find himself facing a spectacle that takes shape in reality and draws deep inspiration from it; the result is very strong works with great appeal.
The known-unknown mystery tied to the figure of the papess has aroused curiosity in the human race in various periods. Since the nineteenth century, the legend has influenced many writers and, in more recent years, directors have told the story on the big screen; we recall “Pope Joan”, the 2009 film directed by Sönke Wortmann and based on the novel of the same name by Donna Woolfolk Cross. The image of the papess is also linked to the dubious practice of cartomancy or fortune telling, where it generally represents the secret knowledge and duality between the material universe and the spiritual universe.
The Papess is the second card of the major arcana of the tarot, and is also known as the High Priestess; the duality of this card, in its positive aspect, indicates moral advice. If, on the other hand, it appears in its negative aspect, it represents ignorance, hypocrisy, falsehood, bigotry and superficiality; all elements that are probably found, in their same positive and negative senses, in Fatima Messana’s provocative work.
Provocation is what drives this artist to give her own point of view in her various creations, combined with a tone of rawness.
In the work “Innocence” (2008), we can see the clear message regarding the atrocities and monstrosities of which man can be capable. In this work of Messana’s, a young girl is tied up and hung by her wrists with a rope, apparently crucified. The presence of the Cross is the immediate symbol of torture, sacrifice and violence inflicted upon the slender childlike body that appears exhausted and powerless. The wounds are not visible, because, in this case, the pain is more in the soul than in the body. The realistic look of the work, made of fiberglass and painted with oils, also stands out for its long human hair, which belonged to the artist […]. The girl in the work is naked with dangling legs but she is “alive”. This work makes us reflect on human ugliness and aims at being a clear reference to the defence of the fragility of children and women. In contemporary art, especially that of the years of Feminism (late 1960s – 1970s), one of the main themes was the female body, which women literally undressed, undressing themselves, to carry out extremely important ideological campaigns: using this practice, women brought their bodies to the attention of the general public. Examples are found in the works “Ecce Homo” by Verita Monselles, the “Alfabetiere murale” by Bianca Menna (name in art, Tomaso Binga), and the self-representative photographs by Francesca Woodmann or performances by Marina Abramovic.
Fatima Messana, with another provocative work, “Capra! (Goat!)”, won first prize at the X PNA in 2013. The sculpture shows a finely dressed human bust with a goat’s head, made of fabric and fiberglass. The basic idea starts with the exclamation “Capra!”, made by the critic and art historian, Vittorio Sgarbi. This word, if vehemently aimed at mankind, becomes synonymous with ignorance and a lack of knowledge. Everything operates on the existential condition, in which the visible is a deception and an illusion. The artist, however, in addition to expressing her discomfort towards an increasingly base and servile humanity, also wants to show how art is acquiescent towards the powerful people, and accessible only to certain elite classes, a concept emphasized by the presence of the red lion, the emblem of the Venice Biennial, printed on the breast pocket of the figure’s jacket. Taking up Schopenhauer’s philosophy, illusion covers the face of things, veiling their authentic essence or even, as Pirandello pointed out, the external reality, even though it is unique and immutable, concealing one hundred thousand realities, as many as there are human beings.
The genre changes but the material quality remains the same, thanks to the wise use of fiberglass, also used in the work “Frosted Hearts” from 2013. In this evocative installation, Messana exhibits three iced-over, still hearts suspended in space and time; they move if they are brought to life by external factors but, at the same time, are almost frozen in a sugary candour. Perhaps they are a metaphor for a person who has veiled their own heart, depriving themselves of those feelings that would have led them to a different set of ethics from those of today. The heart is the central engine of the circulatory apparatus, therefore a vital source: its symbolism in art and in other fields intends it as a symbol for the spirituality, emotions and morality inherent in human beings.
At one time, the heart was thought to be the centre of the human mind, but in this artist’s work, it appears to be more like a relic, tinted white. White is the colour of purity, cleanliness, innocence, birth and meticulousness. In paleo-Christian art, the robes of the saints, the pure of heart, and of course, children, were painted white. White is the colour that cancels out all the other colours and obliterates evil, while, on the other hand, it maintains the greatest authenticity possible.
As we can see, we are dealing with innovative, unprecedented works that scream out and fully reflect the contemporary artistic spirit. Messana’s inventive fulcrum is to allow the viewers to interpret her work as freely as possible, causing them to reflect rather than be static and passive. For this purpose, the artist uses such means as denunciation, amazement, and an inherent violent destabilization, which emerge from her works as images that aim at jolting the viewers’ minds.
In as much as she is a “figure” who belongs to this society, Messana wants to express her thoughts, her truth and her personal taste in regard to events and issues she would like to change, making her voice heard somehow, through the most intimistic and spiritual means for an artist.”
(Art critic / curator)
source: D.R. Tedeschi, S. Pieralice, L.Carini, F. Peligra, G. Vulcano, A. Fanti, A. Mazziotta, A. Fantuzzi, R. Miniati, G. Faccenda, V. Tassinari, M. Beraldo, C. Strinati, E.M. Eleuteri, (curated by), SWEET DEATH – Fatima Messana, 56° Biennale di Venezia catalogo della mostra, pp. 218,219,220,221; Editoriale Giorgio Mondadori, Roma, 2015