All photographs are courtesy of Ela Bialkowska OKNO studio.
The recently concluded Motherboard Zoè Gruni solo show at Galleria Il Ponte, presented works of three different series.
Gruni is one of her generation’s most representative Italian-Brazilian artists; her work is coherent, principled, and consistent to the point of being radical. She has no filters in her exploration and embrace of gender issues, identity, diaspora, forced colonization in Brazil, and indigenous history. Gruni’s works also address the tension and conflicts in valorizing women’s role in Italy, in Brasil and in California. She uses her body to promote the feminist cause and engage in a choral dialogue with other performers, writers, and directors, creating collective works that touch raw nerves. This approach has enabled her to attain great heights in her production as an artist creating ‘total works’ of contemporary art.
CB: How did your upbringing influence your art-making? What informs it today?
My artistic research (experimentation) is characterized by a strong interest for the human condition and this is inevitably linked to place. At the beginning of my career, as was natural, I started off researching and experimenting with the stories of my own country, specifically those of the region of Tuscany; that is, digging into my own roots. In 2010 I moved to California and then to Brazil and I have been a sort of nomad partly by choice partly by necessity, and that is absolutely reflected in my own work. I was fascinated as I noticed how many symbols that are part of a local reality often end up linking us to a more global one. I deeply believe in comparing different cultures and in the possibility of a common development.
My artistic exploration arises out the need to exorcise the fear of what is different. Starting from inner reflection that tends towards a collective dimension, my body is the catalyst to reach out to others through various kinds of interaction. Performance is the staple in my projects. However, the actions are not conceived as spectacle but rather as a constantly evolving process…The different media used in the performances – photography, drawing, sculpture, video and installation – allow me to run the gamut and overlap various means of expression. I go in for handmade and crafted works that connect me to a popular dimension. Anthropological and sociocultural research and exploration has become an increasingly important aspect for me. Other people’s participation in my work is also fundamental. I welcome the other into the project and invite them to interact, sometimes in the lead role, other times as partners to create a temporary collective. Working with one’s own ego is very complex. But despite its difficulties, it is precisely what I want to do: experience/experiment life through art.
CB: Your artworks expanded concepts beyond the historical rituals, traditions, and conventions. How is your methodical approach in creation? Which is your relationship with mediums, and materials?
Each project is a sort of gestation during which the awareness grows little by little. The mediums are subordinate to the intention of the project so they change every time. The materials are linked with the territory or the contest where the work is creating.
CB: How do you tap into memories, and emotions with your work?
I do research on the symbols of collective memory to find a connection with “the other”. I try to melt these symbols with my personal and intimate references. The result is a layered image that everyone can access through the own free interpretation.
CB: What this is for you to be mother?
To be mother is a set of many things difficult as extraordinary, a sort of rebirth. Ironically I like to compare all this to the function of the “motherboard”: responsible for the transmission and correct timing of hundreds of different signals.
CB: The exhibition was divided into three different projects Segunda Pele, Fromoso, and Motherboard. Please tell us about it.
The exhibition consists of three different projects, presented by way of video installations, video performances, lambda prints on aluminum and mixed techniques on photographic print: Segunda pele, Fromoso and Motherboard.
CB: How do these three projects entered in a conversation?
The projects Motherboard, Fromoso, Segunda pele, offer insights on the concepts of motherhood, anthropophagia and hybridity, respectively. All these concepts are linked with “transformation”.
CB: What is important to you about the visual experiences you create? What drives you?
I’m basically driven by anger. I make art to provide order to my “chaos”.
CB: What drives you in the Motherboard project?
The “motherboard” is responsible for the transmission and correct timing of hundreds of different signals, all at high frequency and sensitive to disturbances between processors, expansion boards and external peripherals. Therefore, for a performative and reliable circuit it is vital that the motherboard be well made. Motherboard is a project on motherhood. It is a series of photographic images caught with the automatic shutter release when I am playing with my son. The “painted mask” applied to them leads to the continual transformation of the characters and at times to role reversals between mother and son. Irony and drama blend together as well as symbolic elements borrowed from collective memory: antiquity, mythology, pop culture, digital technology and social themes.
CB: Choose a piece in your show and tell us the story behind it: what was on your mind when you started it. Please tell your process from conception to end.
The Segunda pele (Second Skin) project came about from the need to expand my individual artistic experimentation towards a collective dimension. I have been designing and producing works based on the interaction between body and object, performance and sculpture for several years now – performative objects conceived as extensions of the body, sculptures that can be worn or inhabited using recycled materials. These “second skins” become a sort of filter between my body and the outside world, helping me to tackle unknown territories and solve difficulties. The need to reflect on contemporary society inevitably raises topics such as memory, identity and fear… and the aim has become to transform this dialogue into performative and political action. So I decided to launch this same proposal to other artists, through a course called “Second Skin: Hybrid, Memory, Recycling” which I delivered at the EAV school of visual art (Escola Artes Visuais) in Parque Lage, Rio de Janeiro, for two years between 2017 and 2019. The meetings took place in a climate of coexistence and dialogue, spontaneously bringing together young artists and activists who use their body as a language. Creating contemporary experiences in the era of communication. Mutating identities that need to cry out against oppression and command respect in an extremely violent and transphobic city, in a colonized country that continues to be racist, in a globalized society that is becoming unhealthier every day. Since they are moving images, we had to resort to audio visual means, prompting the desire to partner with filmmaker Alexis Zelensky in order to produce videos drawn from this work. The set for the performers’ actions is the forest of Parque Lage (urban forest in Rio de Janeiro), a place throbbing with life, also fighting to survive in the urban context of the city. Every performance is an authored work springing from individual impulses, but the mosaic of all these actions becomes a collective work. Together subjective differences meet, coming out stronger and united to fight against the “liquid fear” endemic in contemporary society, a fear that seeks to divide and control us. Despite the difficulties, there is still hope that those who believe in art, and in culture in general, can become a vehicle of resistance.
CB: What is your current obsession?
Investigating the concept of “fear of difference” in contemporary society.
CB: It must also be important for you to be part of a network or community of other artists in that way. How you feel more this relationship, in Brazil, and in California?
I was part of artistic communities in all these countries and I noticed that each of them have different characteristics due to its social and cultural context. In California I appreciated the humility and the spontaneity which the artists relate to each other. In Brazil I experimented the human complicity as a function of a shared struggle.
CB: Can you introduce us to your Segunda pele publication?
Zoè Gruni, Segunda pele is a book edited in 2023 by Metilene in three languages, Italian, English, Portuguese.
The project developed during my experience in Brazil, which came about from my need to exorcise the fear of difference. In this research, the body becomes the catalyst capable of relating with others, the main filter between the human being and the world. After graduating from the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence, I moved to California and then to Brazil where I lived for many years, devoting my research to the study of social contexts and local cultures. Starting from a reflection on contemporary society, I evoke stories of resistance linked to indigenous peoples and the African culture brought by the slaves, while dealing with themes such as religious syncretism, decolonization of thought, gender issues, LBGTQIA+ communities, minority struggles in the favelas and much more. Back in Italy, I found myself writing these memoirs in a reflection on the power and fragility of human beings. I also wanted to put across this complexity by making a series of drawings in which the people become fairy tale-like characters.
Camilla Boemio and Zoè Gruni at Florence Art Week.
Camilla Boemio is an internationally published author, curator, and member of the AICA (International Arts Critics) and IKT (International) based in Rome. In 2013, Boemio was the associate curator of PORTABLE NATION: Disappearance as Work in Progress – Approaches to Ecological Romanticism, the Maldives Pavilion at the 55th International Art Exhibition La Biennale di Venezia. In 2016, Boemio curated Diminished Capacity, the First Nigerian Pavilion at 16th International Architecture Exhibition La Biennale di Venezia. Boemio’s recent curatorial projects include her role as associate curator at Pera + Flora + Fauna. The Story of Indigenousness and The Ownership of History, an official collateral event at the 59th International Art Exhibition La Biennale di Venezia, 2022, which is commissioned by PORT and the state government of Perak, Malaysia; the same year she was co-curator of Bruno Lisi: Segno Aperto at MLAC and Museo dell’Arte Classica, two museums part of Polo Museale Sapienza in Roma.
Invitations to speak include the Tate Liverpool, MUSE Science Museum, MLAC. Museo Laboratorio di Arte Contemporanea at Polo Museale Sapienza, Pistoia Musei, Istituto Italiano di Cultura at Oslo and the Cambridge Festival 2021 at Crassh, in the UK.