In June 1977, Italian artist Bianca Menna announced her marriage to her male alter-ego Tomaso Binga. The unlikely ceremony was to be held at the contemporary art gallery Campo D, in the center of Rome. Menna sent out traditional save-the-date cards and invitations, which read “Bianca Menna e Tomaso Binga Oggi Spose,” but in these, “Oggi spose,” the Italian expression for “Just married,” had an unusual feminine desinence rather than the grammatically correct masculine one.
On the date set for the wedding, guests were puzzled to reach the gallery and find nothing but two photographs on a wall: a portrait of Menna wearing a wedding dress in front of a car — an image taken on the day of her “real” wedding with Italian scholar Filiberto Menna — and a photograph of Tomaso Binga, actually Menna herself dressed as a man in a business suit, standing next to a typewriter.
At 88, Bianca Menna is a living legend in Rome’s cultural scene. She keeps herself busy creating performances, collages, paintings, and, above all, poetry. She speaks with an accent that recalls her southern Italian origins, articulating each word with precision, in the same way she recites her poems.
Menna picked up the pseudonym Tomaso Binga in the late 1960s: “Binga” is a childish nickname for Bianca; “Tomaso” is in honor of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, founder of the Futurist movement. “My male name plays with irony and displacement; it wants to uncover the male privilege that also prevails in the field of art. It is a paradoxical contestation of a superstructure we have inherited and which we want to destroy as women” she tells me.
Binga’s poems are based on a series of experiments with language, often using repetition and irony as disruptive elements in her work. As light and funny as her poems might sound, they come from a deep awareness of the complexity of language and the results of subverting its norms. To do this, Menna goes to the very basis of the Italian language, in which the masculine gender supersedes the feminine and is the default form. “I work on writing. I don’t want to invent a new code, but I attempt a process of de-semantization of the verbal code,” she explains. “In my works, words grow and multiply like living beings, they cross over the places they are supposed to belong, they proliferate like cells, they invade the spaces that surround us.”
When I ask about her activism within the feminist movement in Rome during the 1970s, she gives me a serious look from behind her thick glasses before rattling off names of fellow female artists then involved in the debate on women’s rights. “In those years, feminist collectives and self-awareness groups were basically everywhere — in schools, in clubs, in bars, even in squares! Participation in all battles [such as new laws for divorce, abortion, and gender equality] was … crucial to all women,” she remembers. It was primarily thanks to these protests that Italy introduced a law that allowed divorce in 1970, followed by one allowing abortion in 1978.
For almost 50 years, Binga has been tackling the numerous manifestations of patriarchy and social hierarchies in Italian culture, word by word. Nothing slips through her net, from gender stereotypes instilled in kids at school to the world of weight-loss diets, through the ever-present influence of the Catholic Church in Italian society.
For one of her most renowned performances, “Carte da parato – Casa Malangone” (“Wallpaper – Malangone House,” 1976), Binga wallpapered a friend’s house from floor to ceiling. “It wasn’t easy to find someone willing to do so, but I managed in the end,” she recalls. “I’m not sure if they agreed out of love for art or because they hated their landlord so much.” On the night of the performance, the artist wore a dress made of the same paper, and declaimed the poem “Io sono una carta” (I am a piece of paper, 1976).
The performance has been restaged by the artist over the years, most recently in Tomaso Binga: A Silenced History, a solo show at Mimosa House in London, which follows another major international endeavor, Binga’s set design for Dior’s Autumn/Winter 2019 runway show last February. The collaboration with the French fashion house cemented a friendship between Binga and Dior’s creative director, Maria Grazia Chiuri, who was eager to work with the artist.
On the occasion, Binga reprised her “Alfabetiere murale” (“Alphabet Mural,” 1976), a series of photographs of the artist naked and assuming letter-like poses. “There are no doubts on the relevance of this particular work today,” she states. “Forty years later, its meaning is even more incisive. In order to preserve the rights we acquired, we — as women and feminists — must cry out our outrage, not only with the voice of poetry but also with our whole bodies, which become words.”
Tomaso Binga: A Silenced Victory continues at Mimosa House (12 Princes Street, London) through December 20.