Empowerment, or acts that make us tremble again | by Giulia Damiani
Le Nemesiache, ‘Cenerella’ (Cinderella) in Milan, 1978, performance documentation, photographer unknown. Courtesy of Le Nemesiache’s archive
In January 2024 empowerment is juxtaposed with a feeling of powerlessness in a global context of colonial warfare and ecological damage. When European countries fail to condemn and take action against the genocide in Palestine, despite the thousands of marches and people protesting this human catastrophe, can we still look at politics as a site of empowerment? A space where different groups’ voices are heard and make a change? Whose voices are getting heard, and whose interests are prioritised? When hundreds of years of extraction from natural resources are making the earth an unlivable place, is becoming numb the only way to cope? Is renouncing having a voice in it the way to carry on? But do we need to carry on?
At the moment the answers to the questions above feel beyond reach. Yet perhaps empowerment, considering it here as a practice, was always disconnected from mainstream politics in the first place. The origin of the term in its current use – affirming the ability of individuals and groups to act in order to ensure their own well-being and their right to participate in decision-making that concerns them –1 goes back to the 1970s and relates to a variety of movements such as feminisms and the civil rights movement in the US. Far from being at the centre of political discussions, initially, these movements were thought to be glitches in the system; but their difference from the norm also became their strength. In Italy for example protests to obtain rights to divorce and abortion in the late 1970s were accompanied by chants and slogans such as ‘tremate, tremate, le streghe son tornate’ (‘tremble, tremble, the witches are back’); signalling the women’s movement preferred association with historically fringe sections of society in their fight for their rights.
I want to link empowerment to the act of bringing one’s own body and voice to a common space; and to the possibility of imagining a different individual and collective trajectory from within this space. I will be looking at empowerment through the lens of the feminist practices I’ve engaged with. In particular, in my work I’ve been interested in how such practices intersect with performance. If empowerment first moves from a disruptive action -a glitch, an unexpected sounding or a chant that makes you tremble – can the process of embodiment be a way to reconnect with empowerment? Is tapping into forms of individual and collective presence a way to resist powerlessness?
Connecting empowerment to embodiment I went back to my research and work with the feminist group Le Nemesiache from Naples.2 Le Nemesiache were a group of women, mostly active between the 1970s and 1980s, who used performance and ritual as tools to reach self-consciousness and make a change. In their 1975 theatre manifesto, they expressed how they saw theatre as ‘planning and preparation’, as an act of evocation and materialisation of a different reality, and they claimed back their ‘visceral expression as their weapon’.3 Lina Mangiacapre, the founder of the group, introduced a method called la psicofavola (the psycho-fable) which was her original contribution to feminism. Although there was no exact blueprint for the realisation of the psycho-fable, it was an approach to performance and ritual that brought together myth and women figures from the past, Le Nemesiache’s exploration of their landscape and layers of oppression that would emerge through the performers’ bodies. In the interviews, I had with members of the group I registered how the reenactment of stories from the past, such as Cinderella’s, allowed these women to learn about their own suffering and together imagine a different reality. One of the performers of their 1973 show Cinderella voiced: ‘Remember, but she has forgotten. In the relationship with culture, with power, with her own desire deformed by the myth of love’.4 A statement repeated again and again. ‘Remember, but she has forgotten. In the relationship with culture, with power, with her own desire deformed by the myth of love’. The word ‘remember’ (‘ricordati’) became an eery echo of different women’s voices and was whispered throughout the performance. Personal and political realisations would manifest on stage but as importantly in the moments of working together towards the performance. These moments included rituals and actions both in the city of Naples and in the surrounding areas of archaeological ruins and volcanic craters, which stretch along the bay of Naples, overlooking the sea.
In Le Nemesiache’s practice, performance created a space for women to stick with the contradictions they were living in. Through their performances, they looked for ways to affirm themselves as agents in their own life, while society mostly still saw them as mothers and wives.5 ‘Creativity is political’ they said, ‘it is life, routine, erotics, in harmony with nature and the cosmos’.6 The collective and political dimension of creativity was shared by other feminist groups at the time. Recalling Le Nemesiache’s coming together to experiment, another interview I had with a women’s group from Milan comes to mind.7 Maddalena Gasparini, a member of the LUD (the Milan Free University for Women), describing the women’s meetings as beautiful put how ‘in the 1970s the anxiety of being there, of being together, of talking to each other was so strong that we wrote very little’.8 What mattered was being physically present, talking to each other, concocting and sharing. The excitement of it. During these meetings a new awareness was made possible, often in secret, and not so much was written from it. It was separate from the main political realm. But when ready such awareness would explode outside and could make patriarchy tremble. Bring your body to it.
The link between performance and empowerment is older and wider than feminist discussions from the 1970s, although a lot was experienced then. Already in the early twentieth century acting was a job that allowed women independence from men, even if it stayed a precarious occupation. Furthermore, by playing different lives on stage, actors conveyed to the public and to themselves the possibility of any action, any course, any future.9 Women actors were marginalised by society (in Italian the word ‘commediante’ was used to denigrate women actors who wouldn’t be believed to speak the truth on the ground of their job), yet they were often outspoken advocates of women’s rights and publicly denounced their subordinate condition.10 By portraying the minor and oppressed role society saw for them on stage, women could start noticing each other, discerning in ‘each other the first cue, the opening line’.11 These were lines from a story of oppression that repeated itself over the centuries. Could the chain be broken off? Embodying opened the channel for a desire of new stories to be played, and lived.
Another example of the potential life-changing force of performance is captured by Saidiya Hartman in her powerful book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments.12 The book focuses on the lives of Black girls living in New York and Philadelphia at the beginning of the 20th century. For these young women pursuing a life on the stage, in cabaret and music halls, meant to escape from servitude and domestic work which would otherwise expect them, as well as frequent arrests by the police:
‘Dancing and singing fuelled the radical hope of living otherwise, and in this way, choreography was just another kind of movement for freedom, another opportunity to escape service, another elaboration of the general strike. Joining the chorus encompassed much more than the sequence of steps, or the arrangement of dances on the stage of a music hall or the floor of a cabaret. (…) choreography was an art, a practice of moving even when there was nowhere else to go, no place left to run. It was an arrangement of the body to elude capture, an effort to make the uninhabitable livable, to escape the confinement of a four-cornered world, a tight, airless room.’13
In these radical experiments empowerment moved from a revolutionary awareness of the potential of one’s own life, of one’s own body, practised in collective choreographies. In Hartman’s book dancing is described as a rehearsal for escape and as a collective rhythm that could trigger the onlooker’s desire to be part of it. Participating in these choreographies strengthened other forms of social and political participation. Body and voice, the anxiety of being there, the recognition of each other’s story, were all central in this act.
Looking at the present again, I’ve been wondering if what I learnt about the psycho-fable through Le Nemesiache can be put to the service of making performances today. I bring this feminist practice in the work I do with other performers. I still believe in the awakening potential of letting things pass through our bodies and collectively imagine. Not shying away from personal and political contradictions. Sticking with what feels bad, like the collective heartbreak we may be going through. Maybe this is still an antidote to numbness. Beyond the final performance in front of an audience, these radical practices from the past were nurtured by the moments of preparation and the feeling of a boundless body. I wonder which are the spaces for that, today. I think about the ongoing protests in squares and streets; of the need to acknowledge each other and discern in each other. This feels more important than ever before. I wish for an uncompromising and explosive awareness to make us tremble, again.
Bio Giulia Damiani
Giulia Damiani is an artist, writer and teacher based in Amsterdam working with performance. Her first performance for the stage, Heart Brake will premiere in 2024 supported by AFK Amsterdams Fonds Voor de Kunst. In 2020 she curated the show From the Volcano to the Sea: The Feminist Group Le Nemesiache in 1970s-1980s Naples for If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want to Be Part Of Your Revolution, Amsterdam. In 2022 she curated the same show Part II at Chelsea Space in London. Her edited book for If I Can’t Dance Ritual and Display came out in 2022. In 2022 she received her practice-based PhD in the Art Department at Goldsmiths, University of London (AHRC scholarship) with a thesis entitled ‘Porous Places, Eruptive Bodies: The Feminist Group Le Nemesiache in 1970s-1980s Naples’.
Giulia Damiani website
1 Anne-Emmanuèle Calvès, ‘Empowerment: The History of a Key Concept in Contemporary Development Discourse’, Revue Tiers Monde, vol. 200, no. 4, 2009, pp. 735-749.
2 See my practice-based PhD ‘Porous Places, Eruptive Bodies: The Feminist Group Le Nemesiache in 1970s-1980s Naples’. PhD diss., Goldsmiths University, 2022.
3 Le Nemesiache, Cicli Iunari, cicli solari’ (Lunar Cycles, Solar Cycles) pamphlet available in in Mangiacapre’s and Le Nemesiache’s archive, 1975.
4 Le Nemesiache, ‘Cenerella. Psicofavola di Nemesi’ (Cinderella. Nemesis’Psycho-fable),1973.
5 In the early seventies women’s presence in Naples’ labour-market had increased, but their participation in the economy remained mostly invisible. Often forms of employment relied on the networks among families, and families still largely identified women with domestic and parental roles. In 1981 the region of Naples had the e highest average family size in the country. Source: Goddard, V.A. (1996) Gender, Family and Work in Naples. Oxford.
6 Le Nemesiache, ’Manifesto per la reappropriazione della nostra creatività’ (‘Manifesto for the ap- propriation of our own creativity’), in Mangiacapre’s and Le Nemesiache’s archive, 1977.
7 Interviews for the project on intergenerational feminist knowledge ‘Transmitting Italian Feminisms’ I’m conducting with Gabby Moser and Helena Reckitt. The interview with members of LUD took place in April 2022.
9 Selby Wynn Schwartz, After Sappho, Norwich: Galley Beggar Press Limited, 2023, p. 73.
10 Selby Wynn Schwart makes the example of actor Eleonora Duse, who in the 1910s spoke out against women’s annihilation in their families.
11 Ibid., p.79.
12 Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives: Beautiful Experiments. Initimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women and Queer Radicals, London: Serpent’s Tail, 2019.
13 Ibid., p. 299.