Whilst I was growing up my brother had an imaginary friend. He described him as a half-human, half-tiger creature who would participate in our games, achieving things we would never be able to achieve. The current show at Mimosa House, a project space on Hanover Square, deals with similar themes by gathering artists and their alter-egos, avatars and other forms of imaginary friends. Bringing together contemporary artists with more historical work from the 1970s, the show explores the latent power of a masquerade to transgress, subvert and transform identities, gender, subjectivity and racial divisions.
A key work for the conceptual framework of the exhibition is Oggi Spose (1977) (which can be translated as ‘newly wed’) by Tomaso Binga, an important and rarely acknowledged figure of the Italian and international artistic scene of the 1970s. The work is made of two photographs: one of a smiling bride in her wedding dress and the other of a middle-aged man dressed in a broad-shouldered suit. On closer inspection the two protagonists bear a strong resemblance with each other; they are in fact the same person but different personas of the artist.
Tomaso Binga is the pseudonym of Bianca Menna, who chose a male name for her art, both using and parodying the cultural privileges reserved for men in Italian society. Some of these are still relevant today: in certain industries men still receive a higher salary then women for the same role. What looks like a banal photograph of a bride and groom becomes a powerful tool to discuss gender imbalances and how embracing manhood can give access to power.
Deconstructing a male-oriented world recurs also in Adrian Piper’s The Mythic Being: Light My Fire, Sweetie (1974), where the artist is disguised as a black man, suggesting once again the empowering act of masculinity. Piper’s work is mostly focused in discussing identity, race and gender, based on her experience of being a black woman and operating in an art world dominated by white men.
The masculine disguise is also paired with a queer aspect. In Cibelle Cavalli Bastos’s Las Venus Resort Hotel: Hang Out Dimensional Slice Download (2018), an installation made from colourful plastics, Cavalli Bastos creates the interior of a hotel. This structure is run by the artist, who embodies the ‘feminine’ trait of multitasking by offering herself as cook, cleaner, aestheticist, entertainer and manager. Femininity is here examined to the point of collapse of what is real and what is imagined.
Constructed identities are the focus of the videos of Bulgarian artist Gery Georgieva, who becomes the musical diva Vera Modena. Wearing Modena’s mask of feminity and fusing traditional folk singing with magnetic dancing, Georgieva investigates issues of national identity.
Super Taus, the Alter-Ego of Moscow-based artist Taus Makhacheva, explores identity by presenting a radically different version of womanliness. Super Taus is a traditional woman from Dagestan, a region in the South of Russia from where her family originates, with super-human powers that help her achieve the unachievable. The videos of her performances shown in this exhibition are filled with humour. Super Taus displays femininity as a joke, as something that could never be real. Is this the reason why we are laughing at Super Taus’s actions? Is Super Taus, dressed in traditional Dagi clothes and veiled, not supposed to achieve these highly physical and ‘masculine’ efforts? How does this reflect the situation of women in other parts of the world? Wearing a particular form of femininity, Super Taus introduces rivalry, superiority and destabilises patriarchal hierarchy.
A great influence for Taus is Sohrab Kashani, whose Super Sohrab is a Tehran-based superhero attempting to fix local and global socio-political problems linked to Iran’s current state of affairs. Creating other characters to talk about a political situation is also at the core of the work of French artist of Guyanese and Danish descent Tabita Rezaire, who sees herself as a ‘decolonial healer’. Using cyborgs and mixing technology with traditional African healing practices, Rezaire explores and critiques how colonial structures of power and oppression continue to endure on and off-line. ‘Decolonial healing’ is a response to cyber-racism: a proposal for resisting the models that have been constructed so far.
These other egos, heroes and personas enables all the artists to discuss, denounce and highlight salient issues related to their countries of origin. The construction of the ‘super-artist’ becomes a basic structure for political and aesthetic action.
Alter Heroes Coalition displays a feminist approach that acknowledges the efforts made by a previous generation of artists and the battles that a current generation needs to undertake. Subtly investigating the reasons behind artists’ masquerades, super heroes, and other imaginary yet real beings, the exhibition discusses the implications of feminity, masculinity, performance and identity. Perhaps my brother was not so childish in bringing his imaginary all-mighty friend over to play. As the artists in this show highlight, we need multifaceted characters and supernatural beings to address wider cultural and political contexts.
Ilaria Puri Purini
Curator of Programmes
Mimosa House, 12 Princes Street, London W1B 2LL. Open Thursday-Saturday 13.00-19.00 and by appointment. Exhibition continues until 26 January 2019. www.mimosahouse.co.uk