Fanfare for the Common Woman

A mesmerizing exhibition of 366 portraits of Italian women opens at the Icebox.

A few signs that your society may have a feminism problem:

  1. Your prime minister gets caught referring to German Chancellor Angela Merkel as an un-lust-worthy “lard arse.”
  1. Your prime minister makes this comment to a man accused of supplying him with prostitutes for lavish private parties.

Of course it’s Silvio Berlusconi. And of course it’s Italy. The country, whether fairly or not, has for years suffered from a reputation as a place where sexism knows no subtlety, and the 75-year-old politician and media mogul, whose latest term ended just last November, has long made a point of making chauvinism a national sport.

So it’s no overstatement when Rome-based photographer Marzia Messina says she launched 365D: Three Hundred and Sixty-Five Days of a Woman during “the worst period in Italy for the exploitation of women and the female body in politics, media, and advertising.”

Icebox Banner

The project—which comes to Minneapolis’s Icebox Gallery tonight after opening in Rome and Milan—is both a photo exhibition and a book. For an entire year, Messina and her English partner, photographer Sham Hinchey, each day invited an Italian woman into their studio for a portrait. The portraits were shot democratically, with identical backgrounds, identical lighting conditions, and with the use of Photoshop limited to color correction and contrast. In addition, each woman was asked to write a short diary entry, in which she describes a memorable day from her life. The result, Messina and Hinchey hoped, would present a more intelligent and sincere perception of Italy’s women.

And it has.

Far from being a feminist scold, the show that opens tonight at Icebox is lusty and life-charged, a chest-swelling celebration of the female visage in all its forms. While hanging the 366 photographs—Messina and Hinchey shot an extra one for the leap year—gallery assistant Ricka Powers said she broke down in tears, the experience was so profound.

The photos—smaller versions of the originals, printed on vinyl rectangles cut to mimic both the shape and the confessional, matter-of-fact aesthetic of a Polaroid—form a riveting mosaic of smirks and smiles, youth and age, flirtation and defiance. The women are sometimes deadpan, sometimes coy, sometimes tough, sometimes raging and ecstatic. They pose with props: a lipstick-smudged teacup, a lit cigarette, a newborn. Some have ripe painted lips. Some have wrinkles.

But they are always, invariably gorgeous. The angelic gloss of the prints acts as a conductor, super charging the women’s radiance and broadcasting it out into the gallery. On a recent visit to Icebox, I found myself falling in love over and over again. 

That Messina and Hinchey manage to render the portraits both un-doctored and divine is a testament to their lighting skills—but also a nod to their commercial work as fashion photographers. Hinchey described how the exhibit uses the model-shoot tool kit to dismantle model-shoot politics.

“[With fashion, you] pick a perfect model, one in a million, then retouch with Photoshop and voila,” he wrote in an email. “You create a whole generation of women with an identity crisis, because many would like to become something that simply does not exist in real life […] With this, each woman had to be treated in the same manner. No privileges for anyone, all on the same level with the same respect, from the princess to the office clerk.”Icebox

The show’s universality is one of its greatest appeals.

“The ex-Italian president was an appalling example of how woman should be regarded,” Hinchey says. “But it’s not all to blame on Berlusconi. The project relates to issues that women face in countries all over the world. I’m sure women who come to the show in Minneapolis will confirm that.”

365D: Three Hundred and Sixty-Five Days of a Woman
Opening reception tonight, March 16, 6–10 p.m.
Show runs through April 28
Icebox Gallery
1500 Jackson St. NE, #443, Mpls.,