We talked to the South London-based and Naples-born artist whose work champions “South Aesthetics”, a resistance to the idea that Northern Europe is in any way superior
“I make work that doesn’t look like art, but looks like me.” These are the words of South London-based and Naples-born artist SAGG Napoli, who despite the assertion, and despite the endless self-portraits on her Instagram, is not really a narcissist. She is practising self-love and #unfiltered self-appreciation, her work a never-ending performance of unapologetic femininity, sexuality and power.
SAGG Napoli is the pseudonym of Sofia Ginevra Giannì, who is not just making her work but, increasingly, living it. Unconfined to the gallery space, her art exists as a public performance, videos and even Instagram memes. By embodying a kind of character in SAGG Napoli, Sofia explores her Neopolitan cultural heritage, and particularly the geopolitics of Northern Europe versus Southern Europe, the latter a region often thought of as trashy or steeped in excess. Championing a look that she calls “South Aesthetics” (see tracksuits, heaps of gold jewellery and talon-like nails often courtesy of Sylvie Macmillan), SAGG refutes this unfair cultural bias. She encourages us to rethink South Aesthetics as an important product of history, but also, as beautiful.
Off the back of her residency at MoMA Warsaw, we talked to her about Naples, representation, and performing identity over the internet.
When did you decide to become an artist?
SAGG Napoli: I have always made things, from drawing to textiles, and I have always had quite a performative personality, I’ll be the person that stands up during a dinner and entertains people. When I moved to London the idea was to make clothes, because I never thought that being an artist could be a job. So I started doing these courses, fashion, photography, then eventually art. I couldn’t really speak English well and my work was really different from the people who I studied with, so I tried to change it to fit in. I was trying to emancipate myself culturally; in the way I spoke, the way I dressed, the people I would surround myself with. But then I had a conversation with my mum and she said, ‘You know you’re not only what you have been in the last few years, there is so much more to your cultural background’.
You would try to fit in and you weren't really embracing where you came from?
SAGG Napoli: Yeah, I was trying to erase it, not consciously, but if I look at old pictures of myself or videos in the way I was trying to speak, I can see it. But at some point, I went back home, and suddenly I saw home in a very different way. Naples suddenly felt really Other to the UK, or to Northern European places that I had spent time in. At that point something switched in my brain, I was like, ‘my mum is right, there is so much that I am dismissing of my own culture’ and I realised that if I don’t talk about, or embrace these things, then it’s just not going to be done. There are many artists that are from Naples who make international work, but their work looks like someone British or American could do it, so it’s a lack of representation in an international context.
For anyone who hasn't been to Naples, can you explain how it is so culturally different to Northern Europe?
SAGG Napoli: Geographically, Naples is closer to the north of Africa than it is to the north of Europe. Because there has been so much movement in the area the way that people look is a mixture of very different ethnicities. And at the moment it's an interesting time in Naples because of the refugee crisis. I guess it’s quite easy to exist in Naples without having your papers sorted. I think that is going to have a very strong impact on the way in which people will absorb other trends. More cultural diversity.
Naples is just different from the rest of Italy, from what people wear, to the language, Neopolitan, even things like the way the spaces are lit, there’s neon lighting everywhere. Public transport is also very different. In Naples there is no social infrastructure and it’s on a hill so you can’t really walk around it, it’s quite exhausting. So your everyday life is not very smooth unless you are very rich. Then the way the people move is different because of the criminality, you don’t walk around that relaxed. You don’t just park your car wherever you want because there is going to be someone who comes to you and is like ‘give me some money for parking your car here if you want to make sure nothing happens to it’.
Everything is quite difficult and you don’t understand that difficulty until you remove yourself from it for a bit and live elsewhere.
It's really interesting, all the factors that contribute to what a culture is. What about Neopolitan beauty, can you describe that?
SAGG Napoli: Well women are really put together because there is not much mobility in the city. You walk out of your house and will always see the same people, it’s quite suffocating. The way trends spread is very different because it’s so insular. You can see people all wearing the same make-up, all wearing the same clothes, because that’s what the trend is at the time and that’s what most people in the city will follow. So there is not as much variety.
Aspirational aesthetics is a big thing in Naples, to wear certain things that you can’t afford so the fake market is massive. There is a whole area of Naples where they make all the original and designer clothes. There used to be a Prada bag factory and you used to see these kids from these areas wearing bags before they even got to the catwalk, and you are like how did these fucking people get a hold of these clothes!
So you were thinking about all these things about Naples, how did that start to inform your work?
SAGG Napoli: I did this one performance that really worked with what I was saying about public transport. I started really thinking about the way people move around the city - 13, 14-year-olds moving on their scooters. It was in this area of the city where my grandma is from, I took some of the kids from around there and I was like okay let’s do a choreography on scooters and that was interesting because they just wouldn’t understand that it was a skill they had. And then from there I made a video called You're A Lie With Smooth Thighs and Painted Nails. It was kind of a presentation of what I call South Aesthetics; this architecture, clothing and me moving.
But I recognise and am honest about the fact that these are things I can only see as particular to Naples because I moved away.
Distance is perspective ...
SAGG Napoli: Yeah and the whole film explored that to some extent. I used a lot of 90s Neopolitan music that discusses the socio-political environment. Because we are speaking Neapolitan the music will never get to the same level than if they were speaking Italian. When you are speaking in Neapolitan about issues that relate to Naples, the only people that will engage with it are from Naples so it becomes really self-referential. That also translated to the way I presented myself because the video I made just had me in it.
Why did you decide to put yourself in the imagery and in the work?
SAGG Napoli: I think to put my face into my own work gives it a different level of urgency and a different level of intimacy. To put your face into it is giving a level of honesty into what you are saying. You know it’s like, this is the way I perceive things and I will be narrating through my own experience.
The strengthening of the body is also a massive part of my work. It’s like a level of control. I couldn’t quantify purpose in the work I was making at the time because I had just graduated. I was thinking, ‘is this really going anywhere?’ But with your body you can really quantify progress. To look after yourself is a political action, to be in control of your body and your brain. To decide to become an artist and freelance is a political action, you are becoming part of an alternative system, in which you need to build a structure for yourself to be able to exist or cope. And exercising is part of that and is a way of building confidence. So I put it in the work, I was just doing loads of videos of me working out in a kind of tutorial way.
You've said that you are not sure what’s you and what's a character, the line is quite blurred?
SAGG Napoli: I feel like for me it wasn’t even about creating a character, it was going back to my original self, without all the filters that I have put on myself because of insecurity, or like ethnic or cultural insecurity, you know I think it was more like stripping them down like putting pride into certain things that have to do with my culture.
It is so interesting that stripping back can create something so extra, but it also makes total sense. Like if you took away all social norms of how we should act – I’m talking about your memes that you make and the level of attitude – maybe people don’t behave like that because society tells them, especially in Britain, not to.
SAGG Napoli: I remember one of the first crits that I did at university, they were like can you speak slower, not as loud. You know they were trying to strip out things are connected to ethnicity or to class. I kind of flattened myself out a bit too. When you are like 18 and you move to a different country and you don't know anyone and all you see is different from you.
But going back to the thing about building up an identity with my memes, the whole thing came from looking at pictures of myself and seeing my facial expressions. There was a moment of creating a character but I don’t think that the character is not my everyday me, there isn’t a moment where I put the make-up on and I'm like ‘I'm SAGG Sagg Napoli now’. In certain spaces in Naples I feel Other, in the same way that I feel Other in certain spaces here. But then there are also certain spaces here where I feel comfortable because there are many other Others. So you know, another level of filtering is just trying to blend into your surroundings. But the more you grow up the more you understand who you are.
I love that idea about what you said about filtering, we are talking about one of your mediums being social media and obviously, we are used to putting a literal Intstagram filter on things... but what you are trying to do is use the medium to unfilter yourself...
SAGG Napoli: I think I am trying to unfilter it but I am also trying to represent certain things. Loads of my followers and the people who message me are from Naples and they do feel a level of representation in certain things I talk about or in the way I dress, even if it’s just a stereotype. There isn’t much cultural production from Naples, in fact there is barely any.
Why isn’t there much cultural output, because of money?
SAGG Napoli: Yeah, which goes two ways, because when there isn’t very much money sometimes people organise themselves other ways. Naples has been a city of resistance. Music wise there is creative production coming out of it, but art wise there isn’t any really. And part of that is because it is still a very Catholic country, the sense of guilt is quite strong and it is quite prudish. Kids think I’m so crazy because I’m showing so much flesh. Last year my uncle was like, ‘I don't think you should share certain things on social media, your pictures are a bit much’. My mum went on my Instagram and messaged me like ‘actually I really like it and I'm proud of you’. But then I did a meme with a dildo and my mum was like ‘what the fuck!’ Masturbation is something you don’t talk about.
You work a lot with the nail artist Sylvie MacMillan. And she just created a dress made out of nails which you wore for a performance collaboration in Paris. What else you are working on?
SAGG Napoli: I think the most important part of my work, apart from all the online stuff which is a constant feed of information, is films and videos. Right now I am working on a film with this specific genre of music which is very huge in the Mediterranean, it is 150 BPI, really fast, and in the south of Italy it’s called Taranta. Back in the day, they used to say that women were bitten by a tarantula and that’s why they were going crazy and hysterical the one time in the year they were exposed to music. I was looking at it in the street with my mum a few years ago and she was like that’s so interesting that still now they would say they were bitten by a tarantula when obviously it was to do with sexual frustration, domestic abuse, and high levels of trauma and then that manifested in mental health.
The idea that these women were bitten by a spider is excusing the frustration that women had in a patriarchal society, where it wasn’t socially acceptable for people to know that they had been abused or were sexually frustrated. So you see all these women in churches or squares going insane to this music so it was a big cathartic for them and they would be healed with all this dancing. I’m making this film with the music and connecting it to what is traumatic right now for a woman because as society evolves, the traumas change, the social situations and structures change. It’s quite personal, it is my perspective on the question: what is trauma?