Meet the artists: Freya Dooley

An interview with Freya Dooley, Creative Wales–BSR Fellow, in which she speaks about the work she has produced during her residency at the BSR from September-December 2021.

Freya Dooley in her studio. Photo by Antonio Palmieri

You are very interested in the working processes of sound design, and the voice actors/dubbers in Rome. Much of the work you planned to make is concerned with ideas of illusion, synchronisation, surface and artifice and how this relates to the embodied and disembodied voice. Can you tell us more about it?

My work spans a range of media and includes writing, sound, moving image and performance. Voice – mine and others’, narrative and literal – is a recurrent theme and material in my practice. My research in Rome has been centred on the politics and history of dubbing in Italian cinema, first utilised under Mussolini as a form of censorship, and subsequent creative and poetic uses of post-synchronised sound and voice in film. Dubbing has expanded as an artform and characteristic of Italian cinema, with some ongoing divided opinion about it’s creative and democratic effects. I’m interested in these relationships between voice and power, and explorations of sonic/vocal leakage and control often come up in my work.

The disembodied voice can evoke many things: implied authority, assumed knowledge, analysis, intimacy… I’m particularly interested in the ‘detached’ voice in the contexts of cinema, politics and radio. Before now I had been thinking about how voice and characterisation in my work can act as a kind of ventriloquism, which I think speaks to dubbing and the idea of layering voices and muting one voice when you introduce another. In Rome I’ve been thinking about scripting for myself and others while experimenting with new soundtracks and recordings.

Experimental post-synchronised sound often reminds you of the mechanics of a film’s making and I enjoy the alternative ways of listening that these exposed layers offer. Dubbing and post-synch can play with the viewer’s suspension of disbelief, and many directors have subverted the practice or play with it as a tool for editing. I’ve been listening to the sound in the films of Pier Paolo Pasolini, whose archive I visited in Bologna recently. Pasolini has a very particular and polyphonic approach to his films and his texts: his soundtracks tamper with the surface of the image and he creates disruptive or surprising sonic relationships between voices, bodies and their environments.

While in Rome I’ve been really fortunate to meet with sound designers and voice artists. I spent time with Sergio Basilli at his foley studio at New Digital Film Sound, and heard about his decades of experience working with directors such as Leone, Fellini and Bertolucci. It was fascinating to see the way foley is used to create the layers of ‘natural’ sound through artificial means: Sergio’s studio is full of a host of strange and mundane objects which can be transformed through small gestures to evoke the vast scale of our environments. His ear is a kind of sonic archive for the ways we move about the world.

Sergio Basili in his studio, New Digital Film Sound

I also loved meeting with Silvia Pepitoni, who is a doppiatori (voice actor) who dubbed, among many other characters, Meg Ryan in Italy’s version of When Harry Met Sally. Silvia also directs dubbed versions of films and runs a doppiaggio academy in Rome. She was very generous with her experiences of the industry and passionate about dubbing as an artform: she talked about her relationships to the filmic texts and their translators, vocal personas, and the rhythms and performance of voiceover work which, in many ways, struck me as having a relationship to the rhythms and performance of song.

Can you talk about the sounds of Rome?

As is usual for the way I work, and as I expected being in a city as rich and intense as Rome, my research has expanded outwards and sideways to think about other forms of voice, text and sound which I’ve encountered here, for example Opera, orchestral and choral performance and Italo-disco music. I’ve spent a lot of time listening during this residency, recording and collecting sounds of the city, from parakeets to public demonstrations: spaces where individual voices commune. I’m also interested in the collected voices at the talking statues of Rome, a group of figures who hold a space for political (and personal) anonymous expression, even today, after hundreds of years.

As part of my practice I enjoy creating intimate or immersive environments for shared or social listening. During the residency I’ve hosted a couple of themed listening ‘parties’ with other Fellows here, where we share music with each other as a way to talk sideways about our research, practices or lives. The sound installation I’ve developed for the Mostra has turned the auditorium – already a space for listening, albeit a different kind – into a kind of awkward school disco, with a soundtrack which merges some of these thoughts about the authority, disembodiment and collectivity of the voice with references to Italo-disco’s typical characteristics of longing, bodies and vocal manipulation.

Pasquino: one of the talking statues of Rome

Meet the artists: Ruaidhri Ryan

An interview with Ruaidhri Ryan, Augusta Scholar, in which he speaks about the work he has produced during his residency at the BSR from September–December 2021.

The artist in his studio, photo credit: Antonio Palmieri

You have always worked with the medium of film and video whereas more recently you have begun developing the technique of mosaics. Could you tell us more about it?

In-between fundraising for an experimental documentary film about storyboard artists, I was producing mosaics. Working with this formal duality impressed upon both pursuits but COVID’s explosion on the scene encouraged me to focus on mosaic, as something I could take control of, something I could work on alone during lockdown. I had seen photographs of mosaic fragments at Terme di Caracalla and was surprised by how they seemed like comic strips or tiles from storyboard sequences. Time is a material, which is built-in to moving images, I’m transferring my appreciation for light and narrative into the 2D plane of mosaics. There are many methods and approaches to the medium and I’ve been spending my time at BSR learning to work with natural stones; marbles and limestones and the Double Reverse/Ravenna method.

You undertook a research trip to the Veneto. What did you take from it?

The trip to Veneto offered the opportunity to visit marble suppliers, the world-renowned mosaic school in Spilimbergo and Orsoni, a beautiful and well-established glass furnace in Venice that produces glass smalti (mosaic tiles). They’ve been in operation since 1888 and offer over 3,500 tonnes of coloured glass! Safe to say, its a seductive place. I also took the opportunity to visit architectural sites designed by Italian architect Carlo Scarpa. He employed details from the most skilled Italian craftspeople and often incorporated gold and brass icons, symbols and signs alongside mosaic elements, various textures of concrete, colour and water. They fuse Japanese garden, brutalist architecture and set design from The Fifth Element and, – for me – his buildings feel like movies. In changes to daylight, details occur, reoccur, hide and reveal themselves – this is the kind of dialogue I hope my mosaics can have between each other and the audience.

Interview by Marta Pellerini (BSR Fine Arts Adviser).

Meet the artists: Lara Smithson

An interview with Lara Smithson, The Bridget Riley Fellow, in which she speaks about the work she has produced during her residency at the BSR from September 2021–March 2022.

The artist in her studio, photo credit: Antonio Palmieri

Your research at the BSR includes looking at saints’ relics and ancient anatomical votives. How do you intend to develop it in Rome?

Over the last three months I have been visiting museums in Rome to see Etruscan and Roman anatomical votives, while beginning to create my own organs. In the new year, I plan to visit and film at some of the sites and sanctuaries where the votives’ were discovered, including Nemi and Lavinium. I have been increasingly interested in the geographical and historical dismemberment of bodies created by the relic trade and the production of votive offerings. Having visited catacombs where bodies were removed to trade and then churches where saints’ bones are housed in gilded altars, I want to think more about this fragmented devotion. The multitude of clay organs and limbs feels like an early attempt at cloning the body, in the same way that the future modern medicine looks at growing replacement organs. The body as sacred yet something that can be torn apart or simulated as divine healing is a contradiction I want to develop within my work.

Research Image: Votives at the Etruscan Museum

Can you talk about the use of fabric and costumes in your work?

My current drawings are made on a reflective fabric, which allows them to change in appearance depending on the light they are viewed in. Under direct artificial light the drawings become monochrome, losing their colour and depth. These properties, inherent to the fabric, have become ways of staging the works in installations and videos. I have made a costume sewn from a 1970s Alberto Fabiani ‘renaissance style’ dress pattern; covered in a drawing of golden hair, reminiscent of Mary Magdalen’s depictions. I often use fur and hair textures to suggest skins or bodily layers. The drawings and their installation in the Mostra are a starting point; acting like a set for future outcomes, where they will be incorporated into a video work. The nature of the fabric and the way that I work means nothing is fixed in form: a drawing can live in a film, it can become a costume, a character, a prop, or a landscape. The drawings can be uninhabited or worn and changed by the body underneath.

Research Image: Papal Vestments at the Vatican
Research image: Cappella di S. Caterina – S. Caterina e i filosofi at San Clemente
Work in progress

Interview by Marta Pellerini (BSR Fine Arts Adviser).

Meet the artists: Margaux Ogden

An interview with Margaux Ogden, Abbey Fellow in Painting, in which she speaks about the work she has produced during her residency at the BSR from September–December 2021.

The artist in her studio, photo credit: Antonio Palmieri

Historically BSR artists have made pilgrimages to see Piero’s work. Can you talk a little about the impact of seeing his work ‘in the flesh’ ?

The Piero della Francesca trail was an amazing experience during my time here at the British School at Rome. I’ve looked at his paintings and frescoes in books for many years, and seeing them in person and in the landscape where they were painted and where he lived was eye-opening. We drove from small villages to walled medieval towns, and throughout the surrounding countryside, which provided context for the work that came out of it. Piero had his own visual language and seeing the paintings in person allowed me to really understand the way he treats space, colour and shape in each painting. They are mysterious and compositionally complex, and it was a pleasure to be able to focus on only his work for a few days. Having Piero as the focal point for an art pilgrimage rather than a museum or group of artists enabled a much more intimate and comprehensive looking experience, changing the way I understand and look at his work.

Your abstract paintings appear as a tangle of lines, forms, and colour fields. Your fluid free-form gestures meld with more precise geometric shapes. What space does Rome occupy in them?

I paint directly on an unprimed surface, allowing the substrate to become as much a part of the composition as the paint itself. I’ve spent my time in Italy looking at mosaics, ruins, and ancient, medieval, and renaissance frescoes, taking hints from the palettes and ongoing transformation of form and image here. In the BSR studio, I created a series of iterative paintings. Though nothing is fully planned when I start, the structure of each painting informs that of the next. Within the composition, I’m interested in imbalance, speed of gesture, repetition, in flat and deep spaces existing simultaneously, and color relationships. As I’m working, certain qualities, forms, and relationships reappear in subsequent paintings. However, because of the delicate relationship between paint and substrate, for every painting that survives, several are abandoned. The resulting body of work contains a fragmentary legacy not unlike my Roman source material.

Interview by Marta Pellerini (BSR Fine Arts Adviser).

Meet the artists: Claudio Pestana

An interview with Claudio Pestana, Abbey Scholar in Painting September 2021–June 2022, in which they speak about the works they have produced during their residency at the BSR so far.

The artist in the studio, photo credit: Antonio Palmieri

Your practice explores themes of identity and history, amongst other concepts. How are you developing these themes within the framework of your project at the BSR where you are examining the Grand Tour landscape through a Queer lens?

My current project ‘Fag Goes on Tour’ is a natural development from my most recent series, ‘Fag Attacks the Country’ (2020-21) and ‘Fag Has an Audience’ (2021) – where I Queered the tradition of landscape and portraiture painting with a series of self-portraits in which I invaded the English rural landscape and the grand houses of the landed gentry.

So how did I get to Rome? Well, when I thought of applying for the Abbey Scholarship in Painting with a residency at the British School at Rome (BSR) what first came to my mind was that I wanted the idea for a project to emerge from the identity of the award and its international roots. As such, I wanted to find a connection between Rome and London across time and space: history, city, and travel. By chance, at the time of the application I had talked to a friend about the figure of William Beckford, who has been with me since I first read his evocative gothic novel ‘Vathek’ as a teenager, and I discovered that Beckford had travelled to Italy in 1780 as part of his Grand Tour of Europe. A fortuitous encounter with one of his travel notes, drew me further to Rome:

“THEY say the air is worse this year at Rome than ever, and that it would be madness to go thither during its malign influence.” William Beckford, Letter XVI, Italy, 22nd October 1780.

From there I set out to research the history of the Grand Tour, with all its associated connotations, and to juxtapose it with the present. I must note that whilst wanting to critically engage with and de-construct the phenomenon of the Grand Tour, I became aware how during its existence the Grand Tour was a sort of independent wandering academy, without which today there would be no BSR or other such academies. Archaeology, architecture, curating and museology, and visual arts owe their standing to the Grand Tour (with warts and all).

As I researched the archives of the BSR I encountered and was inspired by the prints of De’ Rossi, Dubourg, Duflos, Falda, Labruzzi, and of course Piranesi. As I visited galleries, museums, and palaces in Rome and beyond, I looked at the works of the Grand Tour era by the vedutisti, such as van Wittel, and the portrait painters, such as the star of the time Pompeo Batoni (hardest to find in Italian collections – I resigned myself to viewing Batoni’s “tourist” portraits in British collections).

As I examined the social context of the Grand Tour (e.g., see Rosemary Sweet, 2012), one of the many things that struck me was how the Grand Tour contributed to the construction and performance of masculinity. At some point in time, British critics of foreign travel argued that travelling (particularly to France and Italy) compromised masculinity and promoted habits of effeminacy. To me this was another connection to one other recurrent core theme in my practice, identity – and specifically my Queer identity.

So all of these works and travel and research experiences then started emerging and converging into different layers of my work to give birth to a self-portrait combined with a ‘capriccio’ interpretation of some of the things I have seen and experienced so far during my “tour of Italy”. As such, it would be fitting to say that whilst at the BSR these concepts have developed and crystallised into a Queer Italian capriccio.

You have said that life is performative. Can you say something about the impact of having the BSR and Rome as your stage?

Performativity (beyond the concept’s initial conceptualisation as linguistic in nature) is a core concept in my practice. It has always been (as I believe life is inherently performative), but looking back at my previous work, until more recently performativity was present as an intuitive unconscious gesture and I was less critically aware of how crucial it was to my work. I see performativity in all actions, including art making, but I find it important to distinguish between performative acts that are unconscious from those that are conscious and intentional. The fact is that most actions are unconsciously performative – otherwise one would be paralysed in life, constantly questioning one’s actions and intentions. In my practice I now engage with performativity in a more consciously intentional way, but I still accept that a lot of the gestures in my work are unconscious and I embrace them as being as valid as those that I plan in advance.

As performativity became more present in my mind, I started becoming more aware of how tourists perform their roles when they pose for the camera, and how there is a gender difference in how many women accentuate their femininity and men assert their masculinity. It has been the case since the beginning of travel; men and women have been depicted and have depicted themselves differently, first in writing, drawing and painting, and now also in photography – Hail the selfie. So my work whilst at the BSR is also examining how travelling has historically been performed, from the Grand Tour letters, travel notes, and portrait paintings that would be read and seen back home, to their modern equivalents, from postcards (becoming rarer) to social media posts full of selfies.

Having the BSR and Rome as my stage means that I have access to experiences and “material” that have inspired me and have emerged in my work. In my painting I pose provocatively in front of the Roman Forum and other Italian landmarks as a way of challenging the ideas of masculinity and femininity that are performed in tourist photos. But most importantly, I am aware that performativity is mediated by context, distribution of power, agency, and social roles. So being at the BSR, being a “tourist” in Rome, I am aware that I perform a certain social role, with a degree of power and social mobility that is denied to many Romans who live in the periphery. So whilst I am Queering the performativity of travel, reminiscing on the Grand Tour, I want to acknowledge this aspect of my trip and of being at the BSR. The “stage” in Rome that I occupy is shared with a diverse multitude of existences most often unseen. They might not feature prominently in the work that I am showing, as this work is focusing primarily on a different social aspect, but they are still there. And there is a very different type of travel in the form of forced migration that also needs to be acknowledged.

Another layer of performativity present in my work is related to being an artist and art making. As all life is performative, I perform being myself in the act of working in the studio at the BSR, in this case, painting. I perform both being an artist and painting the artist – who is present in the painting. I video the performative act as a record of that moment in time. Another way in which the BSR has impacted on the performative aspect of my work has been how I have responded to the grandiosity of the building itself, which has led me to use the gallery space to emulate a Grand Tour musical soirée.

Interview by Marta Pellerini (BSR Fine Arts Adviser).

An Italian at the Court of Queen Victoria: a performance by Barbara Gentili at the BSR, June 2021

As Covid restrictions were modified, the BSR was able to begin to use its Lecture Theatre again. On 15 June, a small audience gathered for An Italian at the Court of Queen Victoria performed by soprano Barbara Gentili, pianist Maurizio Carnelli and narrator Ivan Hewett.

Barbara Gentili, Maurizio Carnelli and Ivan Hewett performing at the BSR in June 2021.

At its core were a selection of the charmingly sentimental and nostalgic songs of Francesco Paolo Tosti (1846–1916), who enjoyed enormous fame as a song composer in the later 19th and early 20th centuries, especially in London where he settled in the late 1870s. The songs were woven into the story of Tosti’s life, told in words and images, beginning with his first successes as a singer, composer and singing teacher in Rome, where his talent was praised by no less a figure than Giuseppe Verdi. Tosti moved to London to escape the scandal caused by his relationship with Queen Margherita of Savoy and spent a good part of the following 38 years in England serving as the singing master to the Royal Family and organising musical entertainments for Queen Victoria.

“For ever and for ever”, caricature of Francesco Paolo Tosti by Ape in Vanity Fair, 1885.

To set Tosti’s more gentle style in relief, Barbara and Maurizio also performed songs by Tosti’s famous contemporaries Giacomo Puccini and Ruggero Leoncavallo, who valued Tosti’s contacts in London (‘a Londra, Tosti è tutto’ said Pietro Mascagni).

In the musical soirées he arranged for the Queen, Tosti assembled performers of international renown and brought to Windsor Castle the latest Italian operas, such as Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana or Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci. His genius for melodic freshness was matched by his astonishing talent at networking. Tosti operated as a ‘Mr Fixit’ for performers and composers coming to London, including Caruso, Calvé, Grieg, Mascagni, Puccini and many others. Despite his devotion to London, his knighthood, and his British citizenship, Tosti remained close to his poet and artist compatriots, as the long-lasting friendships with poet Gabriele D’Annunzio and painter Francesco Paolo Michetti demonstrate.

From left: A. Franchetti, G. d’Annunzio, G. Puccini, F. P. Tosti, F. P. Michetti, C. Barbella, G. Ricordi. Milan 1906. From the archive of the Instituto Nazionale Tostiano.

The same programme was given at the St Marylebone Festival in London on 21 July 2021.

City of Rome Postgraduate Course 2021

Text and photos by Noah Cashian.

There were only three of us on the City of Rome course this year (2021) – hardly enough to fill the deserted ruins, galleries, and churches of an empty city. As BSR Director Chris Wickham reminded us, however, Rome hadn’t been seen in this way for generations, and (hopefully) it won’t be seen like this again for many years to come. Our stay at the BSR was extremely special for this reason: we saw Rome’s ancient monuments truly abandoned, with all the new perspectives this entailed. Some of these will be quite obvious. If you’re standing completely alone in the Pantheon or the Lateran, for example, you’ll start to see things which are almost impossible to notice otherwise.

A deserted Palazzo Altemps and a lonely statue

In terms of the bigger picture, though, we also gained a real appreciation for how important these ancient remains are for modern-day Romans and their city. I only realised this when I saw the ruins without their usual crowds: Rome’s monuments became vulnerable objects which had been lost for centuries before, and which could easily be lost again. This would all be very bleak, but the pandemic also granted us remarkable opportunities to see how everyday people from across the city were engaged with Rome’s past and its preservation. Living rooms, gardens, restaurants, palatial courtyards, and government basements were all on our hitlist, and we were extremely fortunate to see just how much the ancient and modern cities (and their peoples) remain connected with one another.

With Robert Coates-Stephens’ expertise we gained much more than perspective. I’d been studying Roman topography for roughly six months before I came to the BSR and had visited Rome several times, but I couldn’t imagine the ancient city as anything more than a jumble of names. Our daily fieldwork quickly fixed this, despite my terrible sense of space. Each day (and every week) was carefully choreographed to build upon what came before: we started with tours of the city walls, and literally worked from the bottom up as we huddled around blocks of tufa. Weeks later, when we reached the forum Romanum, our seemingly innocent sightseeing all came together. Once we got our eye in, previously indistinguishable lumps of marble and stone became indispensable markers of architectural style, period, and culture. The more we learnt, the more we could see – you’d think this is obvious, but you really don’t notice this sort of thing until you look at a wall of spolia and automatically begin to pick out the oddities (see below).

It’s from these smallest details that Robert would always draw out the most interesting questions. Some minutiae would be remarkable for their importance, and how much could hinge upon tiny fragments – think Forma Urbis Romae. Other details had an antiquarian appeal even if they weren’t strictly ‘important’, and these were the ones I always preferred:

What else was catalogued alongside this statue? Who scratched a lighthouse into the walls of the grand Ostian house – one of the owner’s children, or a sailor after the home was abandoned? The cutaway of a human stomach speaks for itself, and I wonder if the patron was a medical expert or if this kind of knowledge was simply a given in educated circles.

I never expected to be so carried away with the city’s material culture – I’ve spent the past five years focusing on texts and ideas – but I can say without a doubt that the three of us felt the same way by the end of the course. Our different topics (the middle republic, late antiquity, and Victorian classical reception) were all given more than comprehensive coverage by Robert, and I’m sure that the City of Rome course will appeal to anyone interested in ancient history, and probably everyone else beyond it; we were regularly joined by the BSR’s artistic and academic residents, and even a few stragglers from around Rome. Our experience can’t be separated from the community and atmosphere of the BSR itself, which we all felt so lucky to have – our daily dinners were always great fun and fittingly Spartan for the ancient historians. It’s quite easy to say that the City of Rome is one of the best things I’ve ever done, and it has greatly encouraged me to apply for doctoral study.

Meet the artists: Eleni Odysseos

An interview with Eleni Odysseos, Abbey Fellow in Painting, in which she speaks about the works she has produced during her residency at the BSR from April–June 2021.

Photo by Antonio Pamieri.

Your research in Rome is inspired by art historian Anthi Andronikou’s article on the visual similarities in twelfth century medieval ecclesiastic painting in Cyprus and Puglia. Could you tell us more about this?

Anthi Andronikou maps similarities in ecclesiastical painting between Puglia, Cyprus, and Jerusalem, and suggests possible reasons for why those similarities exist.

The article suggests that these visual similarities were not circumstantial, but rather traces of collaboration, of a nomadic lifestyle where artists were borrowing from – and working with – one another. Even though their hagiographies would often address dissimilar audiences and different divisions of Christianity, they would do it using identical signs, therefore rendering their signifiers as “arbitrary”. 

Detail of wall painting, Abbazia di Sant’Angelo in Formis. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The rendering of those signifiers as “arbitrary” in the linguistic theory of signs, as Andronikou describes it, became a starting point for my interest in symbolic imagery. More specifically, it unfolded into an interest in how abstracted symbolic imagery becomes appropriated by different political systems, cults, and religions across time and space, to signify changing narratives. Symbolic imagery across the Roman period, through to the medieval and renaissance has accumulated in my studio, a process of embodying a language that is then materialised in painting, drawing, sound, and text.

Complesso Basilicale Paleocristiano in Cimitile. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Through this process, I am developing my own lexicon. It is a lexicon that addresses and embraces the fluidity of a present-day, surrealist femininity. Another section of Andronikou’s article I am drawn to, is the story of a group of nuns, organised by queen Alice of Champagne, who were relocated from Acre to Puglia, and who may have commissioned artists in that period – a possible reason that would explain why those visual similarities exist. Their tale triggered my curiosity, and I wanted to find out more about organised cults as well as the societal position of women in the medieval period. Rome offers many such stories, particularly from the Roman period, from Mithraism to the House of the Vestal Virgins. Dr. Maria Harvey, current fellow at the British School at Rome, prompted me to read Mary Wellesley’s This Place is Pryson published on the London Review of Books website in 2019.  The text describes the medieval ritual of an anchoress entering her cell as being very similar to a funeral procession. These medieval women would abandon their lives to reside in tiny cells until their death.  Wellesley’s description of this ritual opened new conversations within my practice: for example, how sacrifice is embedded in the female experience, how social structures and class feed these narratives, or how spirituality and wisdom are perceived differently when performed by different genders.

Detail of How Could I Forget You. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Your work seems to explore a transitional moment where anthropomorphic – mostly female – bodies are turning into entities with unclear and undefined outlines. Can you explain more?

Absolutely. My work explores desire, abjection, and isolation through symbolic figuration, choreographing a constellation of painting, text, sound, and light. I am interested in the fluid representation of hybrid creatures and the allegorical depiction of violence in medieval iconography. Animal-human identities are blurred, and creatures emerge from the fogginess of the mark-making process, from the flow of light and the luminosity of the paint. My time here in Rome has offered a wealth of symbolic references and styles of ornamentation. My studio walls and floor are filled with cut-outs, prints, drawings. The paintings are in a transitional moment, where their symbolic lexicon materialises in light, in figuration, or in the transparency of layered colours. The work is interested in entanglements. Moments of isolation, exchange, death and rebirth. Sacrifice, and companionship.

Eleni Odysseos’ studio. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Interview by Marta Pellerini (BSR Fine Arts Adviser).

BSR Alumni Profiles: Yasmin Fedda

Today marks the first day of Refugee Week (14-20 June 2021), a week to celebrate the contributions, creativity and resilience of refugees and people seeking sanctuary. To mark the occasion, we caught up with Yasmin Fedda, for her thoughts on this year’s theme, We Cannot Walk Alone, her reflections on her time in Rome and an update on her current projects.

Yasmin is an award-winning filmmaker and artist based in London, and was The Creative Scotland document24 Fellow in 2012–13.

Yasmin Fedda

Refugee Week 2021 (14-20 June) looks to explore the theme: We Cannot Walk Alone. What does this statement mean to you, in light of recent events and as you reflect on your films that  explore the refugee experience? 

Refugee Week this year invites you ‘to extend your hand to someone new. Someone who is outside your current circle, has had an experience you haven’t, or is fighting for a cause you aren’t yet involved in.’ After over a year of having to isolate from others, not being able to socialize much, where serendipity was having a pause, and crucially a year where inequality and suffering were brought to the fore, this call is a beautiful gesture to re/connect with people. Let’s bring it on, and build on our networks and communities! I recently went on a Palestine demo in London walking with thousands of people, some friends, most strangers, and there was a strong emotion of solidarity.

One reason I have been drawn to representing and working with refugee experiences is that displacement is a topic I am very familiar with, firstly through family history – my family is Palestinian and also has Syrian connections, and secondly through the experiences of friends from many parts. Experiences of displacement, whether you are classified as, or move between, different legal labels such as ‘refugee’, ‘asylum seeker’, ‘migrant’, or other, are unfortunately not unique. Many individuals and communities all over the world have experienced being displaced. Yet while these experiences are collective, they are also personal. And for me, making films is one way in which I can extend my hand to someone, to carve out the time to listen and share. Films give me the opportunity to be in someone’s world for a while, to learn about their experiences and to find a way to share it with others. Films can capture us as an audience, transport us to different worlds, and allow us to live momentarily with someone we don’t know.

My films that have touched explicitly on refugee or displaced experiences, including Queens of Syria (2014), about a group of Syrian women displaced to Jordan re-enacting the ancient Greek play The Trojan Women, and A Tale of Two Syrias (2012), which in part focuses on the life of Salem, an Iraqi fashion designer and refugee in Syria as he struggles to survive and eventually gains resettlement to a third country, both gave me the chance to engage in a deeply personal way.

A key focus of your work has been to shed light on the stories of those affected by the war in Syria. As we mark the tenth year of the war, what perspectives can you share and how can we raise awareness for the ongoing plight of the Syrian people? 

Firstly I think it is important to mark and remember that what has happened in Syria is not only a war or conflict but also a social and political struggle against an authoritarian and brutal regime that continues till today. This struggle requires our continued international support and solidarity to work towards transitional justice and accountability.

I admittedly didn’t set out with the aim to shed light on these stories on purpose. Rather, it was an organic reaction to a context I am emotionally very close to. I had to make these films. I had to follow these stories, because of my personal entanglements with Syria. I didn’t always know the people I filmed before hand, but the drive was always personal. Even if it sometimes feels futile, making films is a sort of empowering process in the face of huge brutality, a small attempt to say ‘this happened’, ‘these people’s experiences matter’, to say that we will create the archives of the future where these stories will be heard and remembered, to fight the narrative of a regime that attempts to silence them.

My personal and filmmaking relationship to Syria goes back further than 2011 and having known it for a long time I believe it is important to understand the context in Syria through it’s recent history and not only in relation to the last 10 years. The conflict did not happen in a void and it is important to recognise the historical context in which it began, alongside gaining awareness of the contemporary situation.

There are many ways to share perspectives and raise awareness particularly though engaging with the work of artists and writers from Syria, from readings books by Samar Yezbick, Yassin Al Haj Saleh, Madouh Azzam, or Dima Wannous, or the poetry of Golan Haji, to listening to music from Tanjaret Daghet, looking at the art of Tamman Azzam or Sulafa Hijazi, to supporting organisations such as The Syria Campaign, Families for Freedom, or Bassma & Zeitouneh.

As a filmmaker I have also tracked the amazing output of films from or about Syria since 2011. Before then there was a much smaller film output from the country, due to restrictive laws around the production of films, both fiction and documentary. Some of these films were very good, such as Flood in Ba’ath Country (Omar Amiralry, 2005), Sunduq al Dunya (Ossama Mohammed, 2002), or I am the one that brings flowers to her grave (2006, Hala Abdalla), but there were not many of them. The large output of films produced since 2011 have together painted segments of a complex picture of experiences, such as Dawwar Al Shams (Anonymous), For Sama (Waed Al Kateab Edward Watts), Last Men of Aleppo (Firas Fayyad & others), The Day I Lost my Shadow (Soudade Kaddan), La Dolce Siria (Ammar al Beik), and so many more.

Your recent film Ayouni was met with great acclaim: what are your reflections on the project now that the film has been shared internationally? 

Ayouni follows Noura and Machi they as search for answers about their loved ones – Bassel Safadi and Paolo Dall’Oglio, who are among the over 100,000 forcibly disappeared in Syria. Faced with the limbo of an overwhelming absence of information, hope is the only thing they have to hold on to. ‘Ayouni’ is a deeply resonant Arabic term of endearment – meaning ‘my eyes’ and understood as ‘my love’. Filmed over 6 years and across multiple countries in search of answers, Ayouni is an attempt to give numbers faces, to give silence a voice, and to make the invisible undeniably visible.

Film Still from Ayouni, 2020

Ayouni was released in 2020 during the pandemic, so it is still early days. We took part in screenings and advocacy events, with The Syria Campaign, and others, to highlight detention and forcible disappearance in Syria as these are key issues. Yet Ayouni is also about love, between a couple and between siblings. Forced disappearance is the opposite of love. It’s a tactic that aims to break families apart, to silence the disappeared and those close to them, to erase narratives that don’t fit with the dominant power structure. As a filmmaker, and with the release of the film, I found out that film does have a role. Film can fight the oblivion that forced disappearance aims for by keeping people visible and in our sights.

Has this film provoked responses and conversations with individuals or groups for whom it has a personal resonance? 

Film is made up of emotions, and at our one in person festival screening in 2020 in Florence, Machi, Paolo’s sister, told me something I hadn’t expected her to say. She said, ‘Our hearts need to keep feeling the pain and anger. And people new to these stories need to feel the pain of others,’ she said, because “as time moves on, this pain subsides and there is a danger when that happens that we begin to forget.” There is a danger that these stories might go into an oblivion. The emotional re/connection was key, even for her, as someone who had directly lived it, to keep the pain alive and present as a fuel for the struggle for answers. Film can bring Paolo and Bassel back to us momentarily, we can hear them, be with them for a while, feel their energy and passions, see their lives and the consequences of their decisions, but through the film we also feel their trace and absence.

Noura shared with me very intimate and special moments of her life, whether it was through the archive she had of herself and Bassel, a young couple in love, to allowing me to be with her through a difficult moment in her life as she faced the reality of Bassel’s disappearance and as she campaigns on the issues of detention and forced disappearance in Syria. For her the film also feels like a personal memory document, weaving together material of her and Bassel together.

I have shared the film at talks and screenings and some of the conversations have been really touching, whether someone shared their memories of visiting Mar Musa and meeting Paolo, to Bassel’s friends around the world, to sharing the film with Syrians whose loved ones have been disappeared and who are fighting for answers.

Bassel and Noura, Film Still from Ayouni (2020)

How important are personal connections or stories for our understanding of major global events? 

Major global events are made up of individual experiences, individuals come together for collective actions, so these things are an intrinsic part of each other. We need to hear the personal stories to understand major global events, and at the same time we need to understand the context about major global events to understand their effects on the personal.

Could you speak about your time in Italy as part of your research process for this film? 

I was not yet working on Ayouni while I was at the BSR but the seeds for the film were sown while I was there. Paolo Dall’Oglio is originally from Rome, his family live there and some of his community and networks are there so I connected with that. It was while I was at the BSR that I decided to reach out to Paolo to make a new film together, though at that point the idea was to make a film about a priest in the Syrian revolution, not about forcible disappearance.

While I was at the BSR I was particularly interested in squats which were being turned into community centres, arts centres, theatres, gyms and more. I made a short on a squatted boxing gym titled Siamo Tornati (2013). There was a lack of services that many people needed access to or wanted to protest from being closed down, from affordable sports centres, to childcare, to so much more. The DIY ethos was inspiring and it was great to see how people were finding community based solutions.

Do you think there is value in working in an inter-disciplinary context (like the BSR) for the creative process? 

I think it is difficult, if not impossible, to work in only one discipline or with only one approach. As I research and develop a project I explore and am inspired by multiple disciplines or approaches. Becoming too focussed in one area may limit our understandings or lines of enquiry. Working across disciplines makes so much sense. I recently heard a talk by Dr Omar Dewachi (see below) who was once a physician, now a medical anthropologist, and is also a musician, whose interests cross between history, biology, medicine, arts, and the social and political, who inspiringly said he is ‘anti- discipline’. Rather than work in silos we should cross-pollinate, share and learn from other perspectives. Not to take away from the importance of expertise in an area, but with that we must always talk to each other to get unexpected insight or questions for our work. The BSR is a great place for these crossovers!

Arriving at the BSR, 2013

Do you have plans in progress for your next project, or do ideas form organically based on your interactions with others?

I am in the very early days of two new projects and looking for support to get these off the ground, so any readers with suggestions, please let me know! Both are film/ art based projects – one exploring the legacy of British empire in Palestine through the story of my great-grandfather and the British pensions system; the other is exploring the work of medical anthropologist Omar Dewachi and a dangerous pathogen of war that thrives in the particular environments of conflict areas – which are the consequences of sanctions, invasions, artillery and more, such as in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Gaza, and which has far reaching consequences to ask the question – can we end all wars to save our health?  

Thank you to Yasmin Fedda for taking part in this feature. Interview by Zoe Firth and Bryony Smith.

You can watch Ayouni here @ayounifilm.

A collection of Yasmin’s films titled Yasmin Fedda: An Ethnographic Eye has several of her films on it: Ayouni, Queens of Syria, Breadmakers, A Tale of Two Syrias, and some other shorts are available to view here for UK audiences:

Meet the artists: Bea Bonafini

An interview with Bea Bonafini, our Abbey Scholar in Painting, in which she speaks about the works she has produced during her residency at the BSR from April–June 2021.

Your work revolves around the body and its life after death. In a time of pandemic, in which proximity between bodies is dangerous and problematic, has your approach to your research changed?

Psychotherapist Esther Perel’s research around eroticism as an antidote to death anxiety has mixed with our current condition of mistrusting touch and proximity in my mind. My approach has been to activate the playfully sexy, part dangerous, part comforting intertwining of fluid bodies. I keep recording any anxieties lurking in my unconscious through dream journals, observing connections to the collective unconscious and mutations throughout this period of pandemic and personal loss. The pandemic has sometimes been framed as a fight against an invisible enemy, when it’s actually establishing a new balance with our changing environment and inventing methods for a safe coexistence with this new virus. If the unconscious is the space that elaborates death anxiety, then my recent research sightsees this space, capturing the resurfacing absurd monsters that normally swim in the abyss of our interior psychosphere.

What strikes me most about your works is the process of making. I saw you playing with textiles, cork and other materials in the manner of an expert artisan seeking to develop your own techniques and effects. Where does this interest in craftsmanship come from?

The fundamental magnetism I feel towards soft materiality is rooted in the inherent tenderness of these materials. For the same reason, I can extend this magnetism to craft techniques, which are entirely imbued with tenderness. The painstaking details that artisans pay attention to, their love for mastering precision, the infinite patience they learn to work with, is all included in the notion of tenderness. Artisanal practices have become an act of political resistance to society’s obsession with fast and quantitative productivity. Like the Slow Food movement that was founded in Italy in 1986, artisanal practices are a reminder that slow working methods, with extreme attention to detail and quality express an immense power of tenderness.

Interview by Marta Pellerini (BSR Fine Arts Adviser).