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.
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.
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.
The same programme was given at the St Marylebone Festival in London on 21 July 2021.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
Interview by Marta Pellerini (BSR Fine Arts Adviser).
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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: https://www.truestory.film/yasmin-fedda
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).
An interview with Milly Peck, The Bridget Riley Fellow, in which she speaks about the works she has produced during her residency at the BSR from April–June 2021.
Your practice might be located at the intersection between two and three-dimensions and you usually work with painting, sculpture and installations. Last year, during lockdown in London you started to make drawings. What made you settle on this technique and how do you intend to develop it during your six-month residency in Rome?
I think this shift in my work was partly prompted by the unpredicted restrictions on accessing my studio and my tools during lockdown but also served as a timely reaction to making work in quite a stubbornly graphic, reductive way for a number of years with a deliberately limited colour palette. I consider all of my work to be extended forms of drawing in some sense, whether it is with tools used for cutting sculptural materials such as a router which carves grooves into surfaces or using more traditional means. I began drawing on paper in the same way I approach making sculpture-by thinking about the drawn line as a physical cut which needs to be worked around. So most of my drawings using coloured pencil over the last year or so have these almost segmented sections which sit around the drawn line. In this way they become almost diagrammatic or seem to have the potential to be broken apart and be put back together. This attempts to draw attention to their flatness and prevents them being convincingly illusionistic.
Another important difference between my sculptural work and these drawings I have made over the last year or so is the shift in the scale of imagery. Ordinarily, I generally work with a one to one human scale whereas within the drawings, the pictorial scale varies which allows for a huge amount of freedom in terms of what I am depicting within a smaller rectilinear frame. My intention for my residency period at the British School at Rome was to develop my drawings on paper in direct relationship to my more sculptural work, allowing the two to overlap and feed into one another. Often my sculptures act as a framework or viewing device, either framing other aspects of an installation or the viewer themselves. In this way, I wanted to experiment with making sculpture which can directly act as a frame, stage or display system for drawings. Inevitably, on arriving in Rome, my drawing has expectedly shifted furthermore. I have been making detailed tonal, observational drawings of mostly mundane objects I have been encountering on a day to day basis at real scale. Drawing is functioning as a method of recording my time here and through amassing drawings, I am recognising commonalities between the objects I select. Objects which are fakes, mimicking or parodying other things, objects which themselves are packaged and framed and objects which have the potential to duplicate, inflate or collapse into themselves. Alongside these drawings, I have been looking at physical display systems within museological, touristic contexts as well as in commercial settings such as shop windows. I have also been photographing the facades of mainly residential apartment buildings looking at the architecture of the balconied exteriors and how these might relate to some of my research around the stage set design of early roman theatre.
Your prop-like constructions are reflective of your broader interests in the theatre and the stage. During our studio visit you mentioned your interest in Greek and Roman ancient theatres in Italy. What interests you in particular about them and which theatres do you want to visit during your residency?
I have grown increasingly more interested in the area of theatre over the last few years for a number of different reasons. Some areas of research in my previous work, for example Foley sound production (the recreation of sound effects made in post production in film and TV etc.) and also the comedies of British playwright Alan Ayckbourn, have been instrumental in helping me think about the apparatus of performance rather than performance itself whether that be focussing on the use of props or the physical structure of the stage and how these mechanisms can be used to position or frame the performer and audience. Ayckbourn’s plays are written to be performed in the round, much like early Greek theatre but his farcical and often satirical comedies feel somewhat inevitably reflective of early Roman comedic theatre as well as sharing qualities with other peripheral theatrical Italian traditions which informed and accompanied this such as Atellan farce, mime, pantomime and the Etruscan practice of Fescennine verse. Whilst I am researching the representation of these theatrical traditions I am paying particular attention to any clues of the design of the stages they took place on.
I am also interested in how the progression of the physical stage in Western history has undergone a sort of flattening where the emphasis seems to have shifted away from the more open shape of Greek theatres and focused towards the embellishment of the scaenae frons (stage backdrop) more typical to the modern proscenium stage we see commonly today which functions more like a picture frame. Whilst it has been important for me to gain an understanding of the physical construction of early Roman theatres by visiting theatre remains at sites such as Ostia Antica or the theatre of Marcellus in Rome, I am most interested in the use of temporary wooden stage sets which existed prior to these permanent structures as well as the implementation of skenographia (scenic painting) within these stages. Whilst none of these temporary structures survive now, there are a number of frescoes which still exist either preserved in museums or in their original sites which depict parts of early wooden theatre sets or have direct reference to the theatre within them. This use of the theatre set as a subject for paintings which would have acted as a background within domestic spaces is especially interesting to me because these frescoes, especially of the Second style in this case, adeptly play with fictional, architectural illusionism. There is a comical perversity attached to truthfully imitating an already inherently artificial, temporary and architecturally false subject matter such as the stage set and so these frescoes become an incredibly multi-dimensional representation of both real and imagined space.
There are a number of frescoes in Pompeii which I am looking forward to visiting which include images of theatrical sets or references to theatre such as at the Villa of Oplontis but primarily, the aspect which interests me the most and which I feel is important in relation to my own work more broadly is the area between the real and the artificial and the points at which they overlap and can also become indistinguishable. As mentioned before, this research really serves as a background to my own examination of contemporary spaces which utilise theatrical techniques such as painted backdrops, props and dioramas such as within museums, shop window displays and other public establishments of entertainment.
Interview by Marta Pellerini (BSR Fine Arts Adviser).
An interview with Amber Doe, 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 Palmieri
After reviewing various forms of problematic representations of blackness in Italy and seeking correlations with your own experience, you turned to materials to interrogate the connections between the two, specifically linen, twine, wool and Tyrian purple. What kind of connections were revealed to you?
Thank you for the questions Marta, it is a pleasure speaking with you as always! My mom has always said no matter how old I get and all of the wonderful wisdom and awareness I carry I still somehow maintain a very childlike innocence and surprise about the world. Begrudgingly I have to admit she is right. I should know better but was completely taken by surprise by these colonial images of black females I kept seeing at all of the best cafes in Rome. It felt really jarring and I immediately thought what are these naked or nearly naked images supposed to tell me about myself?
Caffè D’Oro, courtesy of the artists
Early in my practice I found a kinship to animals and materials. One of my earliest works is called “self portrait.” I was initially inspired by the spider. The fact that it can create it’s home wherever it goes and spin this organic substance from itself to create that home is nothing short of magical. We are indoctrinated from a pretty early age about the “American Dream” and home ownership is a big component and something that is challenging in very real ways within the black community. My mom was a single mother and home ownership seemed very out of reach for us despite the fact that she works constantly. So I wondered will we ever feel at home? Even in our own bodies because black bodies are properties of the state in the US. In conjunction with my studio arts education I studied American History properly. It was like studying it for the first time. Learning that I was considered a cash crop and a commodity just like sugar, grain, cotton, and tobacco was harsh and very painful. As an artist I hope to be like an alchemist and transform meaning especially with material. So I used a fellow cash crop: cotton to create my self-portrait and be like the spider, make it travel and fit in anywhere. This is the moment where materials became my symbolism and metaphor to connect with everyone and everything on planet earth. A lot of my early work features organic cotton rope because I see it as an extension of myself. Coming to Rome I researched materials I could connect with. My uncle Clarence did our family history many years ago and we know our slaveholder and the materials. We are from off of the coast of South Carolina, Fripp Island and we worked with indigo and cotton. Indigo is a slave labour dye and so was Tyrian Purple in ancient Rome. Twine is one of the oldest textiles in human history. We are all connected to this material. Linen has a long history of production in the US and in Italy, in fact Sally Hemmings, the slave that Thomas Jefferson kept for his personal pleasure, worked with linen and passed the trade to one her daughters fathered by Jefferson. I like to put myself directly and immersively in the experiences of others, former slaves, animals, materials. I see no separation. We all want the same things to be safe, loved, respected. Tyrian Purple is what brought me here, so my connection is the deepest. It comes from a carnivorous snail called the Murex snail. Peter Paul Rubens’s painting entitled “Hercules and the Discovery of the Secret of Purple” is an ode to this wondrous discovery. In ancient Rome, Phoenician Red or Tyrian Purple could only be worn by elites because it is expensive and terribly produced. It comes from killing thousands of snails and letting them rot with ash and stale urine. 50,000 dead snails create a very small dye lot, one garment. It was awful work, so the slaves who produced it often lost their families because you could legally separate from your spouse if that was your work because the order and dye from your hands would always remain. I feel a kinship to the murex snail and the slaves that produced this expensive dye as a descendent of American chattel slavery. Arriving here and realizing that it would be impossible to create my own dye lot with Italian wool was incredibly disappointing. I didn’t realize it was still so expensive and impossible to afford and work with. I had to shift my focus and meditate on value. What is valuable? An unexpected collaboration was forced on me. How can I still work with something I can’t afford? My solution is more conceptual than with other works. How can I connect value? I thought about my value. I am worthless and invaluable within capitalism. So I am pairing the Tyrian Purple with a part of myself. Recognizing that black slaves sacrificed their bodies against their will for modern gynaecology, that doctors stole Henrietta Lacks’s blood, DNA, life force to study and cure all sorts of things within modern medicine and they never told or compensated her family ever! But labs across planet earth use her cells for everything. I am those women so are we as valuable as Tyrian purple?
La Gorgone e gli eroi - Giulio Aristide Sartorio, The Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, courtesy of the artists
Remaining on the subject of connections, can you tell us more about the relationship you draw between black women, animality and sexuality, associations that have long troubled feminist scholars?
Renowned Black author and activist, W.E.B Du Bois wrote about something called “Double Consciousness” in his seminal collection of essays “The Souls of Black Folks.” Double Consciousness is a specific psychological space that African Americans have to contend with, knowing ourselves through a racist white supremacist lens, knowing all of that history as well as knowing our own history and they don’t have to know how our histories intersect. To make it past despair and feel less alone I carry some of the best black feminist minds with me everywhere I go. Hortense Spillers, Saidiya Hartman, Christina Sharpe, Alexis Pauline Gumbs and Denise Murell. “Double Consciousness” is a tricky beast because through the lens of white supremacy a lot of the time people don’t know much or understand that layers of reference in my work so I feel exhausted from explanation and I also work with very traumatic subject matter and don’t always want to retraumatize myself with my own work. There is a very real sense of black trauma porn. I spoke with a friend from home while here and he asked if I could imagine a space of liberation for my work and my body after discussing the colonial black representation I have faced here.
Slavery used to be abstract, but since becoming a mother to my niece, it is deeply personal. I can’t imagine being sold and separated from her and mentally and physically surviving the pain of losing her. The concept is unbearable. I dry all of her tears when she is sad, sick, or scared. There have been multiple reports of police violence and black female death in the US since I arrived in Rome. The murder of Ma’Khia Bryant stands out in my mind because she was a child and she called the police for help and instead of help she was murdered by the police. I thought about Ruby, what if the country of my birth takes my life before my natural time? What do I want her to know about me? About black women, our sisters in species, sister snail, sister dolphin, sister whale and sister sheep? Why are we all sisters?
The troubles with the diaspora! After seeing my colonial self-represented I have been harassed by multiple Africans to buy bracelets I don’t want. Am I my brother and sister’s keeper? At first I bought as many things that I didn’t want as possible, but the tide turned against me. I had several incidents where they left my white companions alone and focused on me solely. They sucked their teeth in anger and pushed and touched me. Can’t they see I traveled like they did over the sea, over salty water, filled with our marine mammal kin? Pods of whales and dolphins that want the same things, family, safety, love and enough to eat. Gumbs shares in ‘Undrowned: black feminist lessons from marine mammals,” that when dolphins are pregnant they sing their babies name and the pod quiets down so the baby will know their name when they are born, know their families voices and calls, know they are loved.” My mom has sung to me my whole life, in the womb, when I emerged and to this very day she sings to me constantly. I sing to Ruby. Our dolphin and whale sisters sing. Bodies that are dumped into the sea, or drown in the Mediterranean hear our song, the same song from the middle passage. The song of the stolen desperate to live. We are killing millions of whales and dolphins every single day for the commercial fishing venture of humans. Stop eating seafood and fish today! Invest in plant based seafood. We will all die when they die. Sister murex snail deserves life. We have purple alternatives. I digress, sorry Marta.
Fresco at Casa Massimo, courtesy of the artists
“Are black women still the beached whale of the sexual universe, un- voiced, misseen, not doing, awaiting their verb” (Spillers 1984, 74). These words from Hortense Spillers’s famous 1984 essay “Interstices: A Small Drama of Words” continue to resonate in our twenty-first-century moment. What Spillers articulates in this phrase is the persistent connection drawn between black women, animality, and sexuality that has long troubled feminist scholars. Spillers argues that slavery and its legacy produce black women as an animalistic other, “the principal point of passage between the human and non-human world. In this way, black women have traditionally been situated as repositories of the natural and unevolved.” – Christine Sharpe, In the Wake.
In the work here in Rome I am interrogating my own liberation. Am I natural or unnatural? Who came before me struggling in the wake? Saartjie Baarman, my ancestors that actually came to live and work in Rome, Anarcha, Betsy, Lucy and Aethiops. Bring me to sister sheep, you provided me truly raw wool, full of death, faeces, blood and flesh. My immersive spirit felt the kinship immediately. I couldn’t use the wool in the way I originally intended because I can’t afford enough Tyrian purple for a dye lot. So I didn’t know what to do with it. Firstly I thanked her for her life and her sacrifice, I slowly started cleaning this filthy wool, telling her sweet nothings. Donatella from the BSR saw me cleaning the wool and told me a story of her childhood with her grandmother and making baby’s blankets. I had a wonderful studio visit with another Donatella and we talked about the smell, the oil and working with the wool with her sister. There! It is worth it – we are all connected with you sister sheep. They can see themselves in the work. Your death is not in vain. Thank you. I don’t need Tyrian purple to declare your value. One funny story about material connection and then I am done talking. When we first went to get dried flowers together I selected milky oats and wheat. I knew the fact they were dried was significant because flowers are a female symbol and dried would indicate no longer fresh, and exciting but was a good material representative of an old hag, someone past their prime. My sister called me a miserable hag the last time she saw me, it really stung and stuck with me, I cried. She said no one would ever love me and want to be with me. I think I have carried that longer than I should. The day after the lunar eclipse blood moon we went to Tivoli and Hadrian’s Villa. One of the academic’s gave a speech in wildflowers. I looked around and everywhere was wheat and milky oats dancing in the sun. I picked those plants in April and May. They told me I was in the right place. Maybe it’s not too late for my liberation. My work in Rome is my version of “sails”. Imagining I can create sails to carry me and the ones who look like me and who love me to a new sea.
Interview by Marta Pellerini (BSR Fine Arts Adviser).
Email interview with Marta Pellerini (Visual Art Residency and Programme Curator) and Charlie Fegan (Sainsbury Scholar in Painting & Sculpture, September 2020-September 2021)
XXXII And besides, in this case there is no mistake.
Romans do hate (as I say)
a stranger. And their reasoning is empirically
sound. What is the holiness of empire? It is to know collapse.
Everything can collapse. Houses, bodies and enemies
collapse when their rhythm becomes deranged.
Anne Carson The Fall of Rome: A Traveller’s Guide
Marta Pellerini: Where does your interest in the architect Edwin Lutyens, who designed the façade of the BSR, come from? And how do you intend to develop this interest over the period of your award?
Charlie Fegan: The majority of ancient Roman aesthetics were Greek in origin, but the triumphal arch was a distinctly Roman invention. This makes sense given that their core cultural determination was militaristic expansion and domination. Lutyens put the triumphal arch through a kaleidoscope with his Memorial to the Missing of the Somme completed in 1932, commemorating just those whose bodies where obliterated during the exercise of industrialised slaughter called the ‘Great War’ of 1914-1918. The memorial’s complex descending arches and ziggurat refract a 2000 year old template and wouldn’t look out of place in The Fifth Element (1997). Futuristic not in the denuded stylistic sense but that which has the small shock of from the actual unknown. What are memorials supposed to do? If a death isn’t memorialised is it without meaning or importance? Is a materiality of memory an adequate approach to grief? War memorials tend to be macho physically and commemorate toxic masculine pursuits like murder and destruction. Where does this cultural particularity come from?
“The Romans have never been rivalled in their shrewd employment of cruelty […] Rome was the first not only to threaten but to destroy the freedom of the world.” – Simone Weil, 1939.
Roman monuments made by those in power had untempered triumph in killing and enslavement. War memorials post-1918 ape their renaissanced aesthetics but do so with a supposedly simmering introspection and apology, the need to copy ‘classical’ forms betrays a certain insecurity. The Cenotaph on Whitehall, London was originally a temporary structure hastily designed by Lutyens after the first World War. None of it’s horizontal and vertical lines are straight but subtle curves governed by a system of entasis or optical correction employed in ancient Greek temples. After its permanent stone sequel was erected the Catholic Herald dismissed the Cenotaph as “nothing more or less than a pagan monument, insulting to Christianity […] a disgrace in a so call Christian land” as it was for “Atheist, Mohammedan, Buddhist, Jew, men of any religion or none”. Influenced by his wife Lady Emily’s interest in Theosophy, Lutyens eschewed the cross.
“The Cenotaph is remarkable for the absence of any visible emblems or symbols on it representing Triumph, or Heroism, or Victory; there are only carved wreaths and ribbons, and three flags along each flank. It speaks only of death, and loss. Nor are there any religious symbols: there is no cross, let alone a crucifix, nor representations of angels, of St George or St Micheal in armour. This is, perhaps, surprising in a nation with an established Church. The bishops, indeed were very unhappy about this and the burial of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey on Armistice Day 1920, when the permanent Cenotaph was unveiled, was the Church of England’s riposte to this official secularism. Stephen Graham later recalled Lutyens saying, ‘There was some horror in Church circles. What! A pagan monument in the midst of Whitehall! That is why we have a rival shrine in the Abbey, the Unknown Warrior, but even an unknown soldier might not have been a Christian, the more unknown the less sure you could be.” – Gavin Stamp.
There is a cold violence to their design that resonates with those who now so often evoke the ‘memory’ of the two wars; English right-wing nationalists. The red poppy hegemony is queasy. World War 2 is now the more prominent narrative around Armistice Day, the battle between good and evil is a simple story. But these memorials were all made to commemorate the much more messy and less grandiose story of World War 1. ‘Never again’ was within only two decades broken and 1939-1945 carved into the same stone.
“To the British, it was and would remain their greatest military tragedy of the twentieth century, indeed of their national military history…The Somme marked the end of an age of vital optimism in British life that has never been recovered.” – John Keegan
Britain’s world domination was bankrupted by this war and it’s Empires’ decline rapidly hastened. ‘England’s war is Ireland’s opportunity’. The function of these memorials has morphed in recent years, they have become less about remembrance of the incommensurable human toll and more sites of mourning for lost Empire and an imagined past now taken away. Armistice Day a pagan poll dance of post-colonial melancholia. This was made as clear as the planeless skies in the right wing reaction to the Black Lives Matter protests in Parliament Square June, 2020.
Was a Racist
Sprayed on the granite base of the big bronze. A picture circulated online of a kid trying to set the Cenotaph flags alight. Lutyens originally wanted the flags to be made of stone, a much more powerful poetic symbolism. Frozen flags permanently petrified in time, but was overruled by the armed forces. Charlie Gilmour wouldn’t have gone to prison for swinging off them if Lutyens’ design was implemented. A possible moment for accurate historical eduction to counter the dominant rose tinted hagiography of Churchill and the explicitly white supremacist ideology of the British Empire was instead used to create a culture war false binary. Rightly drawing attention to the fact that Churchill undoubtedly held racist beliefs was disingenuously seen as an attack on the war dead by ‘thugs and vandals’. The Cenotaph and Churchill statue were boarded up, groups of English nationalists formed counter protests and rushed to ‘protect’ war memorials across the country from a confected and non-existent threat. The memorials were used as rallying points against the powerful and vital ongoing BLM movement for racial equality, they became solely pilgrimage sites of white supremacy and the triumph of empire. This was always under the surface of the ‘Lest We Forget’ middle aged Facebook profile-picture brigade. It’s a nod to a certain set of political ideologies, not an untainted act of remembrance. This bitter melancholia for a time before World War I and the might of Empire is undoubtedly a major nostalgic emotion in the phyrric drive towards leaving the European Union, also against immigration and the duty of providing safety for refugees. In 1955, Churchill expressed his support for the slogan “Keep England White” in regards to immigration from the Caribbean that was desperately needed to rebuild the country after the war. His views were extreme for even some in the Conservative party at the time. One quote punctures the unshakeable ‘we shall fight them on the beaches’ mythos around him and was remembered by his doctor who treated his alcoholism and manic depression. Churchill confided in him one night:
“I want to sleep for a billion years. Stupendous issues are unfolding before our eyes yet we are only specs of dust that have settled in the night on the map of the world.”
It shows in sharp relief the priorities of the current Conservative government who have since have passed a law allowing a jail sentence of up to 10 years for defacing a memorial or statue when jail terms for those convicted of sexual offences such as rape start at just 5 years. War memorials can function in an important way, they can be received as warnings from previous generations now unable to speak. From those that lived through human inflicted unimaginable horror reminding us never again.
Marta Pellerini: How have you combined your study and understanding of classical history, which you’ve been focusing on these past few years, with a contemporary approach?
Charlie Fegan: The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us. Ecclesiastes 1:9-10
One of the things I find compelling about classical history is that this hulking unwavering system of life collapsed. The arrogant stares of deified emperors lay in river silt and dirt for centuries. The renaissance has a science fiction quality to it; the remnants of a technologically and culturally complex civilisation were dug up and used as an aesthetic and cultural template. We are all acutely aware of where we are heading if things don’t radically change. The ecocide continuing to take place on the planet could very easily bring about the same covering of dirt upon our own systems of life. In this moment of radical potential when the seemingly fixed structures of our lives were halted and questioned what are we going to do with it? What is more likely to happen once vaccinations have been delivered around the world? Are the yawning inequalities of race/gender/class going to be addressed and balanced? Will we stop the companies that destroy our ecosystem? Or will there be a Covid-19 memorial erected and back to business as usual?
“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.” – Ursula K. Le Guin.
Maria Harvey (Rome fellow, September 2020-June 2021) writes about her experience during a walking tour of Rome as part of the BSR’s Welcome Week activities.
As part of our Welcome Week events, we went on the traditional walk around Rome in late April (to allow for quarantines). It was a beautiful day, and with Rome still orange (no bars, no restaurants, no museums, no travel for leisure), the city was empty. After a tour of Renaissance and Baroque sites with Harriet O’Neill (Assistant Director for Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences), BSR Director Chris Wickham took us on a stroll though medieval Rome – the catch being that however central the BSR may be now, it was not in the Middle Ages, when the city centre was in the area of the Ghetto, Trastevere and Campo de’ Fiori. To get there, we imagined to be on a pilgrimage route from the north: walking down the Borghese Gardens, through Piazza del Popolo (‘the city wall was here, the square was not’), the Pantheon (‘this existed’) and Piazza Navona (‘This has been an open space since the 1st century AD; in the Middle Ages, it was used for jousting’).
From Piazza Navona, Chris took us through what were the main, processional roads of medieval Rome – roads like Via del Governo Vecchio – that seems tiny now, especially when compared to both the seventeenth-century and the fascist urban renovation. Like Chris, I am a medievalist, but an art historian, and I tend to focus (incorrectly, probably) on single monuments. Chris instead wanted us to experience where people lived and walked and experienced the city on a much more popular, quotidian level. To do this, he showed us some thirteenth-century houses, with their cortili and stairs made of reused classical marble. Houses where real people actually lived (and live). He pointed out the fragmentary remains of medieval towers, and of the very, very little that survives of the Palazzo Orsini, in Campo de’ Fiori. Later, in front of Sant’Angelo in Pescaria, he told us that the area had been a fish market before – archaeologists found 8th century fish bones – and may have always been one. We crossed only on bridges that existed at the time (like the Ponte Sisto – built in the late fifteenth century on Roman foundations), to go visit Santa Maria in Trastevere, before returning to this side of the Tiber to see the Casa de’ Crescenzi.
The Casa de’ Crescenzi, now caught in the middle of a traffic crossing with its neighbours, the Temple of Vesta and Santa Maria in Cosmedin, was once a tower house, in what used to be the city’s urban centre. Although we were not allowed in, the house’ facade is a stunning example of the Middle Ages’ engagement with the Roman past and another demonstration that the Classical past was not discovered in the Renaissance. The spolia has clearly been chosen and arranged to create decorative patterns and borders, not to mention that it is responding specifically to the Roman temple next door. Although most towers were defensive, the Casa de’ Crescenzi was for show, the door is simply too large for it to provide any sort of protection. In fact, Nicola de’ Cencio, the patron, not only clearly memorialised himself through the inscription, but also placed a bust of himself in the window. The grandiosity of the construction becomes even clearer if we consider it in its original 12th century urban context, characterised by the presence of the tower houses of two Roman aristocratic families, the Corsi and the Normanni. But Nicola, of the Baronci, was not noble: the Casa de’ Crescenzi becomes in this way a ‘serious micropolitical intervention’.
From there, we ambled back to the BSR, through the Ghetto; Roscioli pizza in one hand, ice cream in the other.
BSR Rome Fellow Karie Schultz (September 2020-June 2021) writes about her time spent researching in Rome.She will be giving a lecture entitled ‘Education and identity: the Scots and English Colleges in Rome, c. 1603–1707’, on Monday 17 May 2021. For more information and to register, click here.
In September 2020, I arrived at the British School at Rome with a great deal of uncertainty about starting a new research project during the pandemic. I had applied for a long-term fellowship before COVID-19 struck, hoping to research the studies, networks, and experiences of English and Scottish students who attended their national colleges in Rome during the seventeenth century. The universities in England and Scotland were Protestant in teaching at the time, and students had to subscribe a Confession of Faith to attend. This meant that Catholic students needed to travel to continental Europe for their education. In my project, I planned to examine how the ideas these students learned in Rome (and the experiences they had while living abroad) informed their responses to the crisis of the Catholic church back home. Unsurprisingly, the pandemic disrupted my project plans when COVID numbers in Italy took a turn for the worse throughout the autumn. Many of my archives closed, and those that remained open required appointments to be booked far in advance, quarantined documents regularly, and restricted the number of people allowed in each day.
Despite the logistical problems posed by the pandemic, I was able to complete some fascinating research, even if my project ended up looking different than I first anticipated. While I initially planned to only use the archives at the Scots and English Colleges, I quickly discovered that a wealth of material existed in other institutions throughout Rome. In March of this year, I therefore began a series of alternating archive visits to the Archivio Storico de Propaganda Fide and the Historical Archive of the Pontificia Università Gregoriana. The significant amount of previously unexamined material held in these two archives has become the foundation for my project. I have spent my time in the Propaganda Fide sifting through, transcribing, and translating ten volumes of material related to seventeenth-century English and Scottish missionaries, many of whom trained at English and Scots Colleges across Europe.
At the Gregorian University, I have focused on evidence of curriculum and teaching for English and Scottish students who took their courses at the Jesuit-run Collegio Romano. The archive includes lecture notes and manuscript treatises written by professors at the Roman College, in addition to philosophical theses which were defended publicly by students. Together, these sources have given me a better picture of the education and networks of students who came to Rome for their education and who sought to convert England and Scotland to Catholicism when they returned home.
To my surprise, the easiest part of my archive trips has been navigating COVID restrictions and walking upwards of five miles each day to avoid public transport. Instead, my archival sources have caused me the greatest difficulty. Much of this material is uncatalogued, meaning that is always a surprise what you might find each day. While the potential for a new discovery is exciting, it also poses challenges. Often it means spending an entire day sorting through material that ends up being irrelevant to the project. Some of these sources are in poor physical condition, while others were written in a terrible and illegible hand.
There is also no internet in the Propaganda Fide which makes translating multiple languages into English difficult. Finally, both archives do not allow researchers to take photographs, so I have spent most of my time simply transcribing over 30,000 words of material. As a result, I have to ensure that my transcriptions are flawless before I leave the archive since I cannot rely on photographs to help me out later! Nevertheless, I am so grateful to be able to enter an archive at all (a true novelty in pandemic times), and I am looking forward to spending the next month finishing up this project before I leave Rome. Although my experience at the BSR has certainly looked different to that of past Rome Fellows, I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to start a new research project while living in one of the most beautiful cities in the world.