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).

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).

Meet the artists: Milly Peck

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.

Photo by Antonio Palmieri.

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.

Leather Goods, pencil on 220gsm paper.

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.

Detail from display at Il Museo delle Cere. Photo by the artist.

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.

Theatrical mask from The Room Of Muses at The Vatican Museum. Photo by the artist.

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. 

Detail of research books in studio. Photo by the artist.

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).

Meet the artists: Amber Doe

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).