June Mostra 2016 / Meet the artists … Deborah Prior

Over the next few days we will be introducing you in turn to our seven resident artists who will be exhibiting in the June Mostra on Friday 17 June. With the mostra opening in three days we met with Deborah Prior to learn about how she has spent her three-month residency and what her influences have been for the upcoming show.

Deborah Prior (Helpmann Academy Resident)

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Deborah Prior uses textiles to create ‘slipped anatomies’, sculptures that explore the physical and psychological realities of being and inhabiting a body – of our materiality with all its attending weight and anxiety.  Informed by the politics of the corporeal female body, and the status of domestic craftwork, this recent work considers the notion of sacred and profane relics.

You have spent a lot of your residency here travelling round Italy looking at churches and relics within churches, is that what you were planning on doing when you applied for your award here?

I had an exhibition about six months prior to applying for the residency where I was starting to get quite interested in Christianity within the context of my art practice, where I was very much engaged in the social and cultural implications of the corporeal (female) body. Previous research into the medical and scientific representations of the body – where it is quite often displayed in a fragmented state – led to an interest in relics and incorruptible saints. So my plan for Rome was to consider how the body has been used in both religious and secular spaces.

I had a rather sensible and dour Protestant upbringing, so I became really fascinated with Catholicism, particularly with the really rich and vibrant sensory offerings within Catholic churches. And since being in Rome, although I have been utterly overwhelmed with the architectural spaces (the Baroque in particular!) of the churches I have visited and might know a little more about Catholicism than when I started, I have been really taken with Catholic devotional practices such as the veneration of particular saints, and the private ex voto offerings or flowers that I have observed people bringing into these spaces.

Your work for the upcoming mostra is a textile sculpture. Where did your idea for this this piece come from and how have you progressed with it over the last few months?

Several weeks before I arrived in Rome I started looking at representations of the she-wolf. And of course the Lupa Capitolina is this ubiquitous piece of Roman iconography that you cannot help but see when you are walking about the city. During my PhD I wrote at length about theories of the monstrous and grotesque feminine: they have not always had the negative connotations ascribed to them as in recent history, and are really rather potent sites for disruption or subversion. I’d also read about the grotteschi discovered in the Domus Aurea during the 15th century so having looked at all this imagery of a beastly, almost monstrous feminine figure of the lupa, I felt compelled to engage with her and I think I’ve created a quasi-shrine to the she-wolf.

It’s quite a disjointed sculpture in some regards, because it isn’t solely about the she-wolf. It is also influenced from my visits around the churches of Rome: how you’ll have a Renaissance chapel next to a Baroque one, sometimes this is a rather jarring effect, and this is very present in my work. There are aspects of the reliquary too, with an embroidered stain.

The main shape of your work is very resemblant of a cushion, is there a particular meaning to this as well?

I have been using pillows and blankets in my work a lot recently. Within the context of Rome, I have been particularly interested in ‘sleeping’ saints: either effigies or the incorruptibles that are almost presented as though they are sleeping …. not to mention all the tombstones inlaid into floors. Sometimes they are so well-worn you can only just discern the outline of a (blank) face and the trace of crossed arms, but they are also resting on pillows. It is a different kind of wear, but I also use salvaged textiles and linens in my sculptures a lot because I see them as traces of the body, or sort of profane relics.

Pillows and blankets are also very specifically domestic materials. In contrast to the instances of “High Art” within churches such as painting and sculpture I have observed a theme of domestic care and maintenance within these buildings: from caretakers washing marble floors to the restocking of candles or the presence of potted and cut flowers. For some of my time in Rome I have been working on a piece of embroidery worked directly onto a BSR blanket. It has been such a privilege to have so much time to devote to the studio here at the BSR and a lot of this is due to the efforts of the domestic staff here: it is with their care that the artists and scholars here are able to get on with our research unheeded.

Your mostra piece has this large embellished stain on the top side, were you intending to have this juxtaposition between the decoration and the stain?

Definitely. Some of the larger relics – that are recognisably human-  that I have seen in Roman churches are quite confronting in themselves, but then they are housed in these elaborate reliquaries which are then variously decorated with very fine metal work, jewels, and expensive textiles like silks and velvets. I suppose this material inspiration that I have used is both for visual effect, but it also might be a way of dealing with our sort of leaky, corporeal existences.

There appears to be a two-layered element to your piece. The way you have designed it to hang resembles the chains of a thurible, whereas the underside is very recognisable as being influenced by the Capitoline Wolf statue. Did you want these things to be separate?

I work fairly intuitively, so I was heading towards particular type of hanging and then in hindsight realised it was influenced by the liturgical objects I had seen. Its distinct layers are also a reflection on the historical or architectural layers of the city. Like Rome, it is a sculpture of lots of different fragments. And the fragments I’ve used, when considering the body…well it’s become a composite or monstrous creature of its own right.

Finally from living at the BSR, have you found it a stimulating environment to work in, and what have you enjoyed most?

In terms of working here the best thing has really been the other people I have met and the fascinating connections you discover between your separate projects, be they artists or archaeologists or classicists. It has really expanded how I think about my practice and how I might take a multidisciplinary approach to future projects. I have had a lot of really fruitful dinner table conversations with fellow residents. I think the intellectual curiosity and generosity of all the staff and residents here makes the BSR a very unique place to live and work.


Deborah’s work will be exhibited alongside the other six resident artists in the June Mostra opening on Friday 17 June 18.30-21.00. Opening hours: 16.30-19.00, Saturday 18 June until Saturday 25 June 2016, closed Sundays.

Photo by Antonio Palmieri, interview conducted by Katherine Paines.

Notes from Australasia: Christopher Smith recounts his recent trip to New Zealand and Australia

Director Christopher Smith recently embarked on a visit to the other side of the world to reunite with friends and contacts from the BSR antipodean community. Below, he shares some memories from his trip.

‘The BSR has always been enriched by its Commonwealth connections; it was an essential part of our original foundation to be an open and broad-based international organisation and it has been a joy for me to see this in operation week after week in our community.

From time to time, it is also an important but rather thrilling task for directors to visit countries from which we receive so much, and in January and February 2016 my wife Susan and I were in New Zealand and Australia.

In Christchurch, which we had visited between the first and second of the awful earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, I was able to catch up with Enrica Sciarrino, a colleague on the Fragmentary Roman Orators Project, led by Catherine Steel in Glasgow. Enrica, artist Simon Ogden and I were welcomed by Andrew Drummond in his astonishing studio, a converted railway carriage factory. It was the first of many occasions on which it was brought home to us how rich and deep the artistic and academic culture is, and how many friends the BSR has earned worldwide.

Following a few days of private travels in the South Island – where I caught my first ever fish (and probably last if truth be told!) – we flew to Auckland for Politics and Power in the Early Roman Republic (509-264 BC) a conference organised by Jeremy Armstrong. This was a rich intellectual feast on a subject seldom covered, and it was exciting to see how many old BSR friends were there. Jeremy himself brings his Auckland students to Rome every other year. Fay Glinister and Guy Bradley were both award-holders and Kathryn Welch and Ron and Therese Ridley have been supporters for many years, and Maxine Lewis is now a new regular visitor. I am very grateful to Jeremy and the University of Auckland for supporting my visit so generously.

Away from Roman thoughts there was also the welcome opportunity to visit the BSR’s good friend Mary Kisler at the wonderfully refurbished Auckland Art Gallery. Mary has charge of the astoundingly rich historical collection, which includes an outstanding Guido Reni. Her book, Angels and Aristocrats, is a fascinating account of the arrival of European art into New Zealand.

Our next stop was Melbourne for the annual conference of the Australasian Society for Classical Studies, where I was speaking again on early Rome. An impeccably organised conference, ASCS is now in its 50th year, and demonstrates Australasian Classics is in very good health. Three particular strengths seem to me a passionate commitment to the languages of Latin and Greek, a really sharp appreciation of the nuances of politics, and a growing base in late Roman and Byzantine studies. It was good to see many former BSR award-holders and City of Rome students too.

Christopher lecturing to a packed crowd

Christopher giving a lecture at the ASCS annual conference.

Melbourne has a particularly strong network of BSR award-holders and friends and a chance for people to catch up and make new connections was afforded by a reception very kindly hosted for us by Di Bresciani at her wonderful home. Di and Lino’s support of the BSR is of long standing; she and Caroline Egerton worked together on an earlier development campaign and we regularly welcome one of Di’s talented Youth Music Foundation scholars. Di and Lino’s generous hospitality allowed us also to celebrate Lisa Beaven’s recent grant to work on some of our archive prints and photos. I was also delighted to spend time with Su Baker and Jon Capattan at the Victorian College of the Arts and our relationship with Melbourne will I’m sure go from strength to strength.

Felicity Peters, Sue Russell and Christopher at the Melbourne reception

Melbourne reception: Felicity Peters, Christopher Smith and Sue Russell (left to right)

Sydney next – a very different city of course, but no less warm a welcome. Lea Beness and Tom Hillard are regular visitors to the BSR, and very generously hosted us; and I had very kind audiences at the Universities of Sydney and Macquarie.

A characteristic of recent times has been the presence at the BSR of the Macquarie Gale Rome Scholar. It was terrific to see Janet Gale with many of the scholars she has supported so staunchly, and especially since one of their number, Claire Rowan, now at Warwick, has just won a major ERC grant – a testament to the role of such generosity, and our resources, in supporting early career researchers. Just before starting our trip we had had the great pleasure of seeing Suzy Coleman and Jeffrey Hilton who sponsor a similar scholarship for a Sydney University scholar. These thoughtful sponsorships enable excellent Australian scholars to spend extended periods at the BSR deepening their command of their subjects and enriching the BSR’s international community.

Tom Hillard, Lea Beness, Christopher and Susan celebrate Macquarie

Tom Hillard, Lea Beness and Christopher and Susan Smith (left to right) celebrate Macquarie.

It was also great to visit the National Art School Sydney, where Director Michael Snelling hosted a lunch for the NAS award-holders at the BSR, and I was able to stop by the Australia Council for the Arts (ACA) to thank them for nearly twenty years of support.

With the kindness of the University of Sydney’s Classics department and especially Tom, Lea and Kathryn Welch, we hosted a reception for Sydney based BSR friends. It was a delight to see recent award-holders as well as those whose BSR links go back somewhat further! Many of the nearly seventy ACA artists came to one or other of the receptions, as well as representatives and award-holders from the William Fletcher Foundation which supports a three-month arts award at the BSR. Time and again, award-holders told us how important their time in Rome had been for their careers, and it was really moving to see this depth of affection for the BSR.

Finally, we flew to Adelaide where our newest partner, the Helpmann Academy, generously organised a fascinating visit to the major art schools, and a chance to see even more award-holders and friends, as well as catch a glimpse of the run-up to the Adelaide Festival. We were thrilled to encounter the rich and varied cultural life of a city we had never visited before (Susan highly recommends the Penfolds’ tasting tour!), and I was honoured to have been involved in the selection of a new Helpmann Academy Resident, who will join us in the spring.

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New Helpmann Academy Resident Deborah Prior (centre) surrounded by members of the Helpmann Academy and Christopher Smith.

So many memorable occasions remain with us – visiting the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, seeing fireworks in Sydney, catching the two remarkable shows, Warhol and Wei Wei at the NGV in Melbourne and Grayson Perry at Sydney MCA, visiting the glass foundry at the Jam Factory in Adelaide. The sheer beauty of these two countries, and the vitality of the culture we encountered everywhere from street art to magnificent museum collections to challenging academic conferences, remain with me. Above all, Susan and I were moved by and grateful for the warmth of our welcome at every stage. We hope we will see old and new friends again at via Gramsci, and the BSR will always continue to be a bridge for the Commonwealth into the heart of Rome.’

Christopher Smith (Director)