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Art review: Max Mara Art Prize for Women at the Whitechapel Gallery

26 July 2019

Hidden female voices sing out to Jonathan Evens in Whitechapel

Photo by Stephen White. Courtesy Whitechapel Gallery

Installation view, Helen Cammock Che si può fare at Whitechapel Gallery

Installation view, Helen Cammock Che si può fare at Whitechapel Gallery

CHE SI PUÒ FARE is the result of a six-month Italian residency undertaken by Turner Prize nominee Helen Cammock. This residency followed receipt of the Max Mara Art Prize for Women, a biennial award in collaboration with the Whitechapel Gallery for young female artists working in the UK.

Cammock was a social worker before training to be an artist, and her interest in people and awareness of hidden histories now characterises the work that she makes across a wide range of disciplines, which include moving images, photography, writing, poetry, the spoken word, song, performance, printmaking, and installation. Her interest is primarily in excavating, reinterpreting, and re-presenting lost, unheard, and buried voices.

In this project, that motivation led her to explore the way in which emotion is expressed in Italian culture and society, with a particular focus on lament. Her residency was divided between six Italian cities — Bologna, Florence, Venice, Rome, Palermo, and Reggio Emilia — enabling her to identify hidden female voices across Italian histories and create, through collage, layering, and juxtaposition, a collective lament reflecting our times.

The hidden voices that she uncovered include 17th-century nuns banned from playing the compositions of Lucrezia Vizzana, and a Carmelite nun currently working with refugees in Palermo. These stories and interviews, with others, including social activists, migrants, refugees, and women who fought dictatorship, have been layered with music, poetry, and footage of Italy to form a contemplative oral and visual collage that memorialises the power of women’s voices from the Baroque period to the present day.

This split-screen film sits at the centre of an installation that also includes a triptych of vinyl cut prints and a screen-printed frieze with words and images drawn from the women Cammock encountered.

Photo by Stephen White. Courtesy Whitechapel GalleryInstallation view, Helen Cammock Che si può fare at Whitechapel Gallery

The records of Italy’s nunneries reveal hundreds of organists, singers, and composers, but these records generally remain unavailable to the public. The tale of Lucrezia Vizzana and the convent of Santa Cristina della Fondazza in Bologna is of particular interest, being one of discovering ways, through loopholes and interpretation, to work around the restrictions and barriers regularly erected by their diocesan superiors.

Their story reminded me of the actions and experience of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, including Sister Corita Kent, in Los Angeles during the 1960s (plus ça change). The nun in Palermo shows a similar spirit to these forebears in relation to support for refugees in today’s hostile environment, and enthusiastically credits her commitment to the examples of Teresa of Ávila and Jesus Christ.

During her residency, Cammock learnt to sing “Che si può fare”, an aria written by the 17th-century Baroque composer Barbara Strozzi. Strozzi, like Vizzana and Francesca Caccini, another composer whose work is revived here, were all celebrated in their day, but have fallen into obscurity. Their compositions have only recently being acknowledged and performed again.

‘Che si può fare’ translates as “What is to be done?” This call to arms sums up the mood of Cammock’s installation characterised as it is by resistance to patriarchy and fascism. Cammock is performing Strozzi’s music with a jazz trumpeter twice during the installation’s display period, and the film also ends with her own rendition of this same call to arms.

Courtesy the artist. © Helen Cammock.Helen Cammock, Chorus, 2019; HD video; 3 screen

A response to the contemporary political situation in Italy, Che si può fare, like much of Cammock’s work, consistently addresses the complexities of our geopolitics. The Long Note, for which she received her Turner Prize nomination, also brings women’s distinctive and diverse voices and perspectives to the fore, while Shouting in Whispers, exhibited alongside The Long Note, traverses the history of conflict from the period of the Vietnam War to the present day. All these works reveal Cammock’s ability to relay universal struggles and give a voice to the voiceless.

One of the women interviewed by Cammock, who fought fascism in the period of the Second World War, ends by reflecting on the current political situation and saying, “Having had nothing, we gave you everything.” Her sense is that those to whom much has been given come to feel entitlement instead of gratitude. Cammock, whose path to art and current success has been winding, is not among the entitled. Her focus is on others: she thrives and feels alive when meeting people — and hearing their voices. What is to be done? For Cammock, it is to hear the hidden voices of those on the edge.


Che si può fare: Max Mara Art Prize for Women: Helen Cammock”, is in Gallery 2, Whitechapel Gallery, 77-82 Whitechapel High Street, London E1, until 1 September. Phone 020 7522 7888. www.whitechapelgallery.org

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