You can feel history seeping through the gaps in the videos, performances and installations of British artist Helen Cammock. Drawing from a range of sources – at points including the Caribbean sugar trade, black choreographers of the 1940s, blues music, Enoch Powell, Franz Fanon and the relationship between her Jamaican father and British mother – Cammock traces how power relationships emerge from the smallest and most intimate of details. The winner of this year’s Max Mara Art Prize for Women, the London-based artist discusses with Chris Fite-Wassilak her plans for the near future.
Chris Fite-Wassilak The Max Mara Prize involves a six-month residency in Italy. What do you plan to do during this time?
Helen Cammock I have this notion of exploring lament across the whole project in Italy, specifically listening to the female voice. This listening will cross centuries in different settings, voices and mediums. I'll be having singing lessons, to enable me to develop a performance around the 17th century pre-opera lament, and I will conduct historical research in institutions in Bologna, Rome and Venice, meeting academics, musicians and communities as part of the research. I will develop my own skills as a printmaker in Rome, I will meet different communities in Palermo and Reggio Emilia – some of whom are living very much in the margins and displaced for different reasons, and with whom I'd like to discuss the laments that are often part of the marginal experience. But this is not about just looking for sadness, I'm also looking for the strength and resilience in the lament. This is very much what interests me across my work currently, acknowledging the multitudinous elements of lament.
CF-W Your work draws on the politics of influence, looking at figures – most often of the 20th and 21st century – from James Baldwin to the Housemartins. How will this interest lead the research planned in Italy?
HC Barbara Strozzi and Francesca Caccini were 17th century composers from Venice and Florence. They wrote and performed a range of works throughout their careers, but I became drawn to the laments. In them, I heard the kind of longing, sadness and resilient notes I have been so interested in through poets, writers and musicians of the 20th and 21st centuries. I started to hear the 'blue notes' in Baroque music, which to me leads towards the jazz harp of Alice Coltrane. These connects across time I hope will grow and develop as I listen and sing more. I also have found the texts of poet, writer and feminist Lucrezia Marinella, born in the 16th century. She was trying to forge a place for herself as a writer in a context that was predominately inhabited by men, and her writing posed a challenge not only by its presence but also in the focus of the texts she wrote. Then I stumbled on the histories of the female experience during the Mussolini years; the demands and pressures on women that were often contradictory and controlling, and prescribed by a male-driven context – for nationalism, for motherhood and for modernity – and I want to look at the role of political language and text as a driver for these nationalist requirements. I am also interested in the exploration into a contemporary marginal female voice; these will not be the voices of influence, these will be the voices that I believe should have influence, simply because I believe that societies can never develop fully whilst certain voices, stories, experiences, wisdoms remain unheard. I want to be part of a process of adding to voices of influence.
CF-W Your work is full of singers, speakers, protesters. Your recent show at Cubitt, ‘Shouting in Whispers’, emphasized the distribution and media that deliver those voices: a video edited together news and amateur footage, stamps from around the world bought on ebay, and printed slogans. What is the role of voice, or the mediation of the voice, in your work?
HC I'm interested in the voice as author, as witness, as conduit, as ventriloquist. I'm interested in the notion of both individual and collective voice, and the role of the individual in resistance and challenge. I'm interested in the embodiment of the voice and what happens when a voice is subject to disembodiment or ‘re-embodiment’. What I call the ‘audible fingerprint’ enables me to explore the idea of authorship: introducing myself to the viewer and re-present words that were initially written by a novelist, philosopher or poet into a text in conversation, and interwoven with my own words. What is the difference in meaning and impact when different people say the same words – for example when I speak the words of Enoch Powell, Walter Benjamin, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Jamaica Kincaid, Franz Fanon or my own. What happens when different voices come together – reworked, I hope, to form new meaning or nuance. This play is my audible fingerprint – the multiple voice becoming the singular voice, an intentioned democratization of text – through a story I've constructed. It is, I suppose, an exploration of the different registers of the voice, the movement between written, spoken and sung word. It is important to me to cross time and place, to ask questions about the cyclical nature of discussion and context. The voice embodies a sense of agency: taking space in the world.
CF-W What draws you to the lament?
HC I am drawn to the poetry and music of lament; but also a personal, generational and historical lineage of sadness, longing and loss as a black woman. I know this lament does not belong only to my experience – it is something that is often ignored or undermined as part of world histories; and of course it is present most visibly in conflict, displacement and refugee stories. These are absolutely universal, historical and contemporary cycles of damage and loss; but it is also a part of the everyday for everyone at certain moments, or as prolonged or lifelong conditions. For certain communities these experiences mark their continued existence, through complex tapestries of personal, psychological and social understandings. I am interested in exposing this, unpicking this, asking people to witness this. The cycles and manifestations of it are part of our continued ‘unseeing’ of particular experiences and I think this is very damaging for a collective psyche, and affects certain communities more deeply and widely than others. But lament is constant – it never leaves the world.