Home Magazine Helen Cammock and the Max Mara Art Prize for Women 2017-2019

One of the four winners of the prestigious 2019 Turner Art Prize, Helen Cammock (1970, lives and works in London and Brighton) has travelled for six months across Italy - from Bologna to the southernmost Palermo - to compose the score of “Che si può fare (What can be done)”, her latest project, presented at Whitechapel Gallery in London and at Collezione Maramotti in Reggio Emilia (Italy), centred on the power of voice, the singing and the idea of lament across culture and time. 

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Cammock portrait, Helen Cammock, 2018, Ph. Thierry Bal. Courtesy Whitechapel Gallery

Cammock’s “Grand Tour” of Italy is the result of her winning the Max Mara Art Prize for Women 2017-2019, followed by the commission of a new work of art inspired by the experience. The starting point was the significant encounter - while Cammock was taking classical singing lessons in Bologna - with two historical figures of the Italian Baroque, the musicians Francesca Caccini (Florence, 1587) - said to be the first female composer of opera - and Barbara Strozzi (Venice, 1619). Strozzi never left Cammock. “She was the beginning of my journey and she endures throughout”, reveals the artist, who poignantly performed, with Jazz and Blues echoes, the piece by Strozzi “Che si può fare? (What can be done)” both at Whitechapel Gallery and Collezione Maramotti.


Helen Cammock, Che si può fare, exhibition view, Collezione Maramotti, 2019. Ph Dario Lasagni


Helen Cammock, Che si può fare, exhibition view, Collezione Maramotti, 2019. Ph Dario Lasagni


Descending Italian peninsula, Cammock have met other women - activists, artists and migrants - mostly marginal and repressed voices but meaningful and full of vibrancy. The dancer Federica Parretti, for example, who is the promoter of “Palmerino”, a non-profit organization and retreat for arts and studies in Florence, and the Carmelite Sisters supporting refugees women in Palermo through social and cultural integration projects. Sewing tote bags is, indeed, a source of mending wounds, meditating and articulating personal stories. Women express their own and specific sense of lament. “Every culture has lament and the forms are numerous. There is a dramatic lament, pre-opera lament, the lament in early religious music”, explained Cammock in conversation with the curator Bina Von Stauffenberg. Like the famous lament of the queen of Carthage Dido - dreadfully abandoned, according to the poet Virgil, by her lover Aeneas - Barbara Strozzi’s Italian lament “Che si può fare” is an earnest plea for answers and consolation. What can be done with her life, with her pain?. Cammock explores the different spirits and shades of the past lament in order to find a way out, forward. Traditionally, her multimedia practice incorporates text, poetry and song, printmaking, photography, film and performance. As well as her own writing. For the Italian show, she has worked with a diverse medium on different levels. Visually, lyrically and with graphic signs by composing an artist’s book in 4 editions - thanks to the formidable help of a Central Institute for Graphic’s printer in Rome.


Helen Cammock, Che si può fare, exhibition view, Collezione Maramotti, 2019. Ph Dario Lasagni


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Cammock has created Chorus, a 3 screen HD video installation characterized by minimal and quite forms, in which an ensemble of women’s voices merges as a sign of protest, resilience and hope. These individual yet collective human sounds, that turn into something physical and majestic, prove the power of lament. Not only it goes along with mourning but it has also a strong flow - as Cammock shows - a nucleus of strength. Impregnated with desire and always yearning for action. Four beautiful vinyl cut prints - Harp, Voice, Trumpet and Ubuntu (a South African word meaning in essence “humanity”) - a combination of language and visual poetry, summarize, with fine and precise lines, the idea behind the whole project; reconnect Baroque harp music with Jazz and Blues’ trumpet, the past frame with the present narrative, different geographies with multiple histories, trying to remove frictions between races, genders and classes, through the universal and shared expression of lament.

“There is no such thing as an unheard voice, really; it’s just about who hears it. And that is the thing that I am interested in - more people hearing voices that otherwise wouldn’t be heard” (Helen Cammock, February 2019). 

Written by Petra Chiodi

Cover image: Helen Cammock, Chorus 1, 2019, film still, HD video, 3 screens. Courtesy and © Helen Cammock.

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