Helen Cammock: 'I speak of a marginal experience'

The Turner Prize nominee and winner of the Max Mara Art Prize for Women speaks to us about giving a voice to those who have none

Helen Cammock. Photo by Thierry Bal
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When the founder of Max Mara, Achille Maramotti, thought about the legacy he wanted to leave, he didn't stop at the luxury fashion brand he founded in 1951. A keen art collector, he also opened Collezione Maramotti, a private museum in Reggio Emilia, central Italy, which now houses more than 200 paintings, sculptures and installations dating from 1954 to the present.

I believe as artists, we all make work that is borne out of our experiences – even if we don't recognise or acknowledge it – because this is the most fundamental foundation for making sense of and negotiating the world around us.

Opened to the public in 2007 (by appointment only), today the museum stands not only as a treasure trove of contemporary Italian art work, but as a co-supporter of the Max Mara Art Prize for Women. Established in 2005, this biannual prize is aimed solely and exclusively at promoting and nurturing female artists in the UK. Maramotti was shocked that so few such initiatives existed for women, so the prize has only one stipulation: entrants cannot have previously held a solo show. The most recent winner is Helen Cammock, a multi-disciplinary artist who incorporates video, spoken word and photography into her powerful projects.

What makes the Max Mara Prize so unique is that it brings three separate entities together for one common project: the Whitechapel Gallery, an art space; Max Mara, a fashion brand; and Collezione Maramotti, a private museum. Since there are such limited opportunities for female creatives, it offers a critical financial lifeline, allowing the artist to dedicate herself fully to her work – often for the first time.

As part of the award, Cammock was sent on a six-month residency around Italy, tailored specifically to her interests. From that she had to stage a solo exhibition – first at the Whitechapel Gallery and then at Collezione Maramotti. If the prize is unique, then it is fitting that Cammock is no stereotypical artist, either – she worked as a social worker in Brighton, with no thought of art, until the age of 35.

Helen Cammock  Chorus , 2019 [detail, Marta – Bologna] HD Video; 3 screen Courtesy the artist Copyright Helen Cammock

Far from playing down this un-artsy past, Cammock seems fuelled by it. As a natural story teller, she is drawn to the voices of others and is committed to giving a voice to those who are so often overlooked. "I suppose all I can say is that I bring my life with me … and this includes everything I have experienced through my work, my relationships, my exposure to the world thus far.

“I believe as artists, we all make work that is borne out of our experiences – even if we don’t recognise or acknowledge it – because this is the most fundamental foundation for making sense of and negotiating the world around us. And I am no different. I speak of a marginal experience because it has in some ways affected me, and because it is also something that is part of a collective experience. This thinking comes from my own experience, but also from working directly with people who have found their lives, experiences and perspectives pushed to the outside.”

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

The uneasy marriage between social work and art lies at the heart of Cammock’s creations. A deeply cerebral artist, she folds her personal experiences and those of people around her into her projects, aiming to both acknowledge the experiences of others and find a common ground for connections.

Born to a British mother and Jamaican father in the far-from-tolerant atmosphere of 1970s London, this narrative is fundamental to who Cammock is. One of her earlier artworks, for example, took her audience on a guided cinematic tour around London, to places where she had experienced racism as a child. By immersing the onlooker in scenarios he or she may have no previous experience of, Cammock asks difficult questions about identity, race and societal hierarchies. By throwing light on topics left in shadow, she forces us to confront our own failings. Stark, hard-hitting but ultimately incredibly human, Cammock's work has continued to spark these conversations ever since, and her journey around Italy is just the latest chapter. Whether taking language lessons from migrants, or connecting with a woman who helped the fight against Mussolini, each interaction was powerfully unique, she says.

"I filmed from a kayak around the Venetian lagoon, filmed a 92-year-old ex-partisan, visited a project where women who have stories to process do it through making story bags, filmed a contemporary dancer who hasn't danced for 20 years, but who works with adults and children to understand the relationship between mind and body. I invited her to choreograph and perform her own piece for the project on camera, and she did.

Helen Cammock  Chorus , 2019 [detail, Gabriella -  Bologna] HD Video; 3 screen Courtesy the artist Copyright Helen Cammock

"And for the first time I tried etching in Rome – a print process that I never imagined working with before," Cammock recalls of her time in the European country. "So my experience [in Italy] has been enriching, humbling, informative and challenging and yes, has definitely marked my life – not just professionally, but also personally. It is something that has enabled me to think about how I would like to approach the process of making in the future."  

Her final exhibition for the Max Mara Award was a mix of projected film, music and even song. Inspired by the lyrics of Italian baroque composer Barbara Strozzi, one line "che si può fare" ("what can be done"), became the central link.

The performance piece starts with a deeply mournful song – voiced by Cammock herself in Italian – accompanied by a haunting trumpet. “Most of my projects work across a range of media, because this offers me different ways to articulate linked or intersecting ideas. It gives scope for narratives, abstractions and the riffing of ideas in a range of ways. We receive meaning differently depending on what it is, but also how it is delivered, so I like to play with these two ideas across all projects.”

Harp. Helen Cammock  
Harp, 2019 Vinyl Cut Print Paper Size 63x91.5cm (Image Size 53x83.5cm) 

Photo Stephen White / Courtesy the artist

Alongside the performance is a film, a patchwork of conversations with the women Cammock encountered in Italy, telling personal stories of the difficult, often brutal, hardships they have faced. Although softened with music, the message is still immensely moving. “I’m very interested in what the voice can do – also what is done to the voice. Voices are often extinguished and erased, left unheard, or exalted and amplified.

"So for me, it makes complete sense that I work with the voices of people who are doing and saying different things; and also doing and saying them in different ways; and who have different opportunities to be heard or witnessed," the artist explains.

Often highlighting harrowing stories of suffering at the hands of men, and male-led regimes, it would be easy to characterise this as a narrative about toxic masculinity. Cammock, however, is quick to offer a wider view. "In Chorus I and in the prints, frieze (Chorus II) and performance that accompany, I set out to explore the idea of lament in women's lives, across histories and geographies.

“For me, lament is about loss, longing, resilience and resistance,” she explains. “So all of these facets are present in the work for me. In general, I am interested in revealing, unpicking, challenging structures of power that subjugate and marginalise certain individuals and communities.

“This film is about the female voice – women have had to manage the oppression of patriarchy for centuries, but in this film, we are also talking about the strength of women; the ways that women have shaped, protected, contributed to, stood their ground in moments of crisis, but have been written out of histories or ignored or intentionally silenced. I want the work to enable a listening to the voices of these women – whether they are voices from today or the voices from six centuries ago.”

The multi-faceted artist's work is difficult, demanding and intensely moving, forcing strong reactions from her audiences. This fact is not lost on the wider art world, because since winning the Max Mara Art Prize for Women, the artist has been shortlisted for the Turner Prize, which will be announced on Tuesday, December 3.

Although potentially on the cusp of a second major win in as many years, Cammock remains humble and grateful. "The Max Mara Art Prize for Women [has been] an opportunity for a focused period to research and then make a new body of work, which then is exhibited as a solo show in a major British and Italian art institution. Something I've never had before.

“I do feel differently about how I work now and I guess I now am happy to own that I am an artist – giving myself the permission to fully focus on this.”