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Rediscovering artist: Antonia Penia

Black and white mage of Mark Sidwells sitting on wheelchair
  • Written byLubna Hussain
  • Published date 21 April 2023
Black and white mage of Mark Sidwells sitting on wheelchair
‘From War to the Wardrobe’ Winner of Portrait of Britain - Antonia Penia (2023)

Making headway into the photography world, recent MA Fashion Photography graduate Antonia Penia’s latest work ‘From War to the Wardrobe’ is now being showcased at Portrait of Britain and with an exhibition in the works at Cervantes Institute in Prague later this year in May, she shares her journey through her career and many awards over the years which have taught her who she is as an artist.

What brought you to photography and made you want to start a career in this field?

I always have a camera with me; as a child at 9 years old, I used to photograph my friends and myself. I have always been involved with creative activities like dancing, singing, and theatre. My main goal growing up was to be an actress, I performed in many theatres around my homeland Galicia. But before starting college at Drama School, I had a terrible car accident which took 3 years to recover fully. In this time, I found my love for photography again and started a 2-year course, following a master’s following many short courses. It was after 20 years after my first masters that I had returned to study at UAL in 2021 for my second MA.

Being in front of the camera as an actor was a learning path. It was easy for me to direct people because I knew the feeling of being on the other side, this inspired my first art photography project, called ‘Leave Me Alone’, a self-portrait about my intimacy and act of rebellion from my classic and right wind family where I was born.

Woman taking picture with camera reflecting off mirror
Leave Me Alone - by Antonia Penia (2023)
What is the difference between your artwork and commercial work?

I feel fortunate because I always did what I wanted and followed my dreams. My sole career has been photography for the last 24 years. I am very proud of my creative journey. For the first decade of my career (2003-2010), my commercial and artwork were the same - my heart and my passion. I photographed fine art nude for galleries, exhibited my work worldwide, and published my commercial work in the most elitist erotic magazines of the time, from the likes of Playboy, Interview, and Maxim…. living the dream, I wanted. It was incredible to do what I did in a patriarchal world though I had to fight with many men to get what I wanted doing what only men were ‘supposed’ to do.

When the internet and new technologies got closer to us, the papers disappeared with all the magazines I worked for. So that was the turning point of my life when I moved to London, I had to reinvent myself and find a way to live from photography that was not erotic. I had 3 very first hard years, and finally, after a while, a great opportunity as a senior fashion photographer at Amanda Wakeley designer came to me. I worked for her for two years, and from there, I started my new self-employed business with my fashion photography studio.

However, I felt that version of me was not Antonia, losing my artistic identity to put food on the table. With Covid, I had lots of time to think, and decided to come back to study as a mature master’s student at UAL with the goal of being able to recover my identity as an artist.

Now, I can say I think I never lost it, but all the commercial work I did overlaid my artistic vision. If something like that happens to you, I recommend you separate your commercial and artist work on different websites unless you have a strong identity stamp that balances your artistic and commercial work. I hope I will be able to do that very soon. That’s my priority now!!

Female model at commercial shoot wearing faux fur jacket
Commercial project with Amanda Wakeley | Antonia Penia (2023)
Your master's project 'The Warrior of my life' was a homage to your Celtic heritage exploring your identity, mythology, culture, and strong women. What did you find out about yourself during the production of your collection?

The Celtic love and passion, represented through their symbols and rituals, have helped me in the process of healing myself. The main motivation to tell this narrative was the struggle to survive in a challenging personal and professional patriarchal environment. These intense experiences have led me to become the contemporary woman I am now, shown in this artistic concept ‘The Warrior of my Life’.

The project intends to investigate the roots of my identity, nationhood, heritage, and migration. I pursued my strong identification with the Celtic society and culture of Galicia and, most specifically, supporting other fellow women and Celtic women through the mythical and divine horse Goddesses. I was influenced by the strong idea of femininity constructed by the Galician ancestors. Through my creative experiences, I intended to ‘deconstruct traditional roles’ through gender relationships in a much more positive and equal manner. This project helped me to heal, connect and rediscover the woman I am now. It taught me that I am more robust and honest than I thought.

What is the meaning behind using animal parts such as horns, skulls, animal blood, and horsetail used in this project?

As a totem animal of the Celts, the horse represents freedom above all else. The horse is a majestic animal that embodies strong spiritual power of many elements like independence, freedom, courage, and endurance. The Celts viewed horses as a sense of good fortune. Elements like blood, wild catch horsetail, and horse skull are symbols to recreate the symbiosis between a human and animal; I wanted to show the struggle of human and animal souls for survival in this artwork.

I have always connected with the spirit of a wild mare, a horsewoman who relates to her home and land. There is a constant ‘belief’ throughout this artwork that life is a force of universal energy, and that universal freedom is also projected by the representation of wild animals in this region symbolising death, rebirth, and reincarnation. The images represent my hometown Cambados, where I feel my deepest root and, simultaneously, the feeling of loss where I had migrated 20 years ago. I play with a dual meaning of born (identity) and migration.

Back shot of woman stretching arm to the left holding horse hair
'The Warrior of my life' - Antonia Penia (2023)
Side profile of woman holding horse skull
'The Warrior of my life' - Antonia Penia (2023)
An early congratulations on your exhibition which will be held later this year in May at Cervantes Institute in Prague! It sounds super exciting, tell us more about this.

Yes, I am very pleased about it! The opening is on the 3rd of May at the Cervantes Institute in Prague.

In the beginning, it was supposed to be the exhibition about my Master Project, ‘The Warrior of My Life’, but they pitched to do a retrospective collection of the 20 years of my career instead, focusing on my work done in Galicia my homeland where ‘The Warrior of my Life’ will still be included. It will be a total of 50 images. This is an excellent opportunity as an artist, and Cervantes Institute is Spain's most important cultural institution worldwide.

Your work was previously featured in Photo Vogue Italia 2020 with images of bareback portraits in one with Nature. It seems that this is an ongoing theme throughout most of your work, is there a reason behind it?

The combination of nature and human shapes and behaviour inspires me. I am profoundly and spiritually connected to Mother Earth. Poetry and sensitivity are at the heart of my visual aesthetic, and I am very inspired by the 17th Century painter Vermeer and Rembrandt for their use of light, colours and framing and by the Romantic and Pre-Raphaelites (Ophelia, John Everett Millais) of the 19th Century.

A round of an applause on becoming one of the few winners of Portrait of Britain by British Journal of Photography. Your latest collection was featured across underground stations and other areas around London. Tell us a bit about the series of images ‘Mark Sidwells’ and the process of applying for the competition.

‘From War to the Wardrobe’ was my first interaction during my master studies for the unit exploring ‘The Every Day and The Epic’. I met Mark Sidwells, an ex-force who had never been injured at war, but had an unfortunate incident after he had retired where he accidentally lost his legs from a wardrobe falling on top of him.

It was a great experience to share Mark’s story and see all my photos showcased around the UK; I feel lucky and happy to be featured as part of the Voice Portrait of Britain; I hope all the winning stories can help and motivate other humans to have a better nation.

Are there any other future projects you have in mind that you would like to explore? What does the future hold for Antonia Penia?

Yes, I am continuing with my master’s project this summer in Galicia, and hopefully, I will make a book very soon. I just got the news today that I will be one of the educators at the national portrait gallery; I feel honoured and love the idea of giving photography workshops for an institution like that. Meanwhile, I will continue with my freelance work with fashion and portrait clients. I want to focus and create finer artwork touching themes like environment and women’s justice.

Black and white mage of Mark Sidwells sitting on wheelchair
‘From War to the Wardrobe’ Winner of Portrait of Britain - Antonia Penia (2023)
Back profile of Mark Sidwells doing pull ups whilst on wheelchair
‘From War to the Wardrobe’ - Antonia Penia (2023)