The Mead Awards have been generously supported by Scott Mead and The Mead Family Foundation since 2013. The UAL Mead Rome Residency extends the Mead Awards programme to PhD students, providing them with a 4-week residency in a studio at the British School at Rome (BSR).
In the summer of 2019, Remi Allen, PhD student at Chelsea College of Art was 1 of 3 to be selected for the residency.
Here Remi reports back on her experience.
The Mythology of The Vagina Dentata
My research in Rome investigated the female form, my intention during the residency was to produce a body of work that explores female mythic imagery and representation. The myth of the Vagina Dentata has origins in several ancient cultures – My practice aims to visualise the myth, from a non-white feminist methodology.
The work created examines the stereotyping of brown women “with long dark hair perceived as the evil “other” of the good white western self.” (edited by Balmain. C, 2009).
The Memoirs of Lady Vagina Dentata
Residing at the British School at Rome (BSR) occasionally felt colonial and old school, I sometimes felt British and at other times very aware of my Indianess. A moment one evening made me question belonging to either heritage and how the hybridity of both had created a third identity that was sometimes accepting of both and at others a rejection.
With this in mind I searched for representations of Britishness in the library - the typographic layout in the large scale books was a good source of inspiration. The fonts were old style roman and the layout of the metal press beautifully set. The large folders housed sheets of paper which were original prints. I wanted to replicate these designs in a contemporary way.
'Memoirs' became the story of a very British Lady who was not white but Indian - the narrative explained her exploits on a certain evening in July to find a lover. She knew what she wanted and was determined to have a one-night stand, where she would be in control of the night.
The artefact produced was an A4 document, consisting of a metal press front cover, twenty plates each representing a timeline of the evening’s proceedings. There was an image printed on each plate that interpreted the titled text from that moment in time. These tiny icons were pictorial symbols from both eastern and western mythology. Each of the plates were framed by a border of female pubis triangles, shaped from ‘bindis’ (the red dot worn by Indian women to ward off evil spirits), considered the third eye. The bindi is also a symbol of marriage.
The last ‘page’ consisted of a list of all the plates - this page explained and concluded the story.
The similarities between ancient females in Rome and in India was striking. There were three categorisations of women based on their sexuality, Mother, Virgin or Prostitute. This fascinated me and I explored the concept through the mythology of Medusa, an icon of the tale of the Vagina Dentata.
The myth began with Medusa being raped by Poseidon in Athena’s temple, a part of the story that is not often narrated. Her beauty was envied and caused jealousy, she was ultimately punished by Athena.
Previously sourced Indian hair extensions from Delhi, which I transported to Rome - my desire was to create an installation that would represent the black haired, dark skinned woman who was self-governing. 'Killer Queen' became my interpretation of the head of Medusa. I collected a stone head from the Director’s private garden and methodically created fifty snakes from the hair extensions. Further research discovered hairstyles
worn by the Vestal Virgins, seven braids formed with red and white cotton, I recreated these seven braids and they were placed amongst the snakes. The mix of Indian and Western was now complete and Medusa represented the Indo-European myth.
My Medusa was to remain beautiful and narrate her sexual abuse through the red taped eyes. This allowed the viewer to gaze upon her without fear. The small circular mirrors among her red snaked hair paid lip service to her myth. Then, to protect my Medusa I applied a red bindi on her forehead, this was her third eye chakra.
She became an important companion in the studio for over three weeks, she remained to me a beautiful woman, who suffered abuse and was cast as the ‘other' because of her visual identity. My interpretation of the birth of Pegasus from her neck after her decapitation, was that of an ejaculation of her demons.
This large-scale piece was inspired by Mass at the Pantheon. Harriet O’Neill, Assistant Director for the Humanities and Social Sciences, invited me to join her for Saturday Mass. As a viewer of the religious ceremony I felt honoured to be one of fifty people who had gained access. The Mass lasted for an hour, at times it became meditative listening to the priests cite verse in Latin. The surroundings became illusory, I was witnessing the epic structure as a church housing an ‘intimate’ religious ceremony.
The piece had to be ‘quiet’, meditative, religious, virginal, a mass of one material, but ultimately politicise the female identity. Large scrolls of grease proof paper were sourced, together with hundreds of red bindis from Delhi the installation began. The bindis became the pencil that
‘drew’ my Yantra – a geometric design aiding tantric meditation. The final piece 350cm x 350cm was exhibited upon a marble floor, with a single gold church candle burning at the centre.
My final art was created in protest to Britishness abroad. One of the largest institutions of Britishness is the British Broadcasting Company. I remember as a child my parents and grandparents listening to the news on a wireless. As indigenous inhabitants of a colonial country they believed what they were listening to and in turn identified as British.
My own hybrid identity came into question at the BSR, and it was this thought process that led to the creation of BBC. I wanted to create a discourse on what British means from a BAME viewpoint, and also to debate from a non-white feminist stance the power of my sexuality.
BBC also known as - Big Black Cock was created using gold Prandhis (Indian hair extensions) these were dismantled and rewoven to form the piece, the cock was laid upon white card bordered by gold tape to form a frame. This was to frame the art and also frame themes of sexual needs. A brown woman who is visually stereotyped in contemporary society as having no sexual needs.
On reflection the residency was essential to my PhD as it allowed me the space and time to work without interruption and time restrictions. Living amongst my work freed me to produce and make whenever I felt.
This was an invaluable experience as I was living, breathing and thinking about my practice almost twenty-four hours a day, a luxury I do not normally have. Time at the BSR was instrumental in creating five pieces of art that will form a vital part of my thesis.