In yet further proof that fashion and art go hand-in-hand, Monday saw the announcement of Helen Cammock as the seventh winner of the prestigious Max Mara Art Prize for Women at the Whitechapel Gallery – joining a legacy of celebrated female creatives, from Turner Prize-winning Laure Prouvost to Venice Biennale exhibitor Margaret Salmon, that stretches back to 2005.

While the award’s focus is centred on UK-based artists, the ultimate prize affords, not only a solo exhibition to the victor, but also a six-month residency across Italy.

As she prepares to embark on her grand adventure, we spoke to Helen Cammock alongside Iwona Blazwick, OBE, Director of the Whitechapel Gallery – who made the announcement and played a key voice on the deciding panel – to hear their thoughts on the gravitas of the award, and what it means for female artists.

Helen Cammock
"The whole idea of the residency really is that you learn about the culture you place yourself in; it’s a context that perhaps you’ve never been in before. I work across film, print, text and performance – at the moment I’m really interested in the idea of lament, and themes of longing and resilience, as well as how they manifest in our contemporary life and political and social situation. 

I started off by looking at female composers, who wrote something particularly about lament. I’m interested in that voice. I found these 17th Century composers who had written laments, which was the initial reason I got excited about performance for this. I started taking singing lessons as a result; while I do sing in my performances, it’s with a much different tone… I’ve never had a singing lesson in my life!

Through my research, I also found a writer; she worked across poetry, but also political and academic text. In each of my residencies, I’ve been linked up with curators, academics, historians, music teachers as well as musicians so that I can explore ‘lament’ in different parts of the country.

I’m really interested in the female voice in all its forms. The North of Italy is so different from the South, which has taken me to how that changes this voice, as well as politics and society – be it modern day or the Mussolini years.

The last part of my residency is specifically looking at the marginal voice at the moment in Italy, particularly in Sicily, because it’s almost like a ‘gateway’ to Italy in so many ways. We’ve been in contact with a women’s refuge.

All voices – some contemporary, some historical – will come together in the project."

Iwona Blazwick, OBE
"The Whitechapel Gallery is 115 years old, and we’ve had a really good track record of working with female artists over that time.  We did the first show with Barbara Hepworth in the ‘60s; we’ve shown Frida Kahlo, and all sorts of great names. Max Mara is for women – it’s one of the few brands that doesn’t have a men’s line – so in terms of a partnership, it seemed a natural fit. 

The residency in Italy is almost about experiencing the country as they did 200 years ago – ‘a grand tour’ – in a contemporary way. Luigi Maramotti, Max Mara’s wonderful chairman, was really keen to re-ignite the artistic and literary link between artists and Italy, looking to the culture for inspiration. Our residency is really about giving an artist time – time to travel and experience institutions and communities, and deeply engage with the people out there. We’ve made contact with artisans, psychologists, ceramicists, costume makers and so on, and it’s been amazing. The relationships that we’ve formed and that participants have formed have been really quite moving.

Another fantastic innovation and aspect of this opportunity is that you can bring children. It’s a great step that Max Mara have recognised this, as usually this poses a huge problem for women artists pitching for residencies. It’s an aspect of being human, however historically it has wrongly been an impediment in the development of an emerging female artist. Max Mara has recognised this and accommodated for family.

London has this extraordinarily cosmopolitan roster of artists – many of them are scrambling to survive, because they don’t yet have a gallery representing them. A prize like this demonstrates just how varied and diverse London, and the wider UK, is currently. Shifts like Brexit pose a big risk of losing that – there’s no question about it.

Perhaps London dominates the art sphere in the UK a little too much at the moment – although places like Glasgow are such a powerhouse in art and creativity – but it’s such an exciting city and the quality of this year’s shortlist is a real testament to that."

Helen Cammock's solo exhibition will appear at the Whitechapel Gallery in the Summer of 2019. Images courtesy of the Whitechapel Gallery and Dan Weill Photography.