10 Questions with the artist Rafaela de Ascanio
Rafaela de Ascanio’s work gives the impression of coming from another world. His practice encompasses sculpture, painting and installation, forming an interdisciplinary myth in its own right. Inspired by science fiction, heroic female protagonists of literature, popular law and esoteric pagan practices, her plays have an archaeological aura. They appear almost like votive objects unexpectedly discovered in the depths. Despite the contemporary color palettes, largely influenced by growing up in the tropical volcanic islands of the Canaries, the sculptures in particular have an irreducible timeless quality.
Ascanio explores the female experience through iconographic symbols and various references throughout her practice, each element working in tandem to construct an image of women as empowered, heroic, self-sufficient and resilient. Her sculptures bear the marks of the creator’s hand, creating an intimacy between the artist, the work and the viewer, and connecting us to the grounded and spiritual notion of femininity at the heart of the holistic approach.
Currently on view as part of WANT A MOUTH? at Studio West, Rafaela de Ascanio has created an installation evoking an altarpiece or a place of worship. Handmade wallpaper that surrounds the space depicts the goddess Inanna, while sculptural pots hold delicate textile hands concealing a translucent baby foot. As a mother herself, Ascanio delves into the narrative of caregiving and the role of mothers as providers of sustenance for their children with her exhibited works. A small wall canvas representing a trapeze artist is adorned with suspended ceramics evoking child-rearing paraphernalia and alluding to the juggling act that a mother must perform on a daily basis. He admits that often something has to slip through the cracks. This idea is reflected in another work, MAMAR, which features a literal crack through which a textile hand reaches out. In a sense, the work can be read as an ode to motherhood in its many complex forms. Since the beginning of time, women have given birth to children – Ascanio’s work approaches this as an ancient, but constantly evolving experience.
Tell us about your practice – you work through sculpture, painting and installation – what is it like to work in these different ways, how does it change your expression?
I think of the installation as a temple, originally in its cave form, activated by primitive clay objects, paint on the walls, and some sort of ritual interaction, whether it be a poem or a dance. Clay is a slow process that needs to be monitored and adapted over time, and provides pleasure and surprise through the unpredictable firing process. For me, painting is an expressive medium in which color and line are quickly extruded to capture a moment.
Your work is supported by training at the CSM, the Courtauld Paint Program and Turps Banana. How have these experiences informed, modified and developed your practice?
Although I was not “doing” during my years at the Courtauld Institute of Art, these were the most formative. Here I discovered the genre and the art of performance. Artists like Orlan, Michel Journiac, Niki de Saint Phalle, who in their different practices have woven resistance to the Western canon, and many with a mixture of reverence and irreverence to Catholicism. I saw how the temple could be reclaimed, made queer, reinvented from a feminist angle.
Your paintings are so energetic, seductive and vibrant – they have a distinct tropical color palette that you often attribute to your childhood spent in the volcanic Canary Islands. Can you expand on that as a point of inspiration?
It is the contrast of having been raised in two cultures, two climates, that of Tenerife and Andalusia, and that of London. As children we stood out here with our bright clothes, gold earrings and flamenco dancing. The Canary Islands and Spain always represent this energy and this color for me. There is a flamenco term called Duende, that is, when the performer lets go so much that his spirit springs up and permeates the audience. That’s what I look for in my paintings.
You represent women in provocative forms in your practice, creating an aura of empowerment. How does your work engage with feminist practice?
When I think of Judy Chicago’s feminist practice Having dinnerby Mary Beth Edelson Selected wall collages at the Tate, or the current exhibition female power at the British Museum come to mind. Like the work of these artists, my aim is to remind the viewer that women are inspirational, can have power, and that pre-Christian female goddesses were abundant and diverse. My research focuses on exploring interesting women’s stories and rendering them visually for the viewer to see.
Your influences are deep and wide – autobiographical events, fantastical symbols, science fiction films, the occult, literature, esoteric pagan practices, etc. Tell us more about how you approach these complex and esoteric themes.
In terms of autobiographical events, I see myself pursuing a method of practice employed by artists like Louise Bourgeois, Alina Szapocznikow and Paula Rego, who explored the female experience. On a practical level, when I start a project, I often start my research at the library. I also like to watch sci-fi movies, programs and read novels.
For the exhibition WANT A MOUTH? at STUDIO WEST, Notting Hill, you exhibit with multidisciplinary practitioner Nell Mitchell, painters Phoebe Boddy and Pippa El-Kadhi Brown, and sculptor Alice Johnson. How do you think your works interact with these other artists?
Pippa El-Kadhi Brown discusses the domestic nature of sharing meals at home. As she explores the intimacy of this ritual, I watched the banquet feast, set outside, exposed. I think it’s interesting to see these different lenses, the habitual and ceremonial aspects of sharing food and drink, in the same space.
What do you think of food and female artists? There seem to be a number of exciting, creative young women for whom the home and food are predominant topics. How is it explored in your own work?
There seems to be a wonderful group of artists exploring food, sometimes humorous and even grotesque. There was a particularly fun exhibition Let Them Eat fake! organized by Bad Art Presents which was an absolute feast for the eyes! In my work, food centers around mothering, particularly the experience of breastfeeding, its associations with the goddess Inanna and the creative power of women. And its reverse where the body can feel devoured and weighed down by food. On a happier note, in this exhibition, I tackled the festive aspect of food and its symbol as an act of sharing, which fits so well with the theme of Commensality on which the show was built.
What can visitors expect from the exhibition? What are you presenting at STUDIO WEST?
An installation of wallpapers, traditional Guanche-shaped vessels (inspired by the ceramics of the Museum of Archeology of the Canary Islands) and paintings based on the Sola Busca ritual. It’s about nurturing; sewing ceramics, paint and textiles, I think of Athena weaving the story of the gods in Charlotte Higgins Greek myths.
How did you find the working process on FANCY A BITE? and the cookbook that was created collectively by the artists as part of the show?
The curators were very supportive of me doing an installation and thought it would come together as a whole. The recipe book is a fantastic example of how you can activate objects in a space. My Ritual Recipe for Burying a Pig in an Underground Fire Oven gives instructions on how to create an outdoor ceremonial banquet feast, mirroring the outdoor ceremonial ritual depicted in the wallpaper and paintings.
What are your favorite dishes? What role does catering play in your life?
My favorite foods are those that can be shared as a group – tapas or pinchos where there’s a way to grab and talk. Apart from household rituals, we also like to create big stews and pies that can feed large groups of people. We always want to feed the guests, even if they only come for a drink, there has to be cheese or cakes on offer!
At Rafaela de Ascanio the work is on display at Studio West until July 6, 2022 and at Tristan Hoare until July 8, 2022.
About the artist
Rafaela de Ascanio (born in 1986) lives and works in London. She completed her Fine Art Foundation at Central St Martins in 2006 and then went on to study at the Courtauld Institute of Art, obtaining her MFA in 2010. In 2019 Rafaela participated in the Turps Banana painting program. Recent solo exhibitions include universal desires (2021), Liliya Art Gallery in London. Duo shows include Back to back (2021) at the Bowes Parris Gallery in London, The Traps of the Deccan (2019) at Aindrea Contemporary in London, and The body is a blessed juicy fruit (2018) at Lamb in London. Recent group exhibitions include Crack (2021) at Tristan Hoare in London, Focus on the woman (2021) at the Cynthia Corbett Gallery in London, Monster/Beauty: an exploration of the feminine/woman gaze (2020) at Lychee One in London, and Paintings on and with paper (2020) at the Cob Gallery in London. In 2021 Rafaela received the Young Masters Emerging Artist Award
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