In the lead up to Rafaela's blockbuster solo show UNIVERSAL YEARNINGS, Curator Josephine sat down to interview de Ascanio. Touching on feminism, spirituality, process and her inspirations.
Can you introduce yourself and tell us about your background as an artist?
My name is Rafaela de Ascanio. I am a painter and ceramics. I started my journey at Saint Martins and did then went to the Courtauld to study Art History, as I really wanted it to filter into my work, which it still does today, but in a different way than expected. I was originally a painter, and then my husband introduced me to ceramics, and I became completely obsessed with building clay sculptures and painting them with glaze. I also dabbled in performance, which is mainly done with the Queer Campervan, which is a group of my friends who converted a campervan into a theatre, by turning one wall into a stage. They have been driving around the UK and Europe and collecting different artists to perform with.
I have read poetry, and my manifesto and we also used to the Alternative Alternative Miss World, which was a beauty pageant and I participated and almost always lost in those shows as well. I should probably say that my mother is an artist. So that is something we always had at home. I was the only one of her children who would go with her to museums, and it is something that I am now pushing onto my own little daughter who comes with me to galleries, rather than play-groups! My mother is from the Canary Islands, which is where I spent a lot of my childhood. That still filters into my work quite a lot, with the colours, the mashup of the culture, and the heavy mish-mash Catholicism that you find there.
How do you find your two chosen mediums interact? Do they feed off each other, or do you prefer to keep them separate ?
My ceramics and paintings are always working together. Because the subject matter will be developed in reading and drawing, so it will make its way into sketches that can be made into paintings, and then sometimes those paintings are transcribed onto ceramics. But, recently, over the last year, I have found that the ceramics and paintings are in a much more complex dialogue.
There are these forms that come up in the paintings that are actually moving out of the canvas and growing into sculptural forms, which then continue on the imagery from the paintings. This is going back and forth. In a way, all of my work has got a weave going through it right from the beginning, and I am always looking back at subjects that interest me. Like the tarot pack that was so influential to me, and I still refer back to some of that imagery. They are definitely in a dialogue. But the two mediums are so different in the way they are used.
In painting: it is very quick. Whilst I am building up layers, the actual process is very swift – it is energetic, it is filled with movement, usually, accompanied to music. Whereas with ceramic, it is slow and mediative, both in the building of the clay, where you are really using your hands like tools – your thumb becomes a shovel, and the side of your hand becomes a kidney and all of that process takes a huge amount of time. And then the painting with underglaze is very slow as well, just because the medium itself is quite dry. O with oils, everything moves so freely, but with underglaze you have to dip the brush back into the pot with every brushstroke so you keep the richness of the pigments. So really, that is what differentiates them – makes one such a slower and incredibly thoughtful process.
Mysticism, femininity and classical iconography seem to heavily influence your practice – can you speak a bit about where these stem from and how they’re important in your practice?
This goes back to my study at the Courtauld, where at the time, when I was learning about classical and renaissance artists, it was very male focused. I did have an incredible class with Sarah Wilson in which we were learning about performance and gender studies in the 20th century, so that was kind of a huge eyeopener. But aside from that, all of my previous education in art history and museums was this classical, male-dominated characters and artists. And I have always been looking at powerful female characters as something I have always loved. So being able to now convert that imagery that is so deeply embedded in my learning – images of kings, and Gods, and warriors – but turning them into female protagonists, is something I really enjoy doing. It has become this way that I am able to reclaim my history and learning in a way that mirrors myself and my life, alongside what makes sense today.
Would you say your works speak directly about feminism, or are routed in feminism at all?
Yes my work is rooted in feminism. I want to create female characters that are empowered, and empowering for the viewer, as well as psychologically resilient and in charge of their own sexuality, and I want them to be the protagonist in the story. I read a lot of literature… I am looking at my shelves right now… it can be from Maggie Nelson, to Ursula K. Le Guin to Madeline Miller and the sorts of books I read my daughter… you know, like Feminist Manifesto and Fifteen Suggestions, all of those little inspiriting people books, about Frida Kahlo and Josephine Baker... it’s joyful to be positive about women, and to really enjoy their stories. This always filters back into the work. More directly, Orlando, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando comes up a lot in the work. I find it incredibly beautiful, the questioning of gender and fluidity and what it means. I like to look at that in a positive way.
How have you found producing an entirely new body of work for your show? Has it been challenging at all?
I loved creating a full body of new work. I really sat down for this body of work and had an idea of what I wanted to work on. It was a continuation of the themes that I have been looking at over the last year. I am fascinated by the stories of the Solar System, both mythological and contemporary science. And also, a longing for intimacy. Missing my friends, and wanting to be in intimate scenarios with them. These are the things I have been really investigating over the last year, and that continued into this body of work. But I sat down and worked out exactly what I wanted to create with the works – for both the ceramics and paintings. Which of course, things don’t always go to plan, and I wanted to make a series of ceramics which were all cast. I usually hand-build, but for these, I decided to plaster cast eight pieces, of the different planets, and this went wrong about half way through, because I used the wrong material, and they melted in the kiln after a huge amount of work.
I had to really gather up the energy to continue, as I really wanted to finish the series. But actually, when I re-did them, they were a lot more exciting and I found myself drawing into the clay and painting on the clay in a much more fluid and experimental way. This has really opened up a new way of working, using new glazes, much more colourful glazes that I would never have used before due to temperature limitations. So, that was a challenge! But, the body of work is now complete and I am really excited to have gone through that whole process.
What is your process like for the ceramics? Do you use sketchbooks or work directly on the clay?
With the ceramics, I do use sketchbooks. Particularly for this show, I have about three sketchbooks filled with ideas, it starts off with research and looking into myths and stories and theories. Then I actually draw exactly what I imagine the sculptural shape will look like, although I always allow it to develop organically whilst I am actually making it. It is the imagery that gets painted onto the sculpture – I would have many sketches, but depending on how the clay moves and undulates, I will adapt the imagery to really work together with the form.
What does the title ‘Universal Yearnings’ mean to you?
The title Universal Yearnings really relates to several themes that go on with the themes of the works. Immediately, when I was looking at all of the work I thought of the word Llanto which is like a call in Spanish, like a crying out. I imagine this echo starting out in this tiny space of my apartment, where we have lived, the three of us, for a year and a half now, and calling out the window to the memories of actually interacting with friends and family, and then further afield and looking up to the starts and thinking about all the many worlds that are out there. The idea that there are planets out there which will outlive us – we are just a tiny part of the story of the solar system, just a part of this perfect world that has been built to allow us to exist. Looking at these planets, there would have been other existences, and once we are gone there will be many more. For me, this was a very comforting feeling, so that was what the cry was about – the sense of yearning, a cry. It is that which echoes through the work.
Finally, are there any artists in particular whose work inspires you?
There are so many artists inspire me, I think someone I was looking at on Instagram, and I did get to see some of their works in the flesh in London, were the works by Naudline Pierre. She creates these incredibly, tender paintings of figures holding each other in bright colours. They are painted on a scale that feels like an altar-piece. These really resonate with me, because I feel like it is a reinterpretation of the imagery I was talking about. Imagery in catholic churches on grand altarpieces, where these stories are played out from the bible. But here, you feel that these angels and these women hold each other and they are just filled with love and tenderness. It creates such a wonderful feeling of comfort.
There are so many more artists too.. going back to Nicky de Saint Phalle – her films of her relationship with her mother, father, nanny, herself, her sexuality… these wonderful large Nana sculptures. Some are daunting and made of found object and toys, others are brightly coloured and undeniably joyful.
Other artists like Alina Szapocznikow, whose works I have been interested in for a long time. Some are quite disturbing. There was one I saw during her show at Hauser & Wirth which has particularly resonated with me. It was of the parts of the body – knees, half the face and shoulders, being engulfed by this black oily resin. It is just so haunting.
I mean just every week, now that galleries are allowed to open again I find another artist… for example I went to see Joana Galego‘s paintings in Wilder Gallery and they also have this tenderness, a relationship between figures – closed eyes, subtle hands, this wonderful mixture of mediums that also have this mournful atmosphere.
There are also so many amazing ceramicists at the moment: Lindsey Mendick and her latest show where all of her ceramics are so made with so much energy – with incredible glazes, and clearly brimming with humour. They all relate to some bigger topic that she is trying to express in such a theatrical setting. I saw a Ryan Driscoll at Soft Opening, whose work also centred around planets, and each one of the paintings blew me away. So it was lovely to see someone else looking at planets .
Universal Yearnings runs from 21.5.21 until 13.6.21, for more information on any of the works, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.