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A look at Villa Romana's transformation under its new director Elena Agudio

A first-time visit and stay at the storied artist residency in Florence allowed this writer to see Agudio's transformation of Villa Romana into 'A House for Mending, Troubling, Repairing.'

by Rosalyn D`MelloPublished on : Jun 30, 2023

As I sink deeper into motherhood—that irreversible state of being and consciousness—I’ve been researching what might constitute ‘maternal style’. Part of the inspiration comes from my recent exploration of Edward Said’s posthumously compiled lectures, ‘On Late Style’ in which he theorises about how age, sickness and ensuing fragilities mark artistic’ practices. What are the transformations inherent to the practices of artists who serve as primary caretakers of their children? How do they balance the urgencies of childcare with the demands of a studio practice? How do they navigate the continual interruptions that are part and parcel of the fabric of parenthood and that complicate one’s ability to arrive at a state of flow to either complete an artwork or allow room for failure—which is so intricately a part of the creative process. How does this tie in with established gender gaps and how they manifest in terms of careers, remuneration and financial stability? Besides artist mothers, how do professionals within the artistic sphere—administrators, culture workers, curators, art critics, art historians —cope with the demands of motherhood in a politically unstable world marked by climate crises? How do they simultaneously pursue their intellectual callings and visions as they either advocate for or enable the building of the kind of hospitable spaces they wish to inhabit?

My ongoing conversations with people whose current lived experience is branded by these forms of precarities have revealed a unanimous difference in their experience of time before and after parenthood. Especially in the case of motherhood, which is not accommodating of procrastination, idling or even carefree leisure. The hours must be measured and accounted for. One must cope with professional emergencies and maintain a range of correspondences while simultaneously negotiating with one’s children, managing their sleep and wake routines, and their daycare and school life. The domestic becomes the overarching background against which professional relations seem, almost incidentally, to occur.

  • An informal lunch in the garden at Villa Romana, 2023 | Villa Romana | STIRworld
    An informal lunch in the garden at Villa Romana, 2023 Image: Courtesy of Villa Romana
  • My skylit kitchen at the Villa Romana, 2023 |Villa Romana |STIRworld
    My skylit kitchen at the Villa Romana, 2023 Image: Courtesy of Rosalyn D’Mello

One person who has closely identified with my own predicament is the force of nature that is Elena Agudio, who I first met in 2019 during her tenure as Art Director at Savvy Contemporary, Berlin. Elena took over in January 2023 as director of Villa Romana, one of the most established and sought-after residency sites in Europe, based in Florence, Italy. Originally from Bergamo, Italy, Elena had gotten in touch with me months before she relocated from Berlin to Florence. As the mother of two children, Whatsapp is her go-to mode of communication. I remember her being apologetic in the beginning, letting me know that for her, the medium was not less ‘official’ in any way, just more practical. I couldn’t agree more. At the time when my child was still an infant, I appreciated voice messages and other forms of instant networking beyond emails. This also meant that the boundaries between our professional and personal lives were always already porous. One day, over Whatsapp, she shared with me her vision for transforming Villa Romana into ‘A House for Mending, Troubling, Repairing.’ She hoped I might respond to it with a proposal for a workshop or a lecture that I might conduct there.

Elena Agudio kneading dough during my performance lecture at Villa Romana, 2023 |Villa Romana | STIRworld
Elena Agudio kneading dough during D’Mello’s performance lecture at Villa Romana, 2023 Image: Courtesy of Rosalyn D’Mello

The curative premise of her programming felt daringly invitational. She seemed to be summoning different and diverse energies into the ‘house’ of Villa Romana to ‘fix’ what didn’t appear broken. Her title reminded me of Audre Lorde’s characterisation of ‘the master’s house’. Mending, troubling and repairing read like feminist-queer alternatives to the masters’ oppressive tools. I felt so attracted to the idea of a mother-run artist residency space; a house administered by someone who had already spent years in the maternal trenches and was seasoned in charting all manner of logistical challenges. Her proposal audaciously prioritised ‘domesticity and conviviality’—housewifely mechanisms of hospitality—to re-engineer different forms of belonging and community building.

Agudio cited the poet Harmony Holiday; ‘Reparations begin in the body’. ‘…We want to develop Villa Romana from the experience of living and the practice of inhabiting together a domus, shaping a different vision of domesticity and togetherness,’ Agudio wrote. ‘The house itself will be the starting point from which, concretely and locally, to think hospitability and (be)longing, domesticity and care, but also the connections between ruination and repair, ecology and worlds beyond the West.’

Over the next few weeks, we schemed together and finetuned the details for an event that would mark the first of a monthly series she would be kickstarting, to expose the residents of Villa Romana to outsider interventions. Around the end of May, I was on the train to Florence. Elena urged me to bring my child and partner, a refreshing change from most art world set-ups that do lip service about concepts like care, but rarely extend the infrastructure to support those most in need of it.

Glimpses the library through the kitchen attached to my room at the Villa Romana, 2023 | Villa Romana | STIRworld
Glimpses the library through the kitchen attached to my room at the Villa Romana, 2023 Image: Courtesy of Rosalyn D’Mello

Arriving at Villa Romana by foot, the final uphill stretch from Porta Romana offers sweeping views of the Renaissance city of Florence. Once past the gate, there’s a luxuriating feeling of being part of the city and yet being cloistered. The expansive gardens root your body within a Tuscan landscape. Elena proudly took me for a quick walkthrough, introducing me to the Villa’s 75-plus olive trees, alongside other fruiting trees and wilder grasses. This is another site of intervention for Elena. Over the coming months, artists and other specialists will work to embed principles of agroecology, biodiversity and environmental justice. I’d seen the Instagram post featuring text written by Marleen Boschen, a curator and member of the garden team, welcoming Isabella Devetta, an agronomist and botany enthusiast who has been working on an ecology survey and biodiversity manifesto, while Leone Contini, with Monai de Paula, is creating a seed-centred garden generated from seeds sent by artists from across the globe. Quechuan artist Daniela Zambrano Almidon, meanwhile, is growing plants that will become a living recipe book of Andean chillies, maize and tomatoes.

  • Participants at my performance lecture kneading bread in the Villa Romana garden , 2023|Villa Romana| STIRworld
    Participants at my performance lecture kneading bread in the Villa Romana garden, , 2023 Image: Courtesy of Rosalyn D’Mello
  • The Artist Behind #ReachForTheSun: Diana Ejaita Video: Courtesy of Diana Ejaita and Little Sun

The morning after I arrived, I wondered about the future possibility of cherry trees, considering my toddler and artist-resident Diana Ejaita’s 18-month-old Mathilde had been feasting on the Sicilian variety I’d bought that morning from a stall near Porta Romana. The seed garden was under threat as both kids were drawn to the sprouting stubbles. The caretaker had already noted that the quantity of omnipresent stones was diminishing; a jovial reference to the fact that the house was being inhabited by children alongside artists. My experience of being there was characterised by Mathilde’s infectious laughter and her engagement with all of us present. Elena was child-free for that weekend and was catching up on pending work. As Mathilde and my child played, I caught up with Diana and learned all about how she managed to find a daycare solution so she could free some time for her art. She grew up in Cremona in Italy but left as soon as she was able to on account of the casual racism that pervades Italian social life, to which I can also attest. Before I left, I had the privilege of seeing a fabulous new work that was to debut at the inaugural group exhibition O Quilombismo at Haus der Kulturen der Welt under the directorship of Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung. Titled Bodies, Tales, and Landscapes. Progression III, the work was produced at Villa Romana. Assuming the form of posters, each original image was produced by hand through various techniques and Ejaita talked to me about how, as an illustrator, she was extremely prolific with using the iPad to make work but was now returning to slower, more time-consuming techniques. The work draws from her Nigerian roots and responds to her metabolic consumption of narratives by writers like Amos Tutuola. Each character has a fabulist and spiritual dimension, and the bold colours arrest your gaze, spellbinding you. The repetition allows for a sense of motif building, enhancing the overall ‘presence’ of the work that takes over the entire frame of a wall.

  • Samuel Baah Kortey’s studio at Villa Romana, 2023 | Villa Romana | STIRworld
    Samuel Baah Kortey’s studio at Villa Romana, 2023 Image: Courtesy of Villa Romana
  • Samuel Kortey Baah (Kristo) talks about his installations at the "FAILURE IS THE KEY" Art exhibition Video: Courtesy of Samuel Kortey Baah and Kankam BigCedi
  • Jessica Ekomane live at Auditorium Zanon - Forma Free Music Impulse Video: Courtesy of Jessica Ekomane and Roger on

I tried to fathom the trajectory Diana’s work would take over the course of her residency. I wonder if being back in Italy will compel her to reconsider notions of home and diaspora. She is, at the moment, also overseeing the building of a community space back home in Nigeria, I read. I felt similarly seduced by the work of Samuel Baah Kortey, another artist resident from Ghana, presently pursuing an MFA in Frankfurt. It’s difficult to imagine Samuel as a student, not because he lacks humility or grace, but because his artistic consciousness is so sophisticated, as is his mastery of various forms of technique. He is so grounded in his Ghanaian heritage and culture and has the aura of someone whose work is fostered by the immensity of his lived experience. For instance, a visit to a slaughterhouse to help a friend running a restaurant led to him reflecting on animal blood and eventually examining Catholic doctrine to understand his own religious upbringing. The blood and resin sculptures he consequently made look utterly haunting, not in a macabre way, but in a manner that is totally hinged to the kind of pressure his fingers would have applied. When I visited his studio, I saw him experimenting with paint and one could see how his every stroke is animated by a life force, the same force that makes him such an alluring person with a warm energy. I already treasure, in retrospect, all the conversations we had on food, eating rituals, postcoloniality, racism and everything in between. Jessica Ekomane I met only briefly as she was away the two days I was in the Villa. She made time for me the morning I was leaving, and I was able to witness her in her studio, which is essentially composed of four speakers that allow her to listen to her various experimentations with a polyphonic sound derived from her immense research that is also inspired by Pygmy music. As I finish this piece on the Summer Solstice, I imagine Jessica getting ready with her collaborators Afrorack and Lamin Fofana for their event this evening which will be opened by sound artist SADI. I wish I could be there to encounter the complexity of Jessica’s art first-hand.

As the weeks turn into months, I’m curious about the trajectories the practices of the residents of Villa Romana will assume. I can safely say I am still feeding off their energies and that my two-night stay is still bearing fruit.

What do you think?

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