Virginia Ryan is an Australian artist and Italian citizen living and working between Italy and Australia. A graduate of the National Art School of Art and Design in Australia and the School of Art Therapy in Edinburgh, since 1981, she has worked internationally using painting, photography, sculpture and installation, opening her work to crucial collaborations with anthropologists and musicians. She has been living and working in several countries worldwide.
In 2004 she co-founded and was the first director of the Foundation for Contemporary Art (FCA) in Ghana.
Her artistic research focuses on identity and memory and is often shaped by the use of abandoned materials.
She has exhibited in the Malindi, Dakar and Venice Biennales, among others, and in 2019 at the Oscar Niemeyer Museum for the Fronteiras Abertas biennial in Brazil. In addition, her solo exhibitions have been held as part of the 51st International Festival “Dei Due Mondi” in Spoleto, at Whitworth in Manchester, the Pino Pascali Museum and Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh.
Since 2018 she has been a Benemerita Academica of the Piero Vannucci Academy and founder of the Make Art Not Walls workshop with Asylum Seekers in Italy.
Australia, Africa, Europe: you have lived in many countries and continents, getting to know different cultures. Undoubtedly a wealth of experiences from which to draw as an artist and as a woman. How and how much has this ‘inhabiting’ the world influenced your artistic research and your works?
My life has been one of dislocations, arrivals and departures, inspired meetings but also, I am coming to realize, a deep sense of abandonment- of not truly belonging anywhere – which have marked me.
Since I was a child travelling with my family from my birth country to Europe in the mid sixties, it was manifestly apparent to me that a specific world-view and my reliance on it were precarious.
Simultaneously I sensed that members of the human family all are constant weavers of stories connecting us to each other: that I shared much with other human beings,wherever we might find ourselves.
So for me there has long been a tension between a sense of fragility, frailty, potential invisibility and the opposite: strength in unity, of a strong personality being ‘grounded’ and feeling safe.
I have experienced many times what it is like to feel a ‘stranger’- the weight, the disconnection ; and yet that very position of the outsider allows for an observation and intervention not so easily granted to the native-born.
I grew up seeing that between people there were differences, but also enormous similarities. I suppose it was a combination of nurture -my parents were attentive to helping us ‘fit in’- and nature which allowed me to naturally concentrate on the similarities . My studies in Canberra, Australia at the National Art School in the 1970s permitted me to then move out into the wider world again, to literally cross the seas – first to Alexandria in Egypt- and begin to see life unfold with the sensibility of a novice artist. I needed to label myself an artist from then on – it gave a sense of my belonging to a global community, whilst dignifying the position of Outsider. By granting myself the right to be called an artist, there followed responsibility. I had to get to work!
Being an artist was a way of imagining a life, an entree into the world of other artists,that arena of vastly different people,of visual languages,human desires, of successes and spectacular failures. For many years I was more interested in the experimenting than the outcome; of waiting for something to happen at some point in the realisation of a work. Some sort of ‘break-through’ I suppose!
Over time, I became more aware of our global social architecture – of ‘race’, gender, economics, geography, education. I became hyper-aware of privilege, and that even with it, the world could feel lonely. This knowledge convinced me to work more and increased my awareness of what deep loss (enforced migrations, social upheaval and lack of access to basic needs) might signify in the larger world, for many of my brothers and sisters . So Art and Life for me are deeply intertwined; almost one-and-the-same.
’FLOAT’ N.1 Woven fabric offcuts and wire, cm 230x110x30, 2013
You often use materials and techniques from the domain of textile. Why did you choose this language for your projects? Does this medium have a different intrinsic meaning, more evocative and conceptual, beyond its function?
Decades ago, using a needle to pass thread through drawing paper, for example, felt fiercely satisfying and somehow subversive. To think I never learnt , as life-skills , to sew, knit or embroider! I was, however, aware of feminist-art practice, and of the political reasons for recycling and transformation.
So decades later, during years working in West Africa – Ghana and Ivory Coast – I became hyper-aware of the the aesthetics of traditional cloth, of mending and unravelling to make anew; for living in a cultural context there where this was necessity, I witnessed that profound beauty grew from such need. I became more interested in the ‘embodied memories’ situated within cloth, thread,wool,cotton, and then plastics and nylon etc.
I was interested in how fiber/thread seem to ignite the power of artistic ‘systemic’ thought and marry it with material histories.
’ The Ties That Bind Us’ N.1 mixed media and threads on wood, 120x150x20cm , 2015
Can you describe your creative process? Is your work coming to life from a detailed project or a creative flow that you can’t completely control?
This depends./ For example,the three projects I have done with groups of women embroiders in Italy since 2007 are imagined and planned in advance,form choosing locations and participants to theme and material; on other occasions it is more a intuitive response to cloth, form, visual evidence I chance upon which may contain a suggestion of the mythic ; the medium enter into a creative flow with me, where Kairos and Chronos meet – for often the making is very time-consuming and one must ‘step outside’.
Mutagenics, 2020. Mixed media/collage and machine sewn threads on Indian paper, each 25cm diameter
In your shields (which I saw for the first time at the Montoro12 Gallery in Rome), a diversity of techniques, materials, anthropological references and the colours of Africa converge. In short, works that have layered levels of meaning and open up to infinite readings.
With the cycle of Shields (which I now call ‘Personal Diffractions’), I sourced material in my studio, out on the roads and markets, or from previous artworks to knot/lace/bind together an intimate, personal cosmology. Gathered memory objects from different places cohabit in new relationships on the underlying round metal forms of the shields, offering infinite variations and potential associations.
Shield n.16 from the series Personal Diffractions, 2016-ongoing.
Mixed media, objects from West Africa and hand-knotted extreme hand-threading on metal base, double-face
Shield 29 from the series Personal Diffractions, 2016-ongoing. Created during Covid Lockdown in South Australia 2020, diameter 80cm double-face
Traditionally, and this is still the case in many cultures, women are associated with textile activities. In some of your textile works, is there the evocation or a reference to a female universe made up of ancestral knowledge and to a knowledge reservoir of ancient cultures and archetypes?
The answer is an unequivocal yes. This has grown from art-making – time passed in lengthy elaborations transported me to a place where I too can feel a deep association to once-called ‘Women’s Labour’.
The repetitive action of passing threads through, over or under another, of summoning both Patientia and Contemplatio links time-and-place-and-gender through manual expression.
If I close my eyes, I imagine the threads as a sort of cosmic umbilical cord, a primal transmitter.
detail, ciclo Personal Diffractions 2016-2021
You received an MA in Art Therapy. Do you believe that art has a cathartic mean and healing power? How and how much have your studies influenced your art practice?
I trained as an Art therapist in Edinburgh, after two years spent in war-torn Ex Jugloslavia.
It was a time when I was deeply questioning the role of the artist, the creative process in societies in moments of conflict and my personal discomfort of being alone in the studio whilst the world seemed to be exploding around me.
In my experience, art-making may have, at times, a profoundly cathartic experience for both maker and viewer. Training as an art-therapist did affect my work as an artist over time as I incorporated ideas about ‘the transitional object’ /negotiated space/courage-and-creation etc into my own studio practice. This was a natural growth which unfolded over time, and took me by surprise.
You’ve designed and directed various shared projects, collaborative works, and workshops focused on a participative, choral, social and multicultural aspect. Can you tell us about one of them?
‘Intransitu’, part of Intramoenia-ExtraArt in Puglia curated by Giusy Caroppo and Achille Bonito Oliva in 2007, was an example of the relational-community nature of some of my work. I invited a group of Embroiders from Muro Leccese to embroider a word or phrase on individual white pillowcases – a word to signify a momentous transition in their lives. The women, all master-embroiderers, were also recorded speaking of their works/words by my partner in the project, the American sound artist and anthropologist Steven Feld; this became an integral part of the presentation in the castle of Acaya.
con le partecipanti del gruppo Arakamare di Muro Leccese, Settembre 2007
INTRANSITU, Palazzo Collicola ,Spoleto Festival 2008
What is Art for Virginia Ryan? Through the years, how is your approach to art changed?
Art is either dead or alive. It speaks to the soul and transcends its own time, or it appeals to more fleeting sensations and gets stuck in the present.
Art is a way of resisting, risking re-enchanting, and re-animating.
So, for me, it is often connected to Techne’.
Much contemporary art has been thrust out into the world still-born, emptied of meaning or seduced by the immediate, flat surface of Instagrammability. I am curious about this as a phenomenon and where it will lead. Over time, art has become the way I live and who I am. I am both more demanding and more accepting of its centrality. Covid-19 has accentuated, for me, the potential healing and subversive nature of art-making. Bring it on!
Auto Ritratto con Pennelli e Pagne’ 2013