Female Artists: Bea Bonafini’s Battle of Dovetail’s Nest

‘I don’t think people realise just how difficult it is to find solo female artists to review. It’s not to say they don’t exist but the opportunity for variety is simply not there. Things are getting better, it can be said, but there’s huge headway to go. I can find an abundance of shows that address themes I love, mediums I respect, work I admire but when it comes to women, there just aren’t enough exhibitions that crossover with work I can relate to or talk about…

So here is where I turn to our readers to ask them to suggest female-led pieces or exhibitions for us to review, we are here to champion women in art!’ Brittany, Art Student. 

Setting The Scene
There is the odd occasion where I take the two-hour train to London from Bournemouth for an exhibition to write a review on and for a variety of reasons, I get there and I don’t get to see it. The website doesn’t specify that you need to make private bookings in advance or, the most common one, apple maps takes me on a frustrating goose chase round central London. I take time out of my schedule and I don’t even get a glimpse of what I want to see. It’s exhausting and often, enervating.

On this occasion, I not only got to see the work but see the artist talk in depth about it and… get served pasta at the end. Dinner and a show!

Dedicated to the survival and support of emerging artists and curators, The Zabludowicz Collection has its own series, “Zabludowicz Collection Invites”, which is dedicated to providing solo presentations for UK-based artists who don’t yet have commercial gallery representation.

Today, I sat in on Bea Bonafini’s installation and with the company of curators Stella Bottai and Mia Pfeifer, Bonafini gave an in-depth talk about her inspiration and her creative process. If you ever get a minute to book an artist’s talk as opposed to visiting the show alone, I recommend it, it’s thoroughly rewarding. Having studied her MA in Painting at the Royal College of Art in London until 2016, it was interesting to see Bonafini’s solution away from her usual medium of paint and into the realms of drawing, sculpture and…carpet-making?

The Art
Bonafini’s installation in The Zabludowicz Gallery’s converted church space comprises of a carpet that filled the floor space, an abstracted and dysfunctional chair, and a stain-glass window-inspired drawing on the opposite wall as you entered. You were required to take your shoes off as you entered and you were invited to make yourself at home in the space. I found myself getting comfortable within minutes. Not exactly hard when you’re already padding across the carpet, gallery spaces tend to be far quieter and more clinical than this. Against the gallery standard, Bonafini’s installation was surprisingly welcoming.

The carpet was soft and the colours were calm but the room still took some getting used to. It was hard to make an initial impression of the work presented to me. As I found out later, Bonafini had intentionally set out to confuse and create tension for her audience.

On the one hand, you have the church environment, a place of peace and worship. You have domestic imagery like a carpet and a chair to make you feel familiar in the space. On the other hand, the pattern in the carpet is graphic and half-abstracted. You find yourself searching for faces and hooves within it as the seemingly random intersections confuse the real image underneath. I find that when you’re told what to see immediately, you tune out – Bonafini makes you work to figure out that it’s a violent battle scene. You realise you were initially rightly confused and wrongly disarmed by her muted colour palette and safe, domestic room.

There’s almost a dark sense of humour to her work as Bonafini points out in her talk that religion is saturated with violence and yet churches are a place of hierarchy revolving around moral purity. There’s a hypocrisy to designing a space to celebrate it’s do-gooding whilst keeping its history of slaughter off the walls. By using those calming colours to illustrate such brutality instead of something religiously sacred as you’d typically see in a church, Bonafini seems to illustrate the duality of human nature. There are morally grey areas within ourselves as well as religions despite us and it having stable, positive aspirations. The work reassures the credit behind the benefits of religious experiences whilst being honest about itself. As an atheist, I felt myself being able to level with the concept of religion in the space. Whilst I admire the moral belief people have in devoting their life to following a faith, I can’t tune out the worst of what happens to me for the sake of someone else’s greater plan. The Dovetail’s Nest doesn’t ask me to, it takes it in its stride by baring all in the carpet.

There’s an element of performance to the work not only where there’s a pull guiding you through the room but the theatrics in the carpet. The longer you spend time in the space, the more you gain from the piece as you can depict the framework of the pattern that’s been obscured by the intersections. Bonafini’s work doesn’t necessarily require audience interaction but having people in the space adds complexity to the atmosphere in the room as you look around at everyone else trying to figure out what’s in the section of carpet they’re nearest to.

The room feels like a fairytale in the respect that it makes sense within itself, with the objects that reside in it playing off each other, but it isn’t a practical proposition for everyday life here on earth. For example, the chair is completely unusable and yet colourful and ornate, like a throne. The absurdity in its lack of functionality suggests something about the nature of power and authority. The kind of person that could sit on it would have to be stick thin to reach and almost weightless to rest comfortably without damaging the fragile cushion in it.

The domestic objects in Bonafini’s space are paralleled with the structure that religion brings to our lives. You have set times where people meet for mass and services regularly, a space to grow to be as familiar with as your own home as a church can be a social environment. It’s these kinds of artistic choices that demonstrates Bonafini’s intellect, knowing that everything in the room is balanced and selected to play off with the multiple elements in the room. Often, having to install work in a space with allusions attached to it (the fact it’s a church) can be conceptually as well as logistically restrictive. In this instance, Bonafini’s made it look like a walk in the park.

To conclude her talk, Bonafini alongside her team prepped fresh pasta for everyone who had come along. Whilst food is the way to my heart anyway, her reasoning for providing a meal was to emphasise this idea of the church-meets-gallery space as a communal area. There’s nothing more humble than being served food by somebody in a position I respect, to know that it’s also an extension of her work ties a ribbon round the experience as a whole. The food, the domestic and social space, the casual nature of the talk -Bonafini’s installation provided a shining example of how gallery spaces could be. If gallery experiences were more like the time I had at The Zabludowicz Collection then perhaps people would think twice before shunning the role art plays in society. If you were guaranteed that everytime you went along to a show, you wouldn’t feel excluded or unwelcome (that art is not for a select group of elites to appreciate!) and walk away having learnt a great deal about the artist as well as the artwork, would you be more likely to go again? Personally, I think so. Even if art was not “your thing”, people who are normally quick to swipe at its importance could at least appreciate why it appeals to others if it was presented in a more open and performative way like Bonafini’s installation.

Why Is This An Artist To Champion?
I wasn’t initially sure whether Bonafini’s work would interest me because normally, I spend a lot of time researching shows and speculating what I could talk about before I even get there. I saw the link to her speaking event on Mia Pfeifer’s Instagram (you may recognise this name as the curator of Maisie Cousins show at TJ Boulting) and booked the tickets by chance, I knew I would be able to appreciate the work but perhaps not be able to relate to it.

Dovetail's Nest (2017)
Pasta making @ The Zabludowicz Collection

That being said, I’m glad the amount of time I spend on Instagram has paid off. Seeing Bea speak so passionately about her travels in Italy, how they have enriched her work and how she’s boldly taken a step away from her usual medium to make such a delicately considered and ultimately genius use of The Zabludowicz Invites space is empowering for me. She’s only been graduated from her MA a year and she’s made this piece of work! It gives me hope for my graduation day.

Going to that talk and experiencing that space left me reeling with an appreciation for the sheer volume Bonafini’s fed into it. I think contemporary art gets a bad wrap as it is with people often asking “why have they done this? I could have made that!” without ever really caring for an answer. It’s not often you get to sit down amongst someone’s work, hear them talk about their process and their inspirations face-to-face. You get a larger, richer picture than the art they’ve given you. It is always refreshing to come out of a space not only seeing the work but with a deep understanding of it (and a full belly of pasta).

Dovetail's Nest (2017)
Bea Bonafini @ The Zabludowicz Collection

Written by Brittany Sutcliffe

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