Woman of the Week is Stylist’s weekly celebration of women with impressive accomplishments. Stylist speaks to Helen Cammock about racism and sexism in the art world, prizes for women, and how she went from being a social worker to an award-winning artist.
For some women, the thought of completely changing careers in their mid-30s is panic-inducing. For others, it’s as inviting as the prospect of a three-course meal at Cornerstone. But for artist Helen Cammock, switching professional lanes felt nothing short of essential. She had spent years as a social worker, doing the “really heavy stuff”, when she signed up for an evening class in photography. Before long, she was hooked.
“It gave me the opportunity to speak about things I wanted to speak about in a different way,” she says. “I loved it so much that I decided I was going to change career. And I did.” She got a portfolio together and applied to go back to university to do a BA in photography – and the rest, as they say, is history.
Earlier this year, Cammock became the seventh winner of the Max Mara Art Prize for Women. The prestigious biennial award was launched in 2005 to support female artists in the UK, with the winner given the chance to participate in a six-month residency in Italy. Cammock has now been in Italy for two months, and will show the work she creates there at an exhibition at London’s Whitechapel Gallery next summer.
Currently, she’s working on art – including photography and performance pieces – inspired by the untold stories of Italian women throughout history. These women include painters and musicians from the 16th and 17th centuries, resistance fighters who fought back against fascism during Mussolini’s rule, and immigrant and refugee women who have recently arrived in Italy.
“I want to tell stories that haven’t necessarily been told,” she says. She cites the work of Barbara Strozzi and Francesca Caccini, two “incredible” Baroque composers who have largely been forgotten today.
“They don’t have the profile that many of their male counterparts have,” she says. “But they did have a profile [when they were alive], which says something about what’s changed in the world.”
Some women feel uncomfortable with the idea of women-only prizes. Earlier this year, the debate reared its head once more when Clare Smyth was named the world’s ‘Best Female Chef’. Given that gender has no bearing on culinary ability, many people argued, isn’t it a bit patronising to segregate female chefs into a separate category?
Cammock understands this point of view, but believes women-only awards will be worthwhile for as long as gender inequality remains an issue.
“I’d love it if we were working in an ungendered context in the art world, but we’re really not,” she says. “Women artists are still underrepresented in gallery rosters, museum collections and exhibition programmes, and there are fewer female curators and museum directors as well. So either you believe women make less interesting art, or they don’t choose to become artists – and I’ve taught in a number of art schools, so I know that’s not the case – or you accept that there’s a problem.”
The difficulty of balancing motherhood with a creative career is one barrier preventing women accessing the same artistic opportunities as men, Cammock says. There is also, still, deep-rooted prejudice against female artists. Part of the problem is that the gatekeepers of the fine art world are still overwhelmingly white and male, she notes. And while many are open to new ideas and new voices, there are still a great many who are dismissive of women’s work.
“Just the other day, I heard someone say, ‘Well women can’t really paint,’” she says. “I’ve marked degree shows [at art schools] and had male colleagues say things like, ‘Not another young woman talking about what it means to be a woman’, or ‘Why do women always make work that’s really inward-looking? Why do they never look out at the world?’”
It’s a wearily common refrain: the idea that female artists, whether they are painters or sculptors or writers or photographers or filmmakers, are obsessed with emotions – whereas male artists care about issues.
“This misunderstanding, that if you’re making work that comes from your own experiences then you’re not talking about the world, is still perpetuated in art schools,” Cammock says. “You have to work much, much harder as a woman for your work to be read as credible.”
Cammock says she has faced similar critiques as a biracial woman who often explores the subject of race in her work (her mother is white and her father Jamaican). Much of her past work has been influenced by black writers including Maya Angelou, Jamaica Kincaid, Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, while her film Shouting in Whispers pays tribute to Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman to run for the US presidency in 1972.
“[People ask], ‘why do artists of colour always have to make work about race? Why do they always have to make works that are political?’” she says. “Well, actually, people are just making work about their life, in the same way white people are. But because it’s a challenge to the system or society, it’s seen as, ‘oh, here they go again’.
“The more artists of colour there are working, the more it will be recognised that we’re just making the work we’re interested in,” she continues. “Besides – what’s wrong with being political? In the world we’re living in, it’s important to have something to say, I think.”
It takes guts and no small amount of savvy to pivot from being a social worker to an award-winning artist. But, Cammock says, women in their 30s shouldn’t be afraid to change careers and pursue their creative interests. Rather than worrying that they’ve wasted time in the wrong field, she recommends thinking about all the skills they’ve picked up along the way, and figuring out a practical way to combine these with their passion.
In many ways, she notes, coming to art – or, indeed, any kind of creative practice – as an adult woman gives you an advantage. She kept working in a support centre for young people while doing her photography BA, and ended up being offered a job running a photography festival as soon as she finished her degree show.
“That wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t had a career before,” she says. “I knew how to manage budgets, work with people and project manage, and that was really important.
“It does feel daunting to change careers,” she continues. “I had a mortgage and all those things you have when you’re not 18. But I was so excited by the prospect of doing something new that I overrode my fears. When something feels right, you just have to do it.”
Images: Thierry Bal