Rafaela de Ascanio is a painter and sculptor living and working in London where she studied Fine Art at Central Saint Martin’s, Art History at the Courtauld Institute of Art and Painting at the Turps Banana Painting School. Rafaela's different art forms of sculpture, painting, and occassional performance work in tandem, compiling layers of iconography and exchanging symbols to explore the female experience through differing processes. Rafaela speaks to us about the importance of the female experience in her work, told through narrative, at the point at where Greek imagery meets Christian or pagan myths, in a space where 'culture, religion and sexuality collide'.


Rafaela is part of our current exhibition, Back to Back, with Nettle Grellier


Interview by Madalena Botto


  • Can you introduce yourself and tell us about your background as an artist?


    Hello!  My name is Rafaela de Ascanio.  I am a painter and sculptor, and have also dabbled in performance. I went to Central St Martins for Foundation and after that went to the Courtauld Institute of Art for my BA and MA, wanting to fuel my practice with an art historical education. I ended up working in galleries, from Iniva to Michael Werner, before focusing on my practice again about 4 years ago. Drawing and painting are at the root of my creativity, and in the last few years I've been to Turps Banana Painting Programme as well as a fantastic course at the Royal Drawing School.   Simultaneously my husband, who is an excellent thrower and sculptor, got me interested in ceramics which has become an integral part of my work.



    How would you say your painting practice influences your sculpture, and vice versa?

    I began by coiling pots and using the imagery from my paintings to underglaze them, so there was already an important relationship established between the two.  They are completely different processes. If you imagine both the clay and the linen or paper as my canvas, they develop distinctly.  With linen I prechoose the size, which will always be a fixed 2D window; with clay I can start with an idea but I let the physical action of building with my hands, and sometimes my entire body, to lead the final form. With oil paint, I am spontaneous and energised, quick bursts of feeling are captured throughout the layering process. Underglaze is a slow, dry medium which creates a meditative and meticulous process. This then transforms with each firing and can be emphasised with glaze and more layers after each one. What I have found in these different methods, is a chance to tackle subject matter and iconography from different perspectives and tempos. In this way the two are constantly in conversation.  For example, Hundida, a woman strangling herself, is an image that started as a very loose, brightly coloured oil on paper.  She was then developed as the protagonist in a large scale Boschian nightmare in oils, and then stepped out of the canvas to form a ceramic sculpture. As the clay rose, her head began to collapse onto her neck, her face became featureless, a convex, metallic surface, giving way to her exuberant glazed hair, weighing her down and enveloping her like seaweed as she drowns.  The image of her and what she represents is stretched and compressed, moving from narrative character to symbolic form through the different mediums.

  • Red Wedding
    Oil on Paper
    51 x 41 cm

    You use a lot of iconography in your work, and there seems to be a lot of Greek and Pagan influences in particular- could you speak a bit about where this stems from and why you feel it’s important to your practice?

    On an aesthetic level, the Ancient Greek and Roman imagery is down to my love for Boticelli and Mantegna. Classical iconography forms the basis of Western art history, and what I was taught growing up in museums like the National Gallery and a lot of the time at the CIA.  Greek imagery comes up everywhere, even in Science; I am now looking at the planets, each named after a classical god. But what I am really interested in, is where this Greek imagery meets Christian or pagan myths. The Tarot pack I study is called the Sola Busca, it was made for a princely court in 15th Italy, so bang in the peak of the Vatican’s  power and Catholicism's hold on Europe.  The figures appear to be about Greek gods and heroes, but actually, seen in its entirety, it reveals a pagan esoteric ritual hidden within.  It is also highly homoerotic.  With both these things- practicing sorcery and being queer- were cardinal sins, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t coexist.  And this is where my interest lies, in that space where culture, religion and sexuality collide and weave together.    


    Your use of Goddess Ishtar in one of your pieces is interesting in relation to the feminist perspective in your work- would you say there’s a dialogue between your work and art historical canon?

    Ishtar Burns is a perfect example of the above.  This orb sculpture is about Venus, but I was more interested in looking at the Babylonian name for this planet - Ishtar - and her glorious attributes of wings, clawed feet and lion companions.  In some ways our Western culture has assumed an ownership over the planets, as their ‘official’ names are based on gods from our European history, as if other civilisations hadn’t studied and named them before.  That said, there is a nod to this history as a region of the planet is called Ishtar. The dialogue I create through my work and the art historical canon, is to continue to add layers to this mythological imagery.  Similarly to how Europeans painted Jesus as a golded-headed man, I can reimagine women as the protagonists to ancient patriarchal stories, or flip stereotypes of women to reflect my experience as a 21st century woman.   


    How important would you say representing the female experience is to your practice?

    It has always been at my core.  I love being a female, in particular how broad that experience can be. My role models are women (and men) who play with their experience as females, or by that I mean societal structures around the female. Revelling in Duality is a painting I didn’t really analyse until after I had finished it, but it gives a good reflection of what I mean. It began with an image of Apollo flying across the sky on his chariot, but the figure is based on my friend Fiontan Moran, dancing draped in veils and roses on stage with the Queer Camper Van. It doesn’t really matter if its Apollo or Diana, its ambigious whether the night or day is being drawn over, the figure is neither male nor female, but a masquerade of both. Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is a key reference in my work; I draw influence from its muse - Vita Sackville-West, the handsome and queer poet and gardner, that the character Orlando is based on. And I draw endless inspiration form Sally Potter’s film adaptation, with Tilda Swinton, an icon for elegant, ambiguous beauty. At the bottom of the painting the actress stands astride the Turkish fashion designer Dilara Findikoglu. I went to her to make my wedding dress and we instantly connected on iconic imagery - Winona Rider marrying Beetljuice in her red tulle dress, Lucrezia Borgia, the luxuriously dressed Renaissance daughter of the wicked Borgia Pope, extravagant Victorian costume from gothic horrors like the film Crimson Peak. The dress here is important because as with my work, it takes a traditional symbol, the pure wedding dress, and weaves it together with a fantastical and creepy irreverence. My wedding had elements of a Spanish Catholic ritual, but completely camp!  Instead of rejecting my upbringing embedded in patriarchal religion and customs, I like to magnify and retint it through my lens.

  • Hundida
    Glaze on Stoneware
    53 x 20 x 30 cm

    How have you found the current circumstances influence your working practice? Have you had to change the way you approach your sculpture?

    In some ways the current circumstances have pushed me to become much more efficient.  By the time I had recovered from having my daughter, Luna Vita, I was desperate to make work but my studio at the Koppel Central closed its doors.  So we ended up building me a studio in our garden, which was incredibly empowering. I now had a very private space to collect all of my work in one room, a room of my own as Virginia says! And as time is limited now I have a baby to care for, plus the obvious travel restrictions, it means I can access my studio at any time. Sadly the ceramic studio, the wonderful Turning Earth, is open limited hours, which means I have to be very strict in planning making ceramic, thinking about drying times, firing, glazing- all of these process now need to be carefully thought about.   There is no such thing as not feeling it some days- I make ceramics when its open!


    Could you speak a bit about the importance of narrative in your work?


    Narrative is important, but not in a linear way.  That is the beauty of making art, you can pick and choose symbols and partial narratives as a spring board. I am becoming increasingly interested in narratives that begin in one work and cross over to another. I was listening to the author Daisy Johnson discuss how in her Fen stories, characters appeared in one story, and could be an extra in another. I love authors who create universes throughout their oeuvre, where narratives can thread in and out of specific stories, a place or event can be referenced, binding the world in a larger web.  She also discussed the trend of authors using greek myths of sexuality and transformation, and applying them to their own contemporary landscapes.  In her case, this is geographical, the peculiar pubs and bogs of the fens.  In someone like Madeline Miller, her book Circe is literally about Greek myths, but told through the very realistic perspective of a woman, who is an outsider, becomes a mother and eventually a mortal.


    How does your largely figurative imagery relate to the ‘anatomical’ shapes of your pieces- how do you find the process of bringing together the painted imagery and the object itself?

    When I am thinking of the theme of a sculptural piece, I tend to think about the form first and let that guide me.  I'll have an idea of imagery, symbols, emotions and colours that could adorn the piece, but in the end it is dictated by how the sculpture grows. The form for Callipygian reflected my healing body, the stitched up Caesarean scar and the engorged forms slowly building up muscular surfaces in a return to physical strength. Across this vase there are fragments of memories during this post natal period and pandemic.  The birth of my baby, and the extreme pressure on my body feeding her on one breast and pumping on the other.  The reverse has images of angels' feet flying in to the sky; cathartic imagery I painted as I let go of a loved one who died of Covid. In between all of this the anatomical form created vignettes for demons, alternating haunting my body and mind, and being vanquished!  I love how a sculpture allows space for various scenes to be painted onto it; magnifying different elements of the sculpture.

  • Could you talk a bit about what you admire about Nettle’s work, and how you think your pieces could relate and speak to each other?

    I first came across Nettle's work at Unit London. I was drawn to her use of colour, intimate subject matter and sweeping lines. It wasn’t until I looked at our works alongside each other, that I saw these undulating shapes move between our work, across the ceramic forms and onto the curvaceous bodies in Nettle’s landscapes. There is a humorous perspective in both: Nettle's tongue in cheek, almost absurd, tackling of portraiture, and in mine a camp grandiosity to art historical motifs.   


    What other artists are influencing you right now?

    Luna Vita and I danced through Toyin Ojih Odutola’s exhibition at the Curve.  And actually looped back round and went again it was so immersive. Talk about creating worlds and inventing new mythologies!  I loved the Peter Adjaye soundscape, and the formal text at the end that gave rise to more questions than answers. Not to mention the stunning drawings themselves. With ceramics I am always looking at Lindsey Mendick on instagram (and fortunatley IRL at her Goldsmiths CCA show)… endlessly creating comical, vibrant sculptures with such an energy that I feel swept up in her momentum! Naudline Cluvie Pierre is my painting idol. Her vibrant colours, celestial imagery, altarpiece compositions and the characters that she fills with emotions, holding, embracing and nurturing her alter ego. I find these images, and the way she speaks about them, both inspiring and comforting. And Joana Galego’s paintings and drawings- subtle, atmospheric and sometimes so beautifully melancholic.


     You can see more of Rafaela's work in our current exhibition Back to Back until 31st January