10 Questions from Isolation… with Anna Fox

On the occasion of Anna Fox’s participation in the specially curated online exhibition In Sickness and in Health: Heather Agyepong, Anna Fox and Jo Spence (James Hyman Gallery), I managed to sit down with Anna Fix and ask her some questions.
Anna FOX, ‘My Mother’s Cupboards and My Father’s Words’ (10), 1999. C-Type colour print, 23 x 31.5 cms
The exhibition, originally conceived for the cancelled Paris Photo New York fair in March, has taken on a new resonance in the present global health crisis, reflecting on physical and mental health, themes intrinsically related to the present time. The opening, which took place virtually on 18 May, coincided with the UK’s Mental Health Awareness Week, and the gallery committed itself to donate 10% of sales to MIND, the mental health charity.

Jo SPENCE, ‘Photo Therapy, My Mother as a House Wife’, 1986. Colour photographs, Collaboration with Rosy Martin, courtesy James Hyman

The exhibition includes Jo Spence’s rare and unique examples of her “Phototherapy”, a series of photographs used by Spence in the 1980s to navigate her diagnosis with cancer. The show also premieres Heather Agyepong’s latest series, Wish You Were Here (2020), which challenges the rigid and problematic narratives of black performers by focusing on the life of African American vaudeville performer Aida Overton Walker. She was known for her Cake-Walk – a dance originally performed by slaves who mocked their owners and high society, later turned into a fashionable trope on international postcards. These were often grotesque and offensive, so Agyepong re-imagines the subject not as one of oppression but of self-care and action.

Heather AGYEPONG, ‘Wish You Were Here’ (6 – ‘Le Cake-Walk, Spotlight on Rest’), 2020. C-Type colour print on Hahnemuhle paper, courtesy James Hyman
Anna Fox presents one of her most celebrated, powerful and intimate bodies of work, My Mother’s Cupboards and my Father’s Words. It is the first time the series has been made commercially available with the publication of a limited edition, as it was originally conceived as a miniature book that paired images and text. During her father’s long illness, Fox kept a notebook recording his outbursts – mainly directed at the female members of his family. Her father’s words are paired with a series of claustrophobic images of her mothers’ neatly kept cupboards to reveal a couple struggling to keep an even keel in the wake of a rapidly debilitating disease.
Anna FOX, ‘My Mother’s Cupboards and My Father’s Words’ (14), 1999. C-Type colour print, 23 x 31.5 cms

1. Art organisations and individuals are launching a plethora of online initiatives to stay creative. Yet, a proper economical support has yet to be provided. What does it mean to be included in a project, such as the James Hyman Gallery exhibition?
I am thrilled to be in this show, I mean it would have been a whole lot more exciting to be in the show in NY as was planned – but this is a great opportunity for me. Particularly to be seen alongside two great artists and all with such different but connected work – James does a great job curating his shows, writing about the work and getting them out into the world, it’s a great theme for a show and very pertinent – this is invaluable to artists in lock down

Anna FOX, ‘My Mother’s Cupboards and My Father’s Words’ (01), 1999. C-Type colour print, 23 x 31.5 cms

2. Can you share a sneak peek into what you will be doing?
I am showing a rather wicked body of work called My Mother’s Cupboards and My Father’s Words, which is quite literally what it is. I had to spy on my parents to make the work, scribbling secret notes under tables and creeping round late in the evening to take photographs – you can read about the work in the press release, it is quite hard for me to talk about… it was a difficult project. I am just releasing a second edition of the miniature book-work of the project.

3. What are your thoughts on the (unavoidable?) digital monopoly of art at the moment?
Well, what else can be done? It is better that something is happening but it is not ideal by any means. Exhibiting work in real space and in real-time is a real privilege – hopefully, lots of exciting new things will emerge after this.

Anna FOX, ‘My Mother’s Cupboards and My Father’s Words’ (04), 1999. C-Type colour print, 23 x 31.5 cms

4. I am reading a lot on the ‘democratisation’ and the wider availability of art in these times. What is your take on this? Are we more connected, or does it all feel too abstract, virtual, afar?
It’s hard to tell, there is obviously a level of democratisation with the internet but the most important experience is being out there in the world, putting work on walls, and meeting people and talking to audiences who you can respond to – it is pretty difficult giving an online talk to an audience you cannot see. I guess the availability of art through the internet is important but actually when you look at the photographers emerging from the universities what they need is to be in contact with people, to be out in the world making photographs, to be going places – it’s kind of OK for someone like me 35yrs into my career to be inventing projects in my garden but for those who are new out there I think it is very demoralising – I wish them all the best and we need to think up some new enterprises to get people going.

Anna FOX, ‘My Mother’s Cupboards and My Father’s Words’ (06), 1999. C-Type colour print, 23 x 31.5 cms

5. Do you think this crisis will change us, and the art world permanently? Or will we go back to our hectic lives as soon as we will be allowed to?
I hope it will change us, our society has huge problems and they need shaking up. The art world I hope not, but inevitably some organisations will struggle to survive – again we must all pay a part in supporting the come-back. I sincerely hope we all think twice about what we do from now on but I do worry that people could forget this very quickly.

Anna FOX, ‘My Mother’s Cupboards and My Father’s Words’ (07), 1999. C-Type colour print, 23 x 31.5 cms

6. How are you reacting to these particular circumstances? What have you learnt from it?
I have had to create a very tight schedule for myself to keep things in order and to keep being creative. It is easy to spiral downwards in situations like this and keeping busy is useful. I have had time to reflect on ideas that I would normally have time for and I have had time to lead a calmer life.

Anna FOX, ‘My Mother’s Cupboards and My Father’s Words’ (09), 1999. C-Type colour print, 23 x 31.5 cms

7. How has the current situation impacted how you work — both in the method and ideologically? Yes, I have had to develop new methods, though I have so many things that I have wanted to do so I have had the chance to do some of these, I have also tidied up my studio which is a huge improvement. Ideologically… I don’t think so, except I have promised myself to be less busy with things that aren’t worth it in future.

Anna FOX, ‘My Mother’s Cupboards and My Father’s Words’ (11), 1999. C-Type colour print, 23 x 31.5 cms

8. Do you see any silver linings in this crisis?
Only that society might turn over a new leaf and think about the important things like climate change and the crisis in domestic violence, and low pay and homelessness and so many more things.

Anna FOX, ‘My Mother’s Cupboards and My Father’s Words’ (12), 1999. C-Type colour print, 23 x 31.5 cms

9. Did you have a  show/project planned that has been disrupted by covid-19?
Yes I was in 3 fabulous group shows all of which were cancelled – In Sickness and in Health at Paris Photo NY, Masculinities at the Barbican Art Gallery then supposed to tour to the Luma Foundation in Arles, The Everyday at Seoul Museum of Art and Seaside Photographed at the Grundy Art Gallery in Blackpool – I believe Masculinities may well reopen and it should tour to Gropius Bau in Berlin later in the year and Seaside Photographed will be at The Newlyn Art Gallery also later in the year.

Anna FOX, ‘My Mother’s Cupboards and My Father’s Words’ (13), 1999. C-Type colour print, 23 x 31.5 cms

10. What’s on your reading list and what book made the greatest impact on you?
Wild Sargasso Sea Jean Rhys – amazing descriptions of place and terrible description of life for women – loved the style and The Unlimited Dream Company by JG Ballard which I think I must be crazy to be reading as it is so close to what is happening right now it is uncanny and unnerving – would make a perfect horror film.

James Hyman Gallery, In Sickness and in Health: Heather Agyepong, Anna Fox and Jo Spence – 10% of sales go to MIND, the mental health charity 18th May – 19th June 2020

About Irene Machetti

I am a freelance journalist, who has been collaborating with FAD for over 2 years. I recently founded the column FOOD ART, where I interview artists, and thinkers working around issues related to food. I have a growing interest for contemporary art, especially ceramics, photography, and performance art, in which I specialised at The Courtauld Institute of Art.