Katthy Cavaliere, Nest 2, 2010. Edition 2/10. Collection Wollongong Art Gallery. Donated by the estate of the artist, 2017. On display in exhibition New Acquisitions Collection, Wollongong Art Gallery, NSW, until June 4. In 2008, after Katthy Cavaliere’s mother died of ovarian cancer, the artist began making work as a tribute. However, less than three years after her mother’s death, Cavaliere was herself diagnosed with the same cancer. She died, aged 39, on January 23, 2012.
One of Cavaliere’s last images, Nest 2, is a poignant reminder of her mother, Mara. The artist is photographed sitting on a pile of her mother’s clothes, which she formed into a nest on Sydney’s Clovelly Beach, a place she and Mara would often visit to chat and have fish and chips. Cavaliere, who is facing the ocean, is naked except for her mother’s stockings, which are flapping in the wind, on her head.
Nest 2 is a recent acquisition of Wollongong Art Gallery on the NSW south coast, and it features in the exhibition New Acquisitions Collection. When I visit the gallery, I am shown the photograph by Daniel Mudie Cunningham, head curator at Artbank, an artist, and a friend of Cavaliere’s. He also curated the 2015 exhibition Katthy Cavaliere: Loved, which was hosted by Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art and Sydney’s Carriageworks.
Cavaliere dealt with her grief over her mother’s death through her art, but that came to a halt when she had to deal with her own mortality. She resiliently fought the cancer in private and only a few people knew she was sick, says Cunningham.
“She was an amazingly gifted artist, and an underrated one I think,” he says. “Her great ability as an artist was to use available objects and available conditions. There was an emotional honesty to her work.”
Much of Cavaliere’s work was linked to her personal history. She was born in Italy in 1972, an only child, and migrated to Australia with her parents when she was four.
As an artist she worked across a range of disciplines including photography, performance and installation. Highlights of her career included winning the Helen Lempriere Travelling Art Scholarship in 2000, and studying under Marina Abramovic. But Cavaliere considered the real high point to be 2011, when her video performance Loved was shown in her country of origin at the Venice Biennale.
Cunningham says the longing for a sense of home in the face of displacement was a recurring theme in her work, and that those feelings were distilled into Nest 2.
“She was trying to make sense of why they had to move to Australia,” he says. “That migrant story, the diaspora, would come through in the way she was trying to make sense of that early childhood story that felt like a lost dream.”
Nest 2 deals with the great isolation and loneliness of life, says Cunningham. “It is that idea of looking out to the great unknown, that kind of mediation of the sublime. I think the image works because it speaks to a really universal condition, as all Katthy’s work did, regardless of the specific cultural background or specific story of her migration to Australia, or her family’s story, or her own personal struggles and trauma.”
Cunningham, believes that Nest 2 is a classically beautiful image. “It is almost like the hourglass shape of her body, there is something Rubenesque about it,” he says. “It’s also that sense of familial relationships, of comfort, of parental care. Her mother’s DNA is still on the clothing and Katthy is left with a beautiful, intimate trace of her. She is sitting on the nest and she’s staring out to sea, naked as the day she was born, wondering what the future holds.
“But we know what really happened. The future was a finite period of time and she joined her mother after dying the same way. It’s a kind of very epic, melancholy and sad story, but powerful.”
Chromogenic colour print on silver-based paper, 120cm x 88cm