Sienna Reid is an American artist who spent 14 years living in Rome, Italy. That ex-patriot experience informs Sticks & Stones, a large-scale, multimedia series that explores the vicious misogyny and ancient roots of public shaming.
The inspiration came in 2007, when Amanda Knox, an American college student studying abroad in Perugia, was accused of murdering her British roommate, Meredith Kercher. The Italian prosecutors conjured a sordid--and implausible--narrative steeped in sex and the occult, which the Italian, British and American press were eager to amplify. As the story grew into an international tabloid sensation, Sienna was struck by the harsh and judgmental characterizations that the prosecutors and journalists used to describe Ms. Knox. She began to record these aspersions until the list grew to more than 150 words like “sly,” “wily,” “cunning,” and “dirty,” and phrases like "sorceress of deceit," "vixen with dark impulses," "she-devil,” and “spell-casting witch.” It was the kind of thing you would expect to hear at a Medieval auto da fe or early American witch trials, not a 21st-century murder prosecution. It was pure character assassination, and it worked, resulting in Ms. Knox’s conviction, based on scant evidence, and a sentence of 25 years in prison in Italy.
As she began to explore the etymology of the words she had recorded, Sienna traced the roots of this defamatory language to defixiones, the ancient Greek and Roman “curse tablets” etched with incantations and buried in the ground in hopes of bringing misfortune upon one’s enemies. Another ancient form of extra-judicial judgement involved inscribing people’s names on shards of pottery, known as ostracon, and casting lots to banish them from the community (hence the term “ostracize”). Slander, apparently, is as old as written language; only the means of communication change.
Over the course of eight years, Sienna has worked with the defamatory words and images aimed at Amanda Knox to call attention to their power. She wrote the exhaustive list of characterizations she compiled on epically long scrolls reminiscent of the Chinon Parchment in the Vatican archives, which enumerated the accusations against the Knights Templar. Working with wood tablets and ceramic shards, she created her own contemporary curse tablets and ostraki. She then wrote the words directly on the naked body of a model, covering nearly every inch of exposed flesh and documenting the process in a series of photographs and a video that capture the immediacy--and misogyny--of the verbal denigration inflicted upon Ms. Knox.
Finally, Ms. Knox herself makes an appearance in a series of 40 painted portraits based on images published in the press, some of which were clearly intended to reinforce the characterizations of her as a coldly calculating murderer. Trained as a painter, this series of portraits is closest to the work Sienna is known for: expressionistic, hyper-real interpretations of her subjects. These paintings take images of Ms. Knox - many well-known from their appearance in the press. Taking them out of their tabloid context, she renders the portraits in a riot of color that have the effect of humanizing the once-familiar photographs, requiring the viewer to reconsider them again.
To round out the installation, Sienna turns away from the words to create a collection of photos intended to personify the idea of the witch. This ethereal series depicts a young woman, complete with the requisite broom, appearing to hover in mid-air. It both illustrates and pokes fun at what is conjured with the word witch.
A Gesamtkunstwerk of character assassination and public shaming, Stick & Stones examines the enduring human impulse to destroy with words while paying tribute to one who was very nearly destroyed. After Italian prosecutors challenged the 2011 acquittal that freed her and allowed her to return to the U.S., Amanda Knox was finally exonerated by the Italian High Court on March 25th of this year. While her legal nightmare is over, the scars of her public defamation will likely remain.
This exhibition at the Society for Domestic Museology showcases just a few representative works from a series that is large in size, scope and concept. It deserves to be shown in a much larger space that would allow all the pieces to be displayed alongside one another, reflecting the depth and breadth of Sienna's exploration of this topic - a visually and formally beautiful treatment of a disturbing, yet timely, theme.
To learn more about Sienna Reid, visit www.siennareid.com.