A tribe of Emma Hart's decapitated ceramic skulls swing into the Whitechapel gallery

Bulbous ceramic jugs hang upside down in the darkened Whitechapel Gallery
Emma Hart is the sixth winner of the Max Mara Art Prize, and her exhibition 'Mamma Mia!' is now on view at London's Whitechapel Gallery.
(Image credit: Thierry Bal)

Bulbous ceramic jugs hang upside down in the darkened Whitechapel Gallery. Sickly yellow light pours from each, casting cartoonish speech-bubble shaped shadows across the floor and walls.

‘They're not just jugs – they are decapitated heads, chopped open below the nose,’ says their creator, Emma Hart – the sixth recipient of the biennial Max Mara Art Prize for Women. This pioneering award, in collaboration with Whitechapel Gallery and Collezione Maramotti, offers a female artist the luxury of time, space and funding to create a significant body of work.

Hart used the six month, bespoke residency offered by the Prize to travel around Italy. Joined by her young daughter and partner, Hart immersed herself in Italian culture, meeting with artists in Milan, ceramicists in Faenza and researchers in Rome.

Installation view of 'Mamma Mia!,' by Emma Hart

(Image credit: Thierry Bal)

Installation view of 'Mamma Mia!,' by Emma Hart.

Issues surrounding family dynamics preoccupied Hart on her travels, reflected in the finished work, which she refers to as ‘a family of jugs’. Each is interconnected in literal ‘family ties’ by reems of red rope, curled around the ceiling beams.

Notably, Hart observed family therapy sessions while she was in Milan. Shadowing psychotherapist Matteo Selvini, she learnt about the Milan Systems Approach – a constructivist method of therapy, that emphasises the importance (and power) of non-verbal communication.

And so the skulls are mouthless; their colourful ‘brains’ fall out of their open, gaping necks, with no lips to speak of. Their stark black and white exterior walls conceal vibrant underbellys. ‘The interior patterns reflect my state of mind while I was in Italy, and the things that I saw,’ Hart explains. ‘One design features a green lady. She might be me, I don’t know. She’s trapped in a jealousy plant and she can’t get out. She’s constantly looking over her shoulder to see the person next to her.’

Another sees a tessellation of heads, each crying speech-bubble shaped tears

Thumbs Up Thumbs Down, 2017. 

(Image credit: Emma Hart)

Another sees a tessellation of heads, each crying speech-bubble shaped tears. A third pattern features a tangle of arms with their thumbs up or down, depending on which way you look at it. It's the first time Hart has attempted illustration, and the drawings’ childlike nature belies their ulterior, difficult subject matter.

More grown-up, violent symbology comes courtesy of the swinging ‘cutlery’ ceiling fans, that skim dangerously close to the base of the skulls. Each rung features a knife, fork or spoon, flinging elongated shadows across the floor. The flying cutlery recalls tea-time traumas, and tantrums around the kitchen table.

It's uncomfortable viewing. Many gallery-goers skirt the edges of the installation, hesitant to walk into the jugs’ bright spotlights; or scared to be clonked by a swinging spoon. ‘Awkwardness has been an ongoing theme in my work,’ Hart says. ‘By using the light in this way, I was really trying to think of how the sculptures could affect a viewer. There’s trepidation when you’re forced to step into its projection. The light shouts on you, it spits on you – or it just talks to you. You choose.’

Detail view of one of the ceramic jugs, Emma Hart

Left, detail view of one of the ceramic jugs. Right, Emma Hart in one of the speech bubbles cast by the lighting in her installation

(Image credit: press)

Swinging, ‘cutlery’ ceiling fans cast shadows across the floors

Swinging, ‘cutlery’ ceiling fans cast shadows across the floors

(Image credit: press)

Left, jug detail. Right, the family of jugs are interconnected by reams of red rope

Left, jug detail. Right, the family of jugs are interconnected by reams of red rope

(Image credit: press)


’Emma Hart: Mamma Mia!’ is on view till 3 September. For more information, visit the Max Mara Fashion Group website, and the Whitechapel Gallery website


Whitechapel Gallery
77-82 Whitechapel High St
E1 7QX


Elly Parsons is the Digital Editor of Wallpaper*, where she oversees Wallpaper.com and its social platforms. She has been with the brand since 2015 in various roles, spending time as digital writer – specialising in art, technology and contemporary culture – and as deputy digital editor. She was shortlisted for a PPA Award in 2017, has written extensively for many publications, and has contributed to three books. She is a guest lecturer in digital journalism at Goldsmiths University, London, where she also holds a masters degree in creative writing. Now, her main areas of expertise include content strategy, audience engagement, and social media.