The magnificent church of St Stephen Walbrook in the City of London played host to Exiles, a body of work by London-based Italian photographer Matilde Damele (17 – 24 September 2019).

Taken on the streets of London with her Leica camera, Damele’s black and white photographs evoke and pay homage to great Masters of Photography such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Diane Arbus and Saul Leiter. For this exhibition, the artist enlarged and transferred a number of her images onto the challenging surface of the black plastic bin bag.  The uneven surface of these art works emphasises the individuality as well as the ephemerality of each of our lives.  She displayed these as sculptural art works within the circular space of the church, filled with yesterday’s news and discarded packaging, to express how many consider their lives to be cheap, valueless and disposable. Her work is filled with an expressive force that explores our sense of not belonging; a humanity that is emotionally homeless and exiled from its surroundings; feelings of estrangement from reality.

These feelings are particularly poignant for both the Artist and the Church. Damele has experienced what it feels like to be rejected from a community where she had previously built a life for herself.  An unexpected and abrupt change severely interrupted her life and ambitions, causing a permanent sense of loss and displacement.  Now she fears the same might happen again with the imminentthreat of Brexit.  It is thus particularly apposite that the space for this exhibition is not only a beautiful building dedicated to spiritual contemplation and hope, but also where the Samaritans, a charity dedicated to helping those in distress, was founded.

After the Great Fire of 1666, the re-building of St Stephen Walbrook in 1672 allowed the architect Sir Christopher Wren to experiment with a dome, the first to be built in England and the precursor for St Paul’s dome.  It was Wren’s own parish church and had been a Christian place of worship since 700 AD (so named because Walbrook is the source of water which brought life to the area). In 1953, determined to offer a dedicated service to those suffering with emotional distress, the then rector Reverend Chad Varah started to offer a non-judgemental, safe and confidential listening service from the Crypt, which was the originof the Samaritans (the original telephone that he used is still on display).

St Stephen Walbrook regularly holds art exhibitions and has permanent features made by two notable British artists: a large stone altar carved by Henry Moore, surrounded by colourful kneelers designed by Patrick Heron.

The exhibition was on show during the Open City weekend (21-22 September 2019). Open House London is the world’s largest architecture festival, giving free public access to 800+ buildings, walks, talks and tours over one weekend in September each year.  St Stephen Walbrook was open and took part in the weekend.

Matilde Damele is an Italian photographer from Bologna, exiled from living and working in New York as a photo-journalist. Following her upheaval and unexpected move to London, she sees her uncertainties and fears mirrored in the faces of many of her neighbouring immigrant communities.