How Southway Studio is Curating a Cultural Ecosystem in Marseille

The Southway Studio is a neo-gothic fantasy, a far cry from a standard AirBnB. Located in Mazargues, the residential suburbs of Marseille, The Southway Studio is housed in a quaint provencal villa, home to a rotating series of artists, a resident art historian and a handful of awe-inspired guests.

I first arrived at Southway Studio on a humid afternoon in July, where I was shown around by the resident art historian and studio manager- Elie Chich. Chich showed me the room where I would sleep and the room just down the corridor from where an artist-in-residence lives year-round. Directly below my bedroom, four other artists were working on an exhibition due to open the following week at Camden’s Cob Gallery. The space is exquisitely tasteful, with a pulse aided by its influx of excited visitors and the buzz of emails being sent from an extravagant baroque desk.

As we walk, Chich explains the history of the space to me. Southway Studio was founded by Emmanuelle Luciani in 2018 and is, above all else, a curatorial project. But it is also dedicated to assisting in artistic production- hence its artist residency program. It is a boundaryless collective of art makers, historians and musicians influenced by the Arte Povera movement from Italy in the 60s and 70s. “What Southway does, and Emmanuelle does, whether in organised exhibitions or other projects, is create visual universes. Southway’s research is based on many references from art history and popular culture,” explains Chich.

Literally translated to “poor art”, Arte Povera’s principle is based on the merging of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture as an innate critique of the traditional institutions that control the art world. The term was coined by Italian curator and art historian Germano Celant, who believed an object’s mise-en-scené (a French term literally translating to ‘putting on stage’ and encompassing lighting, texture, object placement and all sensory invocations) was another medium to convey its message. Luciani has a burning desire to subvert our gaze from the clinical white cube, using the home as our mise-en-scené.

It was only after having some success of her own in 2012 that Luciani began to conceptualise Southway Studio. “After making temporary shows in white cube galleries, I wanted to do something permanent. I wanted to make a new vision for art. The house is an ecosystem for art.” Thus, it became a breeding ground for artistic longevity and heritage, with the house coined the Southway Pavillion, an enduring iteration of their curatorial vision. The chosen artists for residency are often approached first by Southway in lieu of upcoming external exhibitions.

Its Instagram-friendly interior is a juxtaposition to the grit of what Southway’s artists produce, and one begins to think, is the rentable Pavillion merely a means to an end? Or is sleeping, eating and breathing amongst the art a part of their curatorial spirit?

The addition of in-house accommodation could be mistaken as solely a financial choice, but it’s another vision of the Southway universe inspired by Luciani’s time in Roman galleries. “I remember in Italian museums, there are always a lot of benches. You can stay a long time in one spot. And making a room for me is a way to live with art. You can look around but for longer.” The 19th-century house, once owned by her great-grandfather, is the beating heart of the collective. The house was renovated by architect Paul Kozlowski in 2018 and has functioned as a gallery, B&B, artist residency and event space since. Not a spot is left untouched, allowing decorative arts as much legitimacy as its fine art acquaintances. She tells me, “Objects can be art.”

As a guest, you have the freedom to roam the gallery spaces after hours and are encouraged to interact with both the staff and artists in residence. Dissolving the boundary between high and low culture, theory and practice, decoration and art, past and present – as a guest, you become a part of the turning cogs. Celant, who famously proclaimed “Museums are past” in 1995, may have been right. “There is no institution that dissolves languages.”

Her right-hand man, art historian Chich, defines this physical manifestation in his own words. “There’s also the idea of decompartmentalising practices. For example, the Pavilion Southway, the studio’s permanent home in Marseilles, and a global domestic project from an Arts and Crafts perspective (in the tradition of William Morris) blurs the boundaries between the plastic arts, decorative arts and design.”

He goes on to define the Southway universe for himself. “The dialogue between high culture and popular culture also shows that myth can always be created. From chivalry to soccer players, the same mythical, heroic aura emerges. It’s a way of getting people interested in subjects that may seem far removed from their lives.”

As a collective, the team of six do not have definitive roles, as each member’s input is as equitable to the next. It begs the question, does a great artist need a great curator? “There are always other people. It’s never just one person. Everything is a collective effort. We may be under one name, but it is a collective – there is a we.” Luciani tells me, both in reference to the six permanent members of Southway and the rotating Rolodex of artists in residence that they house.

Provence’s maritime hub is the optimum setting for Southway, as its multicultural spirit and gritty exterior leave it less pretentious than its geographical counterparts. It is a city of dualisms – the high-class culture reaches new peaks whilst it also reaches lower lows. The domesticity of Southway’s artistic output toys with this, as per Luciani’s intention. “In Marseille, there are two cultures, and I’m always making bridges between those two worlds.” The pavilion is the ultimate rendition of this world – what could be preserved behind glass and placed on a plinth in a metropolitan museum is instead what I look at when going to bed, where I place a cup of coffee or lean a suitcase.

Artistically, there is a clear influence from Luciani’s art history background; the house oozes antiquity, religious symbolism and mediaeval fantasy. An active practitioner in art academia, Luciani teaches the social history of art, notably at Sciences Po Aix, while collaborating with the Beaux-Arts in Paris, the Decorative Arts and the MOCO in Montpellier. Luciani is also part of an artistic duo under the pseudonyms Bella Hunt and DDC. It provides the curator with a more anonymous avenue to produce art. “It’s really a prop, you know. I build worlds.” As my weekend stay comes to an end, one thing has become clear – Southway Studio’s USP amidst a perfectionist culture heightened by Instagram and the clinical high art world depends on its commitment to supporting creativity and the processes involved at all costs. Southway Pavilion is really no resort stay. Amidst its beauty is the chaos of an artist incubator, and in their bid to construct a neogothic fantastical universe, each guest is a turning cog in this process. A flurry of multidisciplinary guests may interrupt your morning coffee, so those seeking a private oasis should probably turn away.

Words by Amy Sweeney