Sienna Reid's whimsical apartment in Rome's ancient Monti neighbourhood has morphed into a tantalizing cultural testament to Amanda Knox, the American student who was convicted, and later acquitted, of the murder of her British roommate in Perugia, Italy.
Enormous strips of white paper hang from the walls of Reid's studio. They bear the grisly or outrageous words and phrases, in English and Italian, used by lawyers, prosecutors, police and journalists to describe Knox before and during the 2009 trial that sent her and Raffaele Sollecito, her Italian boyfriend at the time, to prison: Evil incarnate, sex monster, slut, witch, naive doll, puttana Americana (American whore), Nazi propagandist, angel-faced killer, psychopath, nymphomaniac, man-eater, satanical, diabolical, a slave to drugs and sex …
One wall is covered with equally enormous photographs of a nude Chiara Mogavero, a Roman actor and dancer. She is "branded" from top to toe with the same words collected on the strips of paper.
I ask Reid, a 48-year-old American figurative artist who has spent 14 years in Rome, why Mogavero is naked. "To me, the naked body can be a symbol of power or vulnerability," she says. "She's naked because Knox was so sexualized."
Reid has painted about 40 portraits of Knox, some of which make her look stern and angry, while others give her the air of sweet innocence. All are inspired by journalists' photographs. The colours are vibrant, almost Warhol-like.
Also leaning against a studio wall are modern renditions of "curse tablets," used by the ancient Greeks and Romans to lobby the gods to cast harm on others. While the ancients scratched their voodoo onto thin lead sheets, Reid used wooden panels. They are covered in symbols, such as stars, and feature some of the words used in the campaign against Knox. "Succubus," a female demon who was fond of intercourse with sleeping men, is one of them.
Reid is assembling the Knox works into a multimedia show that will include three 15-minute films, among them a rapid, stop-action sequence of the words as they are drawn on Mogavero's body.
The artist, who has had more than a dozen gallery shows in Rome, is talking to contemporary art museums and galleries in the city about hosting the show. She is also moving to Brooklyn, and hopes to take the show to New York and Seattle, where Knox lives. Reid was raised in Port Townsend, just north of Seattle near the B.C. border, and considers Knox a sister home-town girl.
The Knox case has gripped the Italian, British and U.S. press since November, 2007, when Meredith Kercher, a 21-year-old University of Leeds student, was found dead, her throat slashed, in the bedroom of the Perugia house she shared with Knox.
The publicity and trial centred almost exclusively on the blandly pretty Knox, her antics, her changing story, her love affairs and the question of whether she was a sex-crazed murderer, as Italian prosecutors claimed, or an innocent young woman caught in a tragedy of someone else's making.
Knox was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison; Sollecito to 26 years (a third defendant, Rudy Guede, an Ivory Coast native, was found guilty of murder and sexual assault in 2008 and sentenced to 16 years). In late 2011, the convictions of Knox and Sollecito were shredded by an Italian appeals court. Among other shortcomings, the court noted that no credible motive was found and that DNA samples were unreliable.
Last year, the Italian supreme court overturned the acquittal and ordered a new trial, which starts Sept. 30. Knox is not returning to Italy for the trial, but Sollecito, who is using an international media blitz to protest his innocence, will appear. "I cannot find a normal life, a career or something to focus on instead of thinking about the trial … about what will happen, about how to pay lawyers, how to pay my bills," he recently told Britain's ITV Daybreak program.
Reid has watched the Knox spectacle with a mix of fascination and horror since the onset, and decided to turn the media circus into art with attitude. "I was interested in the words they used to describe her, like 'icicle eyes' or 'witch,'" she says. "They were very loaded words, so I started to write them down. The words were really shocking to me."
Reid is convinced that Knox, now 26, is innocent and that the depictions of her as a she-devil tainted her trial. "If they had a case against her, they wouldn't have used words like this," Reid says. "I don't think these descriptions could have been used in trials in many countries."
For six years, Knox has been a source of fascination on both sides of the Atlantic, the subject of a gusher of films and books. It was inevitable that she would enter the aesthetic dimension, one that Reid has exploited with power and style. Her exhibit will no doubt please Knox's sympathizers, and repel those who think the descriptions collected by the artist are not misleading.