Scholar Anthony Downey reflects on the imperial nature of the pandemic's rhetoric of inclusion and structural inequalities as addressed in Aida Silvestri's new artist commission Contagion: Colour on the Front Line.
For Autograph's project Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other, we commissioned ten UK-based visual artists to create new bodies of work in response to the wider context of the global pandemic. We then invited ten writers – each paired with one of the artists – to produce a short reflective essay contextualising these new artworks made.
For her artist commission Contagion: Colour on the Front Line (2020) Aida Silvestri created eight digital collage and portrait works that highlight the alarming levels of exposure faced by frontline workers of colour and the devastating impact of Covid-19 on ethnic minority communities. Juxtaposing archival imagery with pandemic headlines and propaganda slogans from First World War posters, Silvestri's layered imagery combines photographic portraiture with an experimental approach using substances such as coffee, tea, sugar, and cocoa to create a compelling critique of structural inequalities that link the past with the present.
Below, scholar Anthony Downey reflects on the imperial nature of the pandemic's troubled rhetoric of inclusion, the impact of structural racism, and how Covid-19 has disproportionately affected individuals from Black and Brown ethnic communities – as explored in Aida Silvestri's new body of work.
The current pandemic has disproportionately affected some communities, with individuals from Black and Brown ethnic backgrounds more likely to die from Covid-19. The difference in the risk of mortality between various ethnic groups can be explained, partly at least, by factors including occupation, living conditions and the pressures – through the use of public transport, social contact and employment – placed upon individuals to expose themselves to the virus. The socio-economic situation of ethnic minorities would thus appear to be a key element when we consider the consequences of the pandemic. However, the most recent research argues that cultural and structural racism also adversely impacts on health: ‘Racism both shapes social determinants of health and has its own effect on the health of ethnic minorities.’ It would seem, based on current evidence, that structural racism plays a significant role in Covid-19 morbidity rates, rather than ethnic background as such.
Given the once-in-a-generation context of Covid-19, the statistical analysis and breakdown of pandemic-related deaths is often difficult to absorb. The broader concern about which communities are bearing the brunt of the pandemic needs, therefore, to be raised consistently and understood for what it is: the result, in sum, of structural racism. This leaves us with a question: how can you encapsulate the effects of this virus on the communities who have been most compromised by it? As Aida Silvestri highlights throughout Contagion: Colour on the Frontline (2020), it is those working on the frontlines – including nurses and doctors, but also taxi drivers and volunteers – who are persistently exposed to it. The fact that many of these frontline workers are from ethnic backgrounds needs to be acknowledged, as does the degree to which the rhetoric in response to the pandemic – ‘we all are in this together’ and we are ‘fighting against an invisible enemy’ – reveals a strain of propaganda that was once linked with imperialism and the colonial venture.
"this economy of unequal exchange is untenable and needs to be revealed for what it is: a double exploitation in the name of a politically expedient notion of solidarity in the face of adversity"
For Silvestri, who was born and raised in Eritrea before moving to the UK, the use of photographs and images of frontline workers from so-called BAME backgrounds discloses the language of imperial propaganda (‘The Empire Needs You’; ‘The Motherland Calls’) that brought many to Britain in the years following the Second World War to rebuild the country. The descendants of those who came here then now face a similar call to arms, so to speak, in the face of the pandemic. This rhetoric of imperialism, in all its promise and threat, has returned in today’s sermonising rhetoric – ‘we are all in this together’ – with devastating irony.
The imperial venture, the extraction of resources in the name of capital, prioritised the cultivation and exploitation of tea, cacao, tobacco and sugar, all of which Silvestri uses to ‘colour’ her portraits, partially concealing those in them but also revealing the legacy of imperialism and colonialism and its neo-colonial pursuits. In our tertiary economy, which includes public administration, education, human health and social work activities, natural resources such as tea and coffee have mostly given way to the very occupations associated with a neoliberal economy that facilitates wealth and its accumulation. Under the conditions of a pandemic this is all the more evident when that system is threatened and governments resort to the jingoism of shared responsibility and the dubious idea that we are somehow all in this together. For Silvestri, this economy of unequal exchange is untenable and needs to be revealed for what it is: a double exploitation in the name of a politically expedient notion of solidarity in the face of adversity. In a pre-pandemic environment this would have been inappropriate at best, if not inconsistent; however, in our post-pandemic age it is proving to be deadly.
 See Mohammad S. Razai, Hadyn K.N. Kankam, Azeem Majeed, Aneez Esmail and David R. Williams, ‘Mitigating Ethnic Disparities in Covid-19 and Beyond’, British Medical Journal 372 (15 January 2021). Download here.
Anthony Downey is Professor of Visual Culture in the Middle East and North Africa (Birmingham City University). He is the Commissioning and Cultural Lead on a 4 year Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded project that is focused on cultural practices, education, and digital methodologies in Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan. He is an editor at Third Text and the Journal of Digital War, respectively, and is the series editor for Research/Practice (Sternberg Press, 2019–ongoing).
You can see more of Downey's work on his website.
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Image captions: 1) Aida Silvestri, The Motherland Calls [detail], 2020. Cacao, coffee, tea, sugar, tobacco and pigment ink on cotton fabric; 79 x 102 cm. © and courtesy the artist. Commissioned by Autograph for Care I Contagion I Community – Self & Other.
Other page images: 2) Courtesy of Anthony Downey.