Drawing on her Togolese heritage, Silvia Rosi is an artist working with photography, text and film to explore ideas of memory, migration and diaspora. Her award-winning series Encounter (2019-20), playfully restages fictional portraits of her family album to trace her parents' journey of migration from Togo to Italy. When lockdown descended in spring 2020, the disruption meant a series of moves for Rosi, from Togo to London and finally from London-Italy.
When Autograph invited the artist to create new work for our project Care | Contagion | Community - Self & Other, Rosi was already reflecting on the notion of contagion: the absence of gesture, touch, and the loss of personal structures previously taken for granted. For the commission, Rosi built a room at her family home in Italy, copying the dimensions of her former London flat, which then became the site for her series Neither Could Exist Alone. While Rosi was creating the commission in Summer 2020, Autograph's curatorial project manager Bindi Vora caught up with the artist to discuss the ideas behind this new work.
Bindi Vora (BV): For you, this year has been layered with so many moments of upheaval, from being in Togo at the beginning of the year, to abruptly having to leave your apartment in London and move to your parents’ home in Italy. How have these moments of journey and disruption resonated with you?
Silvia Rosi (SR): I travelled to Togo in March with my mother and aunty to attend my grandma’s funeral. In Togo funerals are very collective moments. When a loved one dies, people want to pay their respect. They stand by the bedside and have a photograph taken to show how the dead body was well decorated. They organise family gatherings that include singing, dancing and storytelling. It was important for me to be present and to celebrate my grandma and the impact she had on my life but also on my artwork. In 2020 she and I collaborated on a moving image piece, Mother and Grandmother (2020), which is part of my Encounter (2019-20) series and was produced for an exhibition that spoke about diaspora and women traders working in West African markets. Coming back from the funeral and into lockdown in London forced me to spend a lot of time by myself during which I thought about all I had experienced up to that point. When I was finally able to travel home to Italy in May to see my family it was a peaceful moment for me, in which I could reflect and be less preoccupied.
BV: During some of our early conversations you were thinking about this work and reflecting on the immediate impact of the pandemic on communities, especially having witnessed the changes at the Lomé market. You shared a desperate story you heard on the radio of a lady in Sierra Leone who was trying to get back to her village to be with her family. Can you tell us about what happened to her and how it resonated with you?
SR: Between 2019 to early 2020 I spent time in Togo, Italy and the UK, tracing the journey of migration of my parents from Togo to Italy. The work I did was part of a commission for the Jerwood / Photoworks Award that allowed me to travel to the places I was referencing in my art and build connections with different communities, from relatives to fellow artists and market traders. During lockdown in London, my mind went back to the people I had met, and in my head, I started reimagining these places, where notions of community and touch are an integral part of everyday life.
I started to follow the news and stumbled on a short documentary about Sierra Leone and the effect of the pandemic there. The journalist narrated the story of a woman who fell ill. She had been living in Freetown and when she told her family she was feeling unwell, they asked her to travel back home. She grabbed a taxi but during the journey the driver noticed how sick she was. He stopped the car at the side of the road and dragged her out, then drove off, leaving her there.
None of the passers-by stopped to help her because of fear of this unknown disease and shortly after she died. The journalist expressed his concern about the way the virus is changing our social behaviour. Whereas in normal circumstances people would have gathered around her and tried to assist, this time, because they were afraid, they walked away. This resonated on a personal level and made me contemplate and analyse how other people’s fear was affecting me. But it also helped me deal with my own anxiety about the pandemic, and my humanity in relation to that.
BV: The impact of the virus and how it has affected our social behaviours has been quite evident. It is part of our human condition to touch, to read gesture and be around one another. Did these elements influence you as you formulated a response to the commission?
SR: The way I approached this commission started from the absence of touch and social interaction, but most of all the presence of fear, looking back at my personal experience of the lockdown in London. I remember going to the shop to buy groceries, and it would take me hours to get ready. I would leave the house, take a few steps outside and then go back in with the excuse of changing my socks, drinking a glass of water, having another cup of coffee or reading an email that just popped up on my phone. Going to the shop became a strange, unpleasant ritual. I had this fear of the outside world. Therefore the flat in which I was living (and that I was so scared to leave) became something between a shelter and a safe prison. The commission was an occasion for me to really look at these kinds of behaviours that many of us have experienced to some degree in the last few months.
"The idea was to produce a space that symbolises the way I remember the flat in London where I spent my isolation, like a box in which I moved awkwardly for weeks"
BV: Reflections on your heritage, the traditions around your culture and aspects of performance seem to be recurring themes in your work. How did you approach this commission?
SR: My works always draw on my personal experiences, so I knew I wanted to speak about something that was important to me at the moment, but that also touched on a collective experience. I thought a lot about my family in Togo and Italy, gathering, eating, telling stories, and especially about my mother. As a child she lived for a few years in her dad’s village. She often spoke about the gankogui, an iron bell played early in the morning to call village meetings. With this commission I wanted to express the feelings of waiting and solitude that I experienced in the flat, with the hope the gankogui will play soon and we can all gather again.
BV: The work is very much in progress at the moment. You have spent several weeks building a room within a room – what does this space you have created mean to you?
SR: I spent some time constructing a life-size model of a room which was painted white both internally and externally, comprised of large wooden sheets and placed in my parents’ house in Italy. I drew a sketch that I shyly presented to my dad who helped me build it. What I like about him is that he is very supportive and does not ask too many questions. To him, completing this aspect of the project was more interesting than knowing why I needed a 2.3 by 2.3 metre white cube to exist in his house. The cube was erected inside an enclosed porch with windows that face the garden. The idea was to produce a space that symbolises the way I remember the flat in London where I spent my isolation, like a box in which I moved awkwardly for weeks. I wanted a place where I could reflect and create, which is the opposite of what I did during lockdown. A space that I can enter and exit when I want to, but still constrained in a domestic situation, and from where you can see the outside world.
BV: Within the structure of this room, you have purposefully cut asymmetrical apertures in the walls. What do these represent?
SR: The apertures are meant to represent windows into the outside world, but also allow a gaze back inside the flat. There is an idea of voyeurism but also performance. I remember I was hiding in the flat, but at the same time looking outside for glimpses of normal life, such as someone walking a dog or a bus driving past. My life in that environment was very solitary and now I find myself reflecting on it and performing my everyday isolation, almost wanting through photography to remember how it appeared and use this as a moment to take control over that experience.
BV: What are the elements of building a set, something sculptural, that in some ways acts like a vessel that attracts this form of response?
SR: The box has a clean, simple beauty to its form. Its shape is inviting, the white walls make it into an idyllic reality and the warm light on the inside demand’s scrutiny. Starting a new series with this object became a way of inviting the viewer to see what is inside, which might not be as perfect and attractive.
BV: What has the process of making this work been like for you so far?
SR: It has been quite slow. I am bringing back memories little by little and, to be honest, sometimes I do not even want to think about it, or I do not want to spend time in the cube. I wait for the day that I am in the mood and that is the beauty of it. I can choose how and when I experience this place that I created and look back at past events.
See the full artist commission by Silvia Rosi
Read writer Krasimira Butseva's response to Neither Could Exist Alone
Renée Mussai introduces the new artist commissions in a curatorial essay One (Pandemic) Year On...
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