Artist Aida Silvestri speaks with Renée Mussai about the critical themes and creative process behind her new commission Contagion: Colour on the Front Line — a compelling critique of the rhetoric and structural inequalities exposed by Covid-19.
At the onset of the pandemic, Aida Silvestri found herself overwhelmed by relentless news headlines which she experienced as myth-making propaganda instigating a false sense of togetherness. In response, as one of ten artists creating new work for our commissioning project Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other, she developed Contagion: Colour on the Front Line (2020) to highlight the devastating impact of Covid-19 on ethnic minority communities, and precarious position of frontline workers of colour in close contact with the virus.
Featuring documentary portraiture, text and digital collage drawings comprised of archival imagery juxtaposed with pandemic headlines and slogans from First World War recruitment posters, Silvestri further amplifies this sentiment of exposure by action-painting the works with substances such as coffee, tea, sugar, and cocoa, creating coloured coronal splashes on the artworks – further amplifying the notion of ‘contagion’. The series constitutes a compelling critique of structural inequalities and discriminatory politics that link the past with the present.
Autograph's senior curator Renée Mussai has worked closely with Silvestri throughout the commissioning process, building on many years of dialogue and collaboration. In this in-depth conversation Mussai speaks with the artist about her experimental-conceptual style and the creative process of making, while also unpacking the wider politics and critical themes of the commission, and the socio-political, symbolic and layered meanings embedded in the works.
Renée Mussai (RM): Firstly, thank you Aida for this collaboration. It has been a pleasure working with you again. As always, you have been prolific and ingenious in your visual approach: creating a palpable sense of ‘contagion’ – a sense of mutating viral dis/ease on the photographic surface – in these eight new works for the series Contagion – Colour on the Front Line (2020). How did these ideas around infection and exposure became such central elements in your experimental-conceptual style for this commission?
Aida Silvestri (AS): Like many of us, I was overwhelmed by the news during the early days of the pandemic, and especially unsettled by the high rate of death and infection among [ethnic minorities]. The statistics were alarming. It all felt very close to home, and I kept thinking about black and brown people under attack by what the headlines or politicians quickly dubbed as an ‘invisible enemy’: about how exposed we are to this new threat, how the virus seems to take over our bodies more violently, more frequently. The headlines certainly made it seem that way. Suddenly our community felt more visible than ever: more visible, more exposed and more vulnerable. I started seeing an image in my mind’s eye, of a coronavirus gun shooting at people who looked like me, targeting us. I began visualising different splashes created by these ‘shootings’. I was contemplating the general exposure of the so-called ‘BAME’ community to other threats: the news at that time was generally dominated by black people losing their lives, being killed. So, for me, this moment was connected to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement: it was a moment of realisation and deep concern about the ongoing onslaught against us happening in different parts of the world. And I felt a strong urge to do something, to make something in response.
RM: You use the term BAME hesitantly...
AS: Yes, because it is a lazy term, in the sense that it generalises and dilutes our cultural differences into one collective melting pot. It is easy for Western society to identify or group us as such, but I prefer to speak about black and brown communities, or people of colour, and where possible to be specific.
RM: You address this in Your NHS Needs You (2020) by deconstructing ‘BAME’: detailing its ‘built in’/comprised ethnicities, if you will – Chinese, African or Indian, et cetera – while also drawing attention to institutional racism. In A Great Leveller (2020) you use the phrase ‘We are all in this together’ as a scathing subtitle to highlight societal disparities and general injustices exposed by the pandemic.
AS: Stating specific ethnicities and countries was very important to me in these works: from Nigeria to the Philippines, Jamaica to Sudan, Pakistan to Zimbabwe. I wanted to emphasise the different nationalities of black and brown people who disproportionally lost their lives to the virus while working for our national health services, whether as doctors, cleaners, nurses, porters or in other allied professions.
I was really upset by these sentiments perpetuated by mainstream news headlines, by the false sense of togetherness they instigated. For me, they blatantly exposed the persistent cycle of socio-economic-cultural-racial-class-and-political inequalities that continue to take hold and spread – like a contagion – in our societies, clearly visible across colour and frontlines. Discrimination, rather than togetherness, seemed to be at its core, and the statistics made it painfully obvious how certain cultural communities and economic classes – and professions – were exposed more than others. And yet all along, the government was calling on frontline workers to become ‘national heroes’, to risk their lives, while we shelter inside, and clap? It felt like a careless campaign of (hero) glorification and martyrdom. I kept thinking to myself, rather than clapping, should we not be fundraising for PPE instead? I feel both angry and guilty: for staying at home, for being able to isolate, while key workers are out there fighting for us – caring for us – providing our commodities, delivering our mail, stacking shelves in supermarkets so we can consume more. How is this fair? How can the government claim we are ‘in this together’ when we are clearly not?
RM: When we first started talking about this commission, you expressed how Britain’s Covid-19 rhetoric reminded you of the political indoctrination you experienced during your formative years in Eritrea. How did this make you feel?
AS: It all felt very familiar to me. I recognised these headlines as propaganda straight away. They took me back to a time of war. The experience of living through conflict and under oppressive, authoritarian communist regimes during the 1980s and early 1990s made me acutely attuned to state propaganda. My first thought was ‘oh no, not again please!’. This was the first time I had felt that way here in the UK since leaving Eritrea in the mid-1990s. I still recall the striking graphics vividly: the hammer and sickle accompanied by the yellow star, the three male heads – Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Friedrich Engels. These posters, which were not too dissimilar to fascist posters from the colonial era when Eritrea was under Italian rule, hinged on the tension between heroism and fear, and were often underscored by words like ‘unity’ or ‘duty’. In those days, against the backdrop of relentless killings and human rights violations, everyone was living with fear. Even today, the current regime frequently commissions visual and graphic campaign billboards of fighters with flags or images featuring posters of the nine different tribes of the country with the slogan ‘I am an Eritrean. I am proud.’ These convey a sense of national pride, pretending to celebrate ethnic diversity despite the fact that some tribes are discriminated against by the dominant group... spreading the same false sense of togetherness as the news and politicians continuously did here in the UK.
RM: I hear you. In the series’ non-photographic works you then cleverly juxtapose these pandemic headlines with slogans from First World War recruitment posters, exposing not only the striking parallels between contemporary and colonial histories – yesterday’s ‘Your Country Needs You’ becomes today’s ‘Your NHS Needs You’ – but also opening up a dialogue with the archive, incorporating images such as the iconic arrival of the SS Empire Windrush from 1948 or portraits of Queen Victoria’s imperial armies from the late 1890s.
AS: I wanted to emphasise the contributions made by non-white people to the British Empire, and to show how inequalities across colour and frontlines started decades, centuries ago, so as to explore the historical build-up of micro aggressions and misconducts, which continue until this day. The coronavirus pandemic acted as a wake-up call, and an awakening moment, for me as I began to research histories of migration before and after the Second World War: how African, Afro-Caribbean and Indian workers were recruited from Commonwealth countries to fill labour shortages in key positions – from the military to transport, education and the national health services. I see many parallels between the treatment of soldiers recruited for the British army who fought, and died, defending the ‘mother’ country – alongside other, often forgotten, invisible soldiers of history – and today’s frontline workers: the lack of recognition, the lack of protection, the lack of care towards them, the way they are treated as commodities and their lives viewed as expendable. The red poppies at the feet of the infantrymen in The Empire Needs You (2020) for example, represent a gesture of remembrance, while the red plume of feathers on Britannia’s helm [in A Great Leveller (2020)] symbolises the blood that was shed.
RM: Speaking of Britannia: this is your cameo – your auto-visual guest appearance, if you like – as the warrior goddess in the series, although the fact that the piece is based on a self-portrait is not discernible from the image itself. But I do love how you embody this loaded symbol of British power, recasting history and reclaiming its white pictorial space.
AS: I made the image with my daughter’s help: it was a lot of fun trying to compose the shot and we also fabricated some elements of the costume ourselves. As you know, while I often feature in my work, I am not usually visible as such. I am there, but also not there at the same time: I tend to appear in disguise, for various complicated reasons. During my research I became fascinated with the image of Britannia, especially the way she is often pictured with black and brown figures at her feet: on the one hand conveying this sense of pride, unity and strength, yet also a symbol of imperial subordination reinforcing Western superiority above all else. I wanted to flip the script and prioritise ‘us’ in the picture.
RM: Hence you remoulded and re-inscribed the frame. And yet the opposite of inscription is erasure, or obliteration: the national symbols and various tropes as well as the people you photographed are ‘effaced’ by these viral splashes. This manipulation, and layering, of the photographic surface is intrinsic to your practice: a crucial compositional element in both Even This Will Pass (2013-14), and Unsterile Clinic (2015).
AS: I have always used photography as my base; it provides the first, foundational layer, but I usually seek something more than photography to express my ideas. This commonly emerges through experimentation. The commission offered a wonderful opportunity to experiment and engage with several different art forms or activities at once: digital drawing, painting, photography, graphics, research. I consider myself an activist, as you know, and I generally use my practice to raise awareness. I initially started drawing and painting as a form of escapism from the intensity of my activist/advocacy work. While I am enjoying how it is now becoming an integral part of my practice, oftentimes it is a space just for me and my thoughts: no agenda, only the brush, and the paint – rare solitary time in my studio at home, listening to music, when the children are in bed.
RM: I am curious: what music did you listen to while making these works?
AS: I begin mostly with an upbeat, mood-lifting song by my favourite singer Nina Simone – ‘Sinnerman’, for example – or an Afrobeat by Fela Kuti. Then a song by the South Sudanese political activist/singer Emmanuel Jal, and finally I drift into isolation/solitude with Tezeta (Nostalgia) by the Ethio jazz legend Mulatu Astatke. Oh, and old school Alpha Blondy: for years I had forgotten about him until I heard a song played on the Métro in Paris, and suddenly, I had a rush of memories from Eritrea... I used to listen to his music back home.
RM: What a great image of you in the studio with these figures ... and very sonically east-Afrocentric! I have also been rediscovering the wonderful Éthiopiques compilations lately: very soothing in these taxing times. The four photographic portraits in the series depict frontline workers of Eritrean heritage. Why did you choose to photograph fellow Eritreans only?
AS: I often start with those closest to me, people I have access to, where there is familiarity, or shared experiences ... hence Eritreans. I also feel a sense of duty to acknowledge their presences in the diaspora. There is still a lack of visibility for east Africans, and the Horn of Africa especially. The four, who work in social care and transport industries, are only the beginning of the series. My hope is to portray a wider constituency of people of colour from different cultural backgrounds, and from different frontline professions: I have yet to photograph NHS healthcare workers, for example. When I speak of key workers, I mean all essential workers, including teachers, bus or taxi drivers, supermarket staff, and all those who do not clearly fall into the obvious ‘frontline’ categories. Do you remember the incident when a railway ticket officer – a black woman, a mother, her name was Belly Mujinga – was coughed and spat on by someone who claimed to have Covid-19? She later died from the virus. So, for me, this is about anyone who is exposed, anyone who is out there performing a public service, in close contact with the virus, putting their life on the line. I wanted to make the photographic print surface as vulnerable to contagion as the people I portrayed.
RM: Let us return to the creative process, the ‘making’ of these works. Your approach is both experimental and conceptual, with pandemic regulations and circumstances reflected in your visual methodology: from the remote portraiture mode you adopted to the way social distancing rules became part of the way you splash-painted the works, and the characteristic ‘coronal appearance’ of the stains. How much was preconceived and how much was left to chance in the process?
AS: I kept returning to this image of a corona gun, loaded with this menacing virus, shooting at people who look like me. I knew that I wanted to stain the works, although I did not yet know how, what type of stain, or how to recreate the spikes. I was experimenting with different liquids and substances: sugar, for example, was heavy, with a tendency to tighten into one big block and did not disperse well on the print surface. Depending on the height from which the splashes were applied, different kinds of viral shapes were created. I began playing with a distance of two metres at first, then reduced it to one metre in reference to the government’s ever-changing Covid-19 rules. I ended up approaching each of the works differently: for instance, with The Empire Needs You (2020) my ambition or desire was to evoke a visual war zone, and I ended up using barbed wire and rope to create a busy pattern of lots of mini explosions. With Your NHS Needs You (2020), the idea was to create a more uniform, contained coronavirus splash. So, each work plays with slightly different sentiments, which are reflected in the experimental surface-manipulation process as such and the varying appearance of the splashes.
RM: You ended up using five distinct products: coffee, tea, sugar, cocoa and cotton. These are among the oldest soft commodities, and are intimately connected to histories of exploitation, human rights abuses and unfair trade, especially in the global south.
AS: Yes, exactly: the materiality of the works and the materials used reference long traditions of forced labour by people of colour (primarily, though of course not exclusively) in different spaces and places impacted by colonialism to provide commodities for Western consumption. I bought the tea from Kenya and the coffee from Jamaica; cocoa from Ghana and Columbia; and all of the images are printed on textile made of 100 per cent cotton. Just like sugar, tea, tobacco or coffee, cotton is significant in the history of black people. I wanted to make another connection between the past and the present by using commodities associated with transatlantic slavery and industrial plantation economies during the late 1800s. Throughout history we seem to have valued these commodities more than human lives, or human rights. The pandemic made me reflect on the undervalued, underpaid, inhumane conditions of labour, and the people most impacted by it. The natural pigment of the substances also worked well to reflect on wider politics of colour and representation. I remember seeing an article [in The Guardian] about the first Covid-19 victims, illustrated with a mosaic of faces, personal snapshots of people, and I was struck by how dominant shades of brown were. Hence I wanted to create a representational tonal spectrum for the wider communities of colour.
RM: I was wondering about the significance of the coronal hues, shades and saturations – how, for instance, the faces of the Jamaican economic migrant figures in The Motherland Calls (2020) are evocatively mirrored in the coloured viral splashes. More significantly, it is these post-war Windrush migrants – future key workers – who represent the elderly generation dying from the virus today. Do the specific tones or pigment stains in the portrait works reflect the skin tones of the participants, similar to how the coloured leather pieces in Unsterile Clinic (2015) matched those portrayed?
AS: The original idea was to reflect the participants’ complexions, but accomplishing this was difficult: the colour of coffee, for example, depends on the roast level, and how dark the coffee bean is to begin with. In the beginning I was experimenting with different concentrations, how many spoons to use, etc. No matter how long I caramelised sugar to achieve a certain brown colour, or brewed tea, they were always too red or too beige. I soon realised that I needed more than one element to recreate the participants’ true skin tones, so I began layering and combining substances. But I wanted to maintain the purity of one substance for each individual portrait: either cocoa or sugar, rather than mix them up, as in the posters. There were some technical challenges I had to accept: coffee and chocolate were the easiest to work with; sugar and tea the most difficult. I ended up asking the participants what they preferred – tea or coffee? – and used this as my guidance, rather than trying to replicate individual complexions. The creative process involved a lot of conversation, a lot of brewing – lots of trial and error – and a lot of mess! Another challenge with the portraits was to retain some kind of figurative presence.
RM: The faces are barely visible in the final portraits. As with your previous works, they hover between representation and obscuration. Thus the series speaks palpably to both exposure and protection. How collaborative was this process?
AS: Because of the pandemic, a majority of the photographs were taken through virtual meetings, sometimes via phone or computer cameras; only one of them was created in person, between lockdowns, when we were allowed to meet others outdoors: Sugar (2020), which, ironically, is the least abstracted portrait in the set. I always ask my participants how they would like to be photographed, both to see if they have a particular idea in mind and to determine my conceptual approach. In the end, whether I show their face, or not, conceal their identity completely or partially, is down to them. These conversations are crucial in establishing trust, which is especially important for personally and politically dangerous projects such as Even This Will Pass. And although the potential consequences of recognition are not as grave with this series, most of the participants preferred to appear anonymous; concealing people’s identities is a thread that connects many of my artistic projects. It made me think about fear, and how precarious people’s positions are in society: the fear of being seen, of being stigmatised, of being recognised. I usually conduct interviews with project participants, but because some of them expressed concerns, I decided not to include testimonies: hence there are no names or professions given alongside the portraits.
RM: Your NHS Needs You (2020) on the other hand, features the names of some of the people of colour killed by the virus in the line of duty. These are ‘unruly’ works: there is a sense of ‘chaos’, yet underneath the viral-visual disarray on the surfaces there are very strong messages and embedded critiques. You are asking us to look very carefully...
AS: I made this work, primarily, in response to the notion of ‘fighting against an invisible enemy’. To me, the visible enemy in this pandemic is the government. The virus might be invisible but it does not discriminate – the system does. And if we care enough to look, we can see clearly how this ‘contagion’ has not only exposed existing social and racial inequalities but also laid bare the government’s failure to protect people in frontline and low-paid jobs. Hence the figure of the nurse in Your NHS Needs You (2020) is composed of repeated iterations of ‘PPE’ in order to draw attention to what I consider gross misconduct and negligence by the government, who did not provide sufficient life-saving equipment to protect essential workers – from paramedics to cleaners, doctors and nurses, and many others. The inadequate guidance and constantly changing messages caused so much confusion, and cost lives, leaving us exposed, silenced, attacked. The consequences of carelessly asking people to ‘soldier’ on through a pandemic, as we have seen, are devastating.
This past year felt very much like history repeating itself: we have been here before. You asked me earlier what I have been reading; although there has been little time to indulge much between remote-working and home-schooling, I did spend some time with David Olusoga’s book Black and British (2016), which I bought for my daughter. It is very educational and inspiring, as is Nesrine Malik’s We Need New Stories: Challenging the Toxic Myths Behind Our Age of Discontent (2019), especially the way she challenges inaccuracy in mainstream media and British history. Nikesh Shukla’s The Good Immigrant (2016), and Varaidzo’s chapter ‘A Guide to Being Black’ in particular, also felt very poignant... I can vividly relate to some of the accounts detailed, and it all seems very fitting for this moment in time.
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Image captions: Works from Aida Silvestri's commission Contagion: Colour on the Front Line, 2020, © and courtesy the artist, commissioned by Autograph for Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other: 1) Cacao [detail], 2020. Cacao and pigment ink on cotton fabric; 50 x 65 cm. 2) The Motherland Calls, 2020. Cacao, coffee, tea, sugar, tobacco and pigment ink on cotton fabric; 79 x 102 cm. 3) Sugar, 2020. Sugar and pigment ink on cotton fabric; 50 x 65 cm. 4) A Great Leveller, 2020. Cacao, coffee, tea, sugar and tobacco and pigment ink on cotton fabric; 79 x 102 cm. 5) The Empire Needs You, 2020. Cacao, coffee, tea, sugar, tobacco and pigment ink on cotton fabric; 79 x 102 cm. 6) Your NHS Needs You, 2020. Cacao, coffee, tea, sugar, tobacco and pigment ink on cotton fabric; 79 x 102 cm. 7) A Great Leveller [detail], 2020. Cacao, coffee, tea, sugar and tobacco and pigment ink on cotton fabric; 79 x 102 cm. 10) Tea, 2020. Tea and pigment ink on cotton fabric; 50 x 65 cm. 11) The Motherland Calls [detail], 2020. Cacao, coffee, tea, sugar, tobacco and pigment ink on cotton fabric; 79 x 102 cm. 12) Your NHS Needs You [detail], 2020. Cacao, coffee, tea, sugar, tobacco and pigment ink on cotton fabric; 79 x 102 cm.
Other page images: 8) Aida Silvestri, TYPE I B. From the series Unsterile Clinic, 2016. 9) Aida Silvestri, Anghesom from the series Even This Will Pass, 2013.