Aida Silvestri

Contagion: Colour on the Front Line

For our commissioning project Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other, Aida Silvestri has created an experimental body of work that explores the impact of Covid-19 on frontline workers of colour, linking the present with the past.

Aida Silvestri creates mixed media artworks that challenge the status quo of stigma, prejudice and social injustice, often highlighting issues of race, class, identity and health. Her socially engaged activist practice is characterised by multi-layered modes of working that often combines text, image and experimental techniques to manipulate the photographic surface.

For this new artist commission, Silvestri responded to the idea of Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other by taking the charged political rhetoric adopted by both mainstream media and politicians during the pandemic as a point of departure – linking phrases such as ‘we are all in this together’ or ‘fighting against an invisible enemy’ with imperial narratives and wartime sentiments. For Silvestri, these slogans not only recall her formative years living in Eritrea under authoritarian communist regimes, but they also expose striking parallels between Britain’s imperial past and present. Using exposure as both metaphor and device, Silvestri highlights the devastating impact of Covid-19 on frontline workers of colour by ‘infecting’ her digital drawing collage and portrait works with commodity substances such as coffee, tea, sugar, or cocoa, creating coloured coronal splashes on the artworks – further amplifying the notion of ‘contagion’.

To contextualise this new art commission, we invited scholar Anthony Downey to write a short essay reflecting on the themes raised by Silvestri’s series, critically considering the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on ethnic minority communities and rhetoric of inclusion. This is published alongside an in-depth conversation between the artist and Autograph's senior curator Renée Mussai.


The Rhetorical Fallacy of Inclusion
Read scholar Anthony Downey's response to Contagion: Colour on the Front Line

If We Care Enough [To Look]: In Conversation with Aida Silvestri
Autograph's senior curator Renée Mussai speaks with the artist


Contagion: Colour on the Front Line (2020)

A Great Leveller

Your NHS Needs You

Coffee I

Coffee II

The Empire Needs You

The Motherland Calls


Aida Silvestri (born 1978, Eritrea) is a visual activist whose multi-faceted practice amplifies marginalised voices and migrant communities – raising awareness of human rights issues and representational politics in the arts and beyond.

Using innovative modes of mixed media portraiture, Silvestri’s celebrated projects Even This Will Pass (2013 – 2014) and Unsterile Clinic (2015) respectively address people trafficking by highlighting the perilous journeys undertaken by economic and political refugees, and advocate for survivors of gender-based violence by drawing attention to the widespread practice of female genital mutilation. Both series were published, exhibited and part-commissioned by Autograph.

Silvestri’s work has been exhibited as part of African Cosmologies: Photography, Time and the Other at the 2020 FotoFest Biennale, Houston, USA; at Autograph, London; The Photographers’ Gallery, London; Saatchi Gallery, London; TEAT Champ Fleuri, La Réunion Island; Arendt House, Luxembourg; Musée National d’Histoire-aux-Poissons, Luxembourg; Gah Museum, Taiwan; Athens Photo Festival Benaki Museum Athens, Greece; Cours de L’Archevéché, Arles; Centquarter Paris, France. She is currently remote artist-in-residence at Light Work, Syracuse; and in 2017 she received the Circulation(s) Festival audience award and was shortlisted for the Arendt European Month of Photography awards. 

You can see more of Silvestri's work on her website.

About the project

Initiated during the first months of lockdown in 2020, Autograph has commissioned a constituency of ten UK-based creative practitioners in our immediate artistic community to create an open-ended visual arts project in response to the current Covid-19 pandemic.

Working with photography, film and lens-based media, Autograph’s curatorial team Mark Sealy, Renée Mussai and Bindi Vora have been in close dialogue with each artist to produce these new bodies of work. The artist commissions reflect Autograph’s long-standing work advocating for photography and film to address visual politics of rights, race and representation.

Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other will be presented as a group exhibition at Autograph's gallery in Shoreditch, London, from autumn 2021.


Read our senior curator Renée Mussai's introduction to the Care | Contagion | Community project

View the completed artist commissions

Visit the Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other exhibition at Autograph

Purchase a copy of the Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other book from Autograph's online shop


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Supported using public funding by Arts Council England

Image captions:  Works from Aida Silvestri's commission Contagion: Colour on the Front Line, 2020. © and courtesy the artist. Commissioned by Autograph for Care I Contagion I Community – Self & Other: 1) A Great Leveller, 2020 [detail]. 2) A Great Leveller, 2020. Cacao, coffee, tea, sugar and tobacco and pigment ink on cotton fabric; 79 x 102 cm. 3) Your NHS Needs You, 2020. Cacao, coffee, tea, sugar, tobacco and pigment ink on cotton fabric; 79 x 102 cm. 4) Cacao, 2020. Cacao and pigment ink on cotton fabric; 50 x 65 cm. 5 and 6) Coffee I and Coffee II, 2020. Coffee and pigment ink on cotton fabric; each 50 x 65 cm. 7) Sugar, 2020. Sugar and pigment ink on cotton fabric; 50 x 65 cm. 8) Tea , 2020. Tea and pigment ink on cotton fabric; 50 x 65 cm. 9) The Empire Needs You, 2020. Cacao, coffee, tea, sugar, tobacco and pigment ink on cotton fabric; 79 x 102 cm. 10) The Motherland Calls, 2020. Cacao, coffee, tea, sugar, tobacco and pigment ink on cotton fabric; 79 x 102 cm.

Other page images: 11) Courtesy Aida Silvestri.