Silvia Rosi Is Inverting The Classic West African Studio Portrait To Retell Her Family’s History

by Eric Otieno Sumba - Published on 08/07/2020
Silvia Rosi, Self portrait as my father, 2020

At first, an image by the London-based Italian-Togolaise artist Silvia Rosi might strike the viewer as eerily familiar, and yet somehow fresh: vintage and thoroughly contemporary at the same time. This tension lingers as one studies the few details of the picture, a few props perhaps, or a monochrome background. Other than that clean and simple composition, with the artist herself as the subject. All the while, for the viewer, that feeling of familiarity never quite goes away, as the image evokes various reactions.

Silvia Rosi, Self portrait as my Mother on the phone, 2016
Silvia Rosi, Self portrait as my Mother on the phone, 2016

With the inversion of West African Studio portraiture, Silvia Rosi’s exploration of heritage is both inward and outward. It is inward because the subjects she embodies in her photography are members of her own family. But It is also outward because the technique she applies to capture herself is quite common in the family albums of Rosi’s generation. Now known as West African Studio portraiture, it is an aesthetic that is celebrated in the work of trailblazers such as Mali’s Malick Sidibe and Ghana’s Felica Abban, and more recently in contemporary work by Ruth Ossai, who has been successful in fashion photography with an exaggerative and explosive studio aesthetic and of course Rosi, who is reinterpreting the classic West African studio portait, by stripping it down to convey the lived realities of her family.

Silvia Rosi, Self Portrait as my Mother, 2016
Silvia Rosi, Self Portrait as my Mother, 2016

Having collaborated with GRIOT on a call for images for Der Greif’s guest Room, curated by Johanne Affricot, we took the opportunity to discuss Rosi’s own artistic practice, and her biography, which she heavily draws from for her work.

GRIOT: The family album is a central archive for your work. Could you speak about the family album as your source? How is this archive influenced by digital technology?

SILVIA ROSI: I started looking at the family album from a really young age. As I child I always liked to stare at people until my mom told me it’s not polite to do so. I like photographs cause you can look at people for as long as you like, study their gestures, expressions, you become very aware of details in a way that is difficult to do by meeting them. The family album becomes my source in this sense.

Silvia Rosi, Self Portrait as my Mother (testo), 2016
Silvia Rosi, Self Portrait as my Mother (testo), 2016

The photos are small prints which I often scan and enlarge to see them better and analyse details. This also allows me to carry them with me wherever I travel to, and leave the original objects in a safe place which is home in Italy. I guess this is the only way I apply technology to the album. My family doesn’t take pictures as much and if some are taken, they reside in the gallery of a smartphone.

Your work straddles the line between photography and performance. What do you find most interesting about this overlap?

I think photography has a strong performative element. If we take West African studio portraiture for example we have a set, props that you can borrow, actors which are the subject of the photographs (performing for the camera), and a director, which is the photographer.

The result is an image of dignity and pride, which is how the subject of the photograph will be remembered. Social class does not matter, everyone has the opportunity to display a better version of themselves and that’s what I like the most about those photographs. But the reality is different, the are more complex dynamics, so in my work I perform in the opposite way. I show the ugliest part of my family, the suffering and the struggles that brought us here.

Silvia Rosi, Encounter, Installazione alla Jerwoods Arts, Londra, 2020
Silvia Rosi, Encounter, Jerwoods Arts, London, 2020

Embodiment or re-enactment is also a central theme in your work. How does this inform your creative process?

In my works I use mimicking and embodiment as a way of understanding my own history. I impersonate members of my family because they’re the closest to me. They are key to unfold the issue of identity. I’m just trying to understand my history through the body of the people who played an important role in it. Putting myself in their shoes is part of that journey of self discovery.

Considering leaving as a central theme in your familys history, how conscious and intentional was leaving Italy for the UK in retrospect?

I was 18 when I moved to London. I always justified leaving as a search for adventure, which is very common in young people that age. This desire of gaining different experiences and meeting new people.

The truth is I was struggling as a young black woman in Italy. I come from a small village where my identity was constantly put in question, by strangers who asked me why I spoke Italian so well, but also by myself as I had extreme awareness of my difference.

I didn’t move only to find opportunities, but to find a place where I could enjoy diversity and lose myself in the crowd, become almost invisible. London was the perfect place, it still is.

Silvia Rosi, Self portrait as my Mother in school uniform, 2016
Silvia Rosi, Self portrait as my Mother in school uniform, 2016

How has your relationship to West African Studio portraiture changed over the years?

The west African studio portrait has gained a sentimental value for me. I wasn’t too familiar with its language at first. But now that I understand it, looking at pictures of my family album reminds me of home. It gives me a sense of pride and joy to look at my ancestors, who are looking back at me, almost as if they knew their photos would have traveled between continents to reassure me when I was lost and in search for answers.

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Eric Otieno Sumba
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I am a decolonial scholar working at the intersections of social justice, politics, the economy, art & culture. I enjoy reading, dancing, cycling, and cappuccinos without sugar.