A horrid spectre rises in the shadows before us. Over your head it lifts it’s bony arms. It is your mother – see her cursing you!, 2020
© Virginia Chihota, courtesy Virginia Chihota et Tiwani Contemporary
Family and interpersonal ties with complex ramifications, a female figure questioning her identity: two themes at the heart of Verdi's Aida, which are present in many of Virginia Chihota's works. At the invitation of stage director Lotte de Beer, the Zimbabwean visual artist imagined the appearance of the marionettes that double up the performers of Aida and Amonasro, and brought shape to the title role's interiority through artwork projected on stage.
Can you tell us about your artistic education and your different activities?
I'm an artist from Zimbabwe and currently working out of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. My work is deeply influenced by personal experiences - landmark and every day. In a reflection on intimacy and the human figure, I've looked at themes including childbearing, child rearing, marriage, kinship, bereavement and faith.
I trained as a printmaker and I use screen-printing. Often, I mix printing techniques with drawing. These works often depict the female form blending into near abstraction, and bodies caught in strange embraces - all evoking a figural union. These works point to the domestic and emphasise connectedness and collectivity. My work highlights the ways in which the female agency disrupts borders and activates concerns around different forms of belonging. Subjectivity emerges as a concept embedded in notions of interrelatedness.
Working with screen printing was never the plan. I wanted to express myself with painting as opposed to printmaking, which I never gave attention to when I was at college. That was until I had to submit printmaking exercises in college. Printmaking is a process that you have to go through, doing more preparatory work until you finally are able to print. Somehow, I just found myself embracing the moments and processes that were involved, and not only that, I also found a language to express myself which came effortlessly—as opposed to my paintings which I had always found rigid, and also reminded me of some other artists’ works I had seen. After going through different printmaking techniques, screen printing came out on top for me as a medium of expression, and I also realized that most of the textures and forms I got with other printmaking techniques I could also get using silkscreen. It substituted painting for me.
How did you approach the project of Aida?
Aida was a new platform and a layout to me and at the same time challenging - because of this I wanted to find out what form my contribution would take and how these results would be 'archived' in the process. The body of work I have made is a response to elements within the production that made an impact on me. These elements encompass my encounter with Aida - the production and the character itself - those are namely ideas relating to the troubled spirit, identity, love and how to be loved, motherland, the foreign land and dominion.
In the works projected during the performance, personal stories appear clearly linked to social stories. Bodies are treated both as individuals and as part of a community. Can you elaborate on these different relationships?
Society and family always have their relevance in an individual's life, no-one gave birth to self and whether oppressed or free we have people around us who influence our growth and decision making. In my work, the individual body represents the personal yet each carries a background that is often defined by society. Whether I yield to society's ideas or not, I cannot say but they remain present with my work. In Aida, the heroine is tormented by her thoughts of her motherland, her father the king and the love of her life. She also cannot have everything run according to her favour: she has to define her own position in the space she finds herself in.
In the opera, Aida is an adult woman, in love with Radames, but she is also a child, daughter of Amonasro. In London, you are currently showing some pieces where you explore the bonds of family. The theme of kinship seems to be important to you?
"Ndiri Mwana Wa.... (I am a child of ....) is my latest body of work. When human forms appear in this series, they may be considered representations of a philosophical confrontation with the self. I'm interested in knowing how and if belonging is ever determinable – using my present and earlier circumstances as source material.
Growing up in a multi-generational setting, my paternal and maternal aunts and uncles – both by blood and in-law - were addressed as ‘Amai’ (mother) or ‘Baba’ (father). My own mother and father died before they had built their own place at the family compound in the countryside yet there was one place that always welcomed us. In particular, there was one particular cherished place in the series – a kitchen and its thatched ceiling belonging to one of my mothers. It was the nucleus of all family activity - the embassy of the family. This kitchen was an all-encompassing space of security, comfort and bounty, a locus amoenus where wedding ceremonies were staged including her own, family matters discussed, discipline carried out and where funerals began. Under the same ceiling my father and mother spent the night in this house while people sang for them before their burial the next day. After their passing, I still had people around me addressing them as I would my own parents. These people around me continued to embrace and support me. After all my thoughts, now can I clearly say whose child I am? I believe there is more to whose child we all are.
What does femininity mean to you and what is the significance of the recurring female figure in your work?
Feminity is fertile, productive, ever assisting, generous, inventive and rich. The recurring female figure is a representation of self within my space and thoughts. She helps me to reveal the face and form of my conditions. She is simply trying to understand that which makes her a human being, questioning existence and conditions within her world. She appears in different forms, depending on her condition and what she is questioning, she will always face the front because she longs to confront her fears. Her anatomy appears abnormal and defines her conditions. The female figure is very flexible for me as it helps me to express, unfold and find out what I need to learn so I can move on. The act of repeating the same image or gesture over and over, I have learned in the process, is my own prayer seeking a solution over a specific matter. When I have been answered, this allows me to start on another unknown journey. The female figure is real to me in forms that I cannot define with words.
Aida by Giuseppe Verdi
The recording of the new production of Aida will be available from 02/18/2021 to 08/20/2021 on Arte.