Essay published on Jerwood/Photoworks Awards catalogue
© Ekow Eshun, writer and curator

At the end of the 1980’s Silvia Rosi’s parents left their home in Lomé, Togo in search of a better life in Italy. Rosi’s father was the son of a middle class Togolese family and he had hopes of progressing his studies and taking up a professional career abroad. But when Rosi’s mother arrived a year later she found him living in a shelter provided by the church and working in the fields, picking tomatoes for one Lira a box. She was more fortunate and found work quickly as a nanny. But their relationship did not survive the journey to Europe. With Rosi still an infant, her parents split up. ––– In her series of self portraits for the Jerwood/Photoworks Award, Rosi reenacts her parents’ struggle, positioning herself as both observer of, and participant in the tensions that ultimately surrendered their relationship. In Self Portrait as my Father we find Rosi dressed in a jacket and tie, posing awkwardly with a telephone on her head. The caption reads, “In Italy, he could not find the opportunities he had dreamt of, so he decided he would leave. He picked up the phone and asked her to follow in to the Netherlands.” 

Self Portrait as my Mother, the accompanying image, shows Rosi apparently weeping into the phone. “She said she couldn’t move, not again. Not with a baby. She begged him to stay but he wouldn’t listen. When she got home that night he wasn’t there and his things were gone.” Rosi’s images are both quotidiane and complex. They are, on one level, simply the recreation of domestic scenes, albeit ones staged disquietingly by the daughter of the couple involved ––– But their straightforwardness is deceptive. They demand - and reward - deeper scrutiny. After her parents split, Rosi’s Mother remarried and stayed in Italy.
The photographer grew up near Modena with little connection to her father or her Togolese origins. It was only after she made her own journey abroad, moving to Britain to study photography at London College of Communication, that she became curious about her family background.

In the Jerwood photographs Rosi dons a vividly patterned red and green dress meant to evoke her mother. And we also see her dressed smartly in the manner of her father, a man who continued to strive for elegance even as his hopes of a future in Italy crumbled. But to what end? Is she staging the photographs to understand her parents experience as migrants? or to explore her own identity as an Italian-born woman  of African origin now based in Britain. ––– The series is based on pictures that Rosi came across in an old family photo album in which, for the first time, she saw photographs of her Togolese relatives and images also of her parents together in Lomé before their departure in Italy. To Rosi the pictures were beguiling and strange. They felt ‘odd’. 1

Most of the photographs were taken in a studio setting with the subject dressed formally as though on show. Family members held flowers or gazed rigidly at the camera. Even the pictures taken at home had the same staged quality to them. The aesthetic approach of the photos brought to mind the tradition of African studio portraiture as exemplified by the Malian master photographers Malick Sidibe and Seydou Keita. Rosi drew on some of the tropes prevalent in their work-such as an emphasis on stylish clothes and the use of recurring props such as telephones and radios - to inform the visual language of her self portraits. But there is a key difference between her work and theirs. The portraiture of Sidibe and Keita is celebratory. Sidibe especially, photographed Mali and its people in the wake of the country’s new-found independence from France. His images show the citizens of a young country, confident and optimistic. When they pose before his camera they are putting their best selves on display for all to see. 

By contrast Rosi’s photos dwell on intimacy and discomfort. They depict deeply private moments and present them for public consumption. As she puts it, “I was interested in creating something that is familiar and can be connected to the family album. But it’s also unfamiliar in the way it speaks honestly about the people it features. We’re very selective in the way we decide what we want to show and we want to make visible. I’m performing family histories that are not always nice to see. I’m not performing the best side of my family. I’m trying to create something more complex out of similar rules”2  ––– There is one important way however that Rosi’s series remains in connection with the studio portrait tradition. Photography came to Africa in the latter half of the 19th century at the same time that Europe’s imperially ambitious nations sought to exert their dominance over the continent. With colonial rule came the stereotype of the continent as a heart of darkness, a caricature backed up by exoticised images of  Africans in mud hut villages, far from the trappings of civilisation.

But even at the beginning of the colonial era, Africans were also shooting pictures of Africans. Photographers such as George Lutterodt and his son Albert, who worked along the coast of West Africa, and Francis W Joaque, a Sierra Leonian with a studio in Libreville, (present day Gabon) were creating studio portraits of extraordinary artistry and sophistication in the late 1800s ––– In contrast the dehumanising Western stereotypes of Africans they presented their subjects as people with rich inner lives. And it is with this emphasis on the interiority of the African figure that we can make a link between 19th century African photography and Rosi’s 21st century imagery. From then to now the goal has been to honour the complexity of the individual ––– To illuminate the parts of a person that might otherwise remain out of sight in an image. And in so doing, to create a portrait that rings true across time.

1 Author interview with Silvia Rosi, conducted 2.12.2019
2 Ibid