Tiwani Contemporary, Cromwell Place
17 January – 11 February 2023
“ the act of repeating the same image or gesture (…) is my own prayer seeking a solution over a specific matter.”
Interview in Elephant magazine February 2021
Virginia Chihota’s new exhibition at Tiwani Contemporary, temporarily at home in Cromwell Place, features four enormous canvasses. Unstretched, and pinned to the wall so that their edges are gently animated with movement, they speak stories rooted in deep introspection. The exhibition’s title signals the artist’s conviction in a powerful, generative female principle.
Coming to the work for the first time, one could be forgiven for assuming these are paintings, whereas in fact they are accomplished with an astonishingly complex silkscreen process. Chihota’s practice incorporates drawing and silkscreen (also known as serigraphy) at the most sophisticated level. The artist studied at National Art Gallery studios in Harare, Zimbabwe, and was one of a group chosen by Raphael Chikukwa to represent Zimbabwe at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013. Layered with unique as well as repeating motifs, the works externalise an intense interior discourse that is inflected with a strong spiritual dimension. Chihota has described her choice of silkscreen over painting per se as a means to avoid following in the footsteps of other painters.
All four canvasses feature a rich array of different mark making. Chihota only relatively recently switched away from paper supports to allow a more densely layered process. These range from broad gestural strokes that often outline her own figure centrally in the composition, to ultra-fine, feathery renditions of bottle-brush flowers; from semi-transparent washes of textured colour to impastoed blocks of pure pigment. These switches of register push and pull the eye across the canvass, ever seeking the motifs that lie waiting to be discovered quietly in the background. Like the minor characters in a novel that drive key plot twists, one needs to pay close attention.
In Ndoda kutarisa kumusoro kwete ikoko (I want to look up not there), 2022, for example, there appears a diminutive outline figure in shirt and tie. They have a friendly, if slightly sheepish look, head cocked to one side. Who is this? A schoolchild? Is the blurred red figure with obscured mouth and conspicuous chain their artist-mother? And whose hands are these that reach out across a pool of fish – presumably offering help, but maybe graspingly demanding help too? In her own notes to the exhibition the artist writes: “in a space that carries pressure and tension, I can endure to a certain point until it becomes clear from within that it is time to move…to a desired state symbolized by the fish in water.” At the top of the canvas, the artist’s head with her distinctive locks, like an Egyptian goddess, appears above the scene playing out below, presenting the narrative to us.
In Miganhu yodimbuka (Boundary lines have started breaking), 2022, the artist depicts herself three times, from an almost entirely abstracted dome-shape in the bottom left, to the expressive, seemingly angst-ridden figure in the top right. In a motif that repeats across several of the works in the show, windows hold text that appears to offer a call and response in Shona and English: reversed by the silkscreen process, one reads “wash me” in English, while the Shona text, ndigeze iwo, translates as “let me wash them”. This is the only instance where the windows hold text. Elsewhere they act as metaphorical vents in the compositions, symbolically letting some air in or, through repetition, offering up a prayer, like rosary beads.
In Nditsigirei nomweya unoda (Uphold me with a willing spirit), 2022, Chihota portrays herself from behind, fenced in to what could be an animal pen, or maybe a boxing ring, a dartboard on her back suggesting St Sebastian. Along the lower third of the work, a long row of church-like windows; to the right of the main figure, a vignette that appears to depict a woman asleep in bed, with a child standing at her head. The open window motif appears again, this time opening onto a golden light.
The last of the four canvasses, Sarai ndaenda (So long I am leaving), 2022, is perhaps the most lyrical, with three repeating figures across the bottom that set up a Matissian rhythm on a richly worked ground of pink and peacock blue marks. On closer inspection these are composite images of a seated woman, her feet resting on a stool, and smaller figures draped across the top of her. As in the previous work, the artist is presented from behind as a monumental central figure, ostensibly walking away from us. Overlaid horizontally, is a recumbent nude conjured in fine red lines, that dissolves into abstraction. There is extraordinary tenderness in the drawn gestures that outline back, shoulder and arm, a sense of the weight and refuge of repose. In all of these works Chihota’s command of colour is viscerally satisfying.
Chihota’s work has long been centred in a female subjectivity that explores her own life journey through experience of childbirth and rearing and familial relationships as well as the challenges confronting the artist mother. The show at Tiwani presents her largest works to date, works that give her space to expand and amplify her themes, and to showcase a virtuosity that is breathtaking to behold.
4 Cromwell Pl. London, SW7 2JE
Opening Times: Tuesday to Saturday 10am – 6pm
Exhibition open until 11 February 2023