In Conversation with emerging Zimbabwean artist, Virginia Chihota on her current exhibition and European solo debut at London’s Tiwani Contemporary
Virginia Chihota sets herself apart through her wrought depictions of the human condition – the perennial search for self. Exhibited extensively in Zimbabwe and further afield, at institutions such as the Kunsthalle Faust, Hannover and the Lyon Biennale, her inclusion in Zimbabwe’s exhibition at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013, arguably stands as her biggest achievement yet. 2013 also saw her receive the international Prix Canson prize – in further recognition of her impact as an emerging artist working with paper.
© Virginia Chihota. kudzokorodza kuzvitsvaga [the constant search for self], 2013. Courtesy of the artist and Tiwani Contemporary, London.
Born and raised in Zimbabwe, Chihota has lived and worked in Libya and is now based in Tunisia. This process of relocation has meant that Chihota has grappled with various situational issues of displacement, the disruption of familiar environments and the subsequent feelings of isolation that accompany such events.
However, it is her experience navigating, and reflecting upon these issues that has ultimately helped shape her practice, and has become the departure point for her current solo exhibition titled, A Thorn in my Flesh. The exhibition which, “explores the connection between self and other, and self and environment in relation to female subjectivity,” is her first with Tiwani Contemporary in London and marks as Chihota says, “an important phase in my career.”
Virginia Chihota | A Thorn in my Flesh (installation view). Photo © Sylvain Deleu. Courtesy of Tiwani Contemporary, London.
With this in mind we caught up with her to find out more about the ways in which her life experience has shaped her practice and how this exhibition reflects upon her development as an emerging artist.
Houghton Kinsman | Virginia, seeing that this is your first UK solo show, what does this exhibition mean for you and most importantly to you?
Virginia Chihota | A Thorn in my Flesh marks an important phase in my career, and the beginning of a new relationship with Tiwani Contemporary as a representative. It is my first solo show in Europe with gallery representation and I look forward to developing this relationship.
Starting a new relationship inevitably leads to reflecting on the past, so in thinking about your formative years, how would you describe the process of emerging artistically in Zimbabwe?
In the early days, I only thought about making art, rather than as a career. I never knew when, or indeed if, I would have money, which posed a challenge in terms of buying materials. But this taught me perseverance, and compromise. We have few galleries in Zimbabwe but they work hard to support young artists. The National Gallery of Zimbabwe has a Visual Arts School that provides huge support to emerging artists in their respective practices, and I am a former student. Also, Gallery Delta in Harare runs an annual exhibition for young artists. This is important, because it’s an open- submission exhibition: every young artist who submits work has the chance to show. I did it and it gave me the chance to show my work. But many artists still lack information and access, especially those based outside of Harare. New spaces have recently opened in and outside of Harare and there are also exhibition spaces such as Dzimbanhete Arts Centre, Village Unhu, First Floor Gallery and Njelele, to mention some of the important spaces for emerging artists in Zimbabwe.
In our interview with First Floor Gallery, director Valerie Kabob tell us that, “ in Zimbabwe becoming an artist-educationally was a ‘plan B’.” That being said, what made you decide to become one?
I became a practicing artist because it was my only option. Nothing else made sense. I have always wanted to be in a position where my work is my passion, but art was never discussed as a possibility during career guidance at school. Creativity wasn’t really encouraged at school, and we were not aware that producing art could lead to a career. But where there is a will, there is always a way. For me, it was thanks to meeting the right people, who made me realise my potential and showed me the way.
These stories and experiences that make up your background, also form part of the human condition, something that is at once both personal and universal. Seeing that this notion is heavily connected to your practice, how important are you as the artist to the work?
My work is a reflection on the search for one’s self (and the perenniality of the self) in changing circumstances. Displacement creates uncertainty but the imperative to survive and the continuity one manages to maintain despite changing conditions inspires me. My work expresses the anxieties, yearnings and victories that everyone who has dealt with similar experiences will recognise.
© Virginia Chihota. Kurera Wako [Raising your own], 2014. Courtesy of the artist and Tiwani Contemporary, London.
That being said, how do you view the relationship between your studio practice and your everyday life.
My work and everyday life cannot be separated. All my time is family time but my practice is also important. They influence each other: my everyday life is an inspiration for my work, whereas I see the process of making my work as a therapy, like creating a space for questions without the need for immediate answers.
Thinking of you working away in the studio brings up my interest your approach to the theme of isolation. Having dealt extensively with this theme do you think that the subject is innate to the human condition, being that we are born and die alone? Why?
Isolation is natural to the human condition. As we come into this world, we are introduced to it and we adapt. I am particularly interested in the type of isolation that comes out of disruption or changing circumstances. I’ve only really realised the meaning of isolation when there was a shift or a rupture in my familiar environment. The isolation I speak of is in relation to a ruptured sense of place – and so not necessarily as a universal truth as in ‘being born alone’, but very much linked to a personal experience of displacement.
Speaking of displacement, you have worked in Zimbabwe, Libya and now Tunisia, how have each of these locations influenced the direction of your discourse?
Each new place affects my work differently. Some places are more conducive to making work than others, but sometimes I only need a sketchpad and a pencil. Zimbabwe remains at the core of my practice: it’s where I spent my formative years and where I developed my artistic language. I think I started to realise my potential in Libya – being inspired by my own experience of isolation. The years in Libya also coincided with landmark exhibitions in my career, such as the Venice Biennale, and now the solo show at Tiwani Contemporary. I travel regularly to Austria, and I’m now based in Tunisia where I’m continuing to make work.
Virginia Chihota. mudzi weruva ratisingazive [The root of the flower we do not know]. Courtesy of the artist and Tiwani Contemporary, London.
What is the significance behind your symbolic use of the womb in relation to the human condition?
The womb is an all-encompassing symbol for fertility, for a woman’s gift for gestation and the creation of life, a woman’s intuition and psychic abilities, and the subconscious. The womb, to me, holds personal and social significance. It expresses life and death, freedom and oppression, fears, anxieties, power, vulnerability, motherhood, choices and identity as a reminder of who we are. No one is excluded from being fruit of the womb and all that that encompasses. It yields to the human condition. “You without a situation is you without flesh.” TB Joshua.
Born in 1983 in Chitungwiza, Zimbabwe, Chihota graduated from the National Art Gallery Studios in Harare, Zimbabwe in 2006. Working across printmaking and drawing, she observes the human figure and depicts it with expressive force. Recent exhibitions include Shifting Africa: Artistic Views from the Sub-Sahara, Kunsthalle Faust, Hannover (2014); Giving Contours to Shadows, Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, Berlin (2014); 55th Venice Biennale (2013), National Gallery of Zimbabwe, Harare (2012); and the Lyon Biennale, Lyon (2011).
A Thorn in my flesh, is currently on exhibit until February 7th 2015 at London’s Tiwani Contemporary.
Written by Houghton Kinsman
All images courtesy of the artist and Tiwani Contemporary.