“He was an educated man from a good Togolaise family. He arrived in Italy in 1988 with a few clothes in his suitcase, some books and the dream of finding a good job.” So begins Silvia Rosi’s retelling of her parent’s migration from their hometown in Lomé, Togo, to Italy. Rosi’s father hoped to further his studies and professional career in Europe, but when her mother arrived a year later, she found him picking tomatoes in a field.
Encounter is the photographer’s attempt to connect with her family history and heritage through performative self-portraits and the tradition of head carrying. Completed with support from the Jerwood/Photoworks Award, the project is currently on show at Jerwood Arts,London, where each section illustrates an important story from her parent’s migration; stories of resilience, optimism, and hardship.
Combining photography and film, the exhibition rewards deeper readings. Each self-portrait, inspired by the conventions of West African studio portraiture, includes objects and garments that relate to the narrative, such as her mother’s school uniform and radio, through which she first heard the news that Italy would legalise every migrant in the country. Each photograph is accompanied by a repeated line of text that emphasises the connection with the objects.
Rosi also seeks to connect to her heritage through head carrying, an act commonly performed in Togo by women in the market. As a young girl, Rosi’s mother sold toothpicks before school to help her single mother. The exhibition includes a video of Rosi’s mother and grandmother demonstrating the technique of tying fabric rings for head carrying, completing a maternal lineage through the work that ties in with the nature of head carrying as a feminine act and experience. For Rosi, head carrying also serves as a “metaphor of struggle which is present in the market and resonates in the act of migration”.
Rosi’s father eventually left Italy in pursuit of a better future in the Netherlands, but her mother did not follow. The photographer has never met her father, and her mother does not talk about the past often, so photography was a way for Rosi to access these histories. “I think this project was crucial for me to understand more about my family,” she says.