Virginia Chihota Blurs the Boundaries Between Self and Nature

Virginia Chihota fuses folkloric symbolism with emblems of the everyday through a hybridized practice of drawing, painting, and screen printing. She represents figures as at once vague, genderless forms and fierce, female bodies.

Raised in Zimbabwe by Zimbabwean and South African parents, she has also lived in Libya and Austria, and is now based in Tunisia. While she has been featured in group exhibitions around the world and in fact represented Zimbabwe at the Venice Biennale in 2013, “A Thorn in my Flesh (munzwa munyama yangu)” at London’s Tiwani Contemporary marks her first solo exhibition in Europe.

Through brilliant color pairings and repeated motifs, Chihota explores the nature of relationships. The boundaries between self and nature are blurred in the root of the flower we do not know (mudzi weruva ratisingazive) (2014), as the central figure’s form seems to meld with the flowers it is holding. A series of spindly stems encircle the figure, who is made ghostly by layers of light paint over dark, and made distinct by the traced contours of its form. The same figure and floral patterns reappear in Chihota’s other works, most vividly in two prints by the same name. A nice little contrast: in these works the figure is emboldened in dark greys and blacks, and dons what may be a yellow halo or an orb of sunlight. In each of these prints, human form is depicted quite paradoxically: as deeply connected to nature and as a separate entity, as at once vulnerable and immeasurably strong.

In other works Chihota uses a more minimal palette to imbue works with a spiritual quality, sometimes with sinister side effects. Her figures are enigmatic, often rendered with a sense of ambiguity. While features like toenails, ankle bones, and hair follicles are well articulated, often more gender-specific parts are left vague. 

Chihota layers paint, process, and meaning to find a fresh, individualized language for visual expression. A shorthand comparison for her work could be Ana Mendieta, both for her spirited exploration of the self and its relation to nature, and for her commitment to depicting the female form as at once fierce and fragile.

Anna Furman

A Thorn in my Flesh (munzwa munyama yangu)” is on view at Tiwani Contemporary, London, Jan. 9–Feb. 7, 2015.

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