Ursula Hawlitscka,Curator of the exhibition:

Virginia Ryan – I Will Shield You            

“Otherisation is unavoidable, and for every One, the Other is the Heart of Darkness. The West is as much the Heart of Darkness to the Rest as the latter is to the West. Intention and contemplation of the Other is a continuous process evident in all cultures and societies. But in contemplating the Other, it is necessary to exhibit modesty and admit relative handicap since the peripheral location of the contemplator precludes a complete understanding. This ineluctability is the Darkness.”                                                                                                                          Olu Oguibe, 1993                                                                                                       

When we first discussed her solo exhibition at Montoro12 Contemporary Art, Virginia Ryan had several suggestions, but by far my favorite was her idea to create a new series of sculptures in the form of shields. An entirely new project which would take about a year of production, the series consists of fifteen shields with a round metal base, which the artist used to attach  a multiplicity of found objects, photographs, raw wool, book pages, fabric, drawings and other paraphernalia, many of them covered in thread, each unique and hand-made. Ryan’s working process can be described as intuitive, meditative and time-consuming: in fact, time with all its implications is an important part of the work. While the shields have a powerful and immediate impact on the viewer, it is only through a close look that one discovers some of the hidden elements – others, often wrapped in thread, remain a mystery. In addition to the shields, Ryan’s solo exhibition includes two black collage “boxes” made of copied photographs mounted on PLYWOOD painted and covered with threads (The Ties that Bind Us 1 and 2, 2016), a smaller collage (The World in His Hands, 2015) and her sculpture/installation Voyager (2014). Maybe even more than her previous work, this exhibition deals with pressing themes of our time:  migration, identity, globalization, post-colonialism, the cultural construction of fear and “the Other.”

More than just decorative objects, shields usually have a protective function:  traditionally they were  used to ward off the enemy. In Native American custom, there are two kinds of shields – the warrior shield held in combat on horseback, usually round and relatively light, and the personal power shield which includes the power symbols (either painted on or attached) of the creator of the shield. While Ryan did not set out to make her shields in the Native American tradition, but rather as protective devices in a culture of fear, they incorporate elements of both kinds of Native American shields. Through a labor intensive, almost shamanic process they have become symbolic totems, visionary power objects that stand like guides leading the way.  

Why shields? The artist’s intention was to address what she perceives as the growing culture of fear, rational fears of global warming and less rational/instilled fears, such as the rising Islamophobia in the West or simply the constructed fear of “the Other.” While warrior shields are supposed to protect us from danger, from the enemy, here they are standing and facing us, a reflection of our fears in a world where migration and globalization destabilize tradition and cultural identity and exacerbate a non-acceptance of difference.

The title of the exhibition is deliberately ambiguous (who is shielding? Who is shielded? And from what?) and while our first thought is to consider the shields as protecting us from “the Other,” the artist brilliantly confounds “the Other” (traditionally the enemy), as subject and object mirror each other in the surface of the shields. Thus, it is almost like we become our own enemy, the shield becomes a mirror and instead of protecting us from the enemy, we are asked to question who is the enemy … is it not just our own fear?!

While the artist’s working process is intuitive, she has succeeded in absorbing a great variety of cultures, especially West African cultures (she recently returned to Italy after many years in Ghana and Ivory Coast), and her work expresses hybridization and globalization both on a personal level as well as in the context of Europe and its relationship to “Mother Africa.” The artist’s shields show us the marvelous enrichment of foreign cultures, not by appropriating “African” styles,  (i.e. formally), but by literally incorporating pieces of a culture in which Ryan was immersed for fifteen years.  Through her hybrid and innovative creations she is showing us a way to contemplate the positive sides of globalization and to replace fear of the “other” with genuine interest and compassion.  

After the production of one shield in Africa, back in Italy the artist started by having fourteen round metal shields made,  the base for (almost) the entire series. However, the shields vary considerably in form, material and color. Some shields exhibit colorful “African” features while others have more ties to (European) rural nature.  The iron shields are covered in a myriad of objects sowed or glued to their metal frames, many exhibiting collage-like layering, covered by what could be described as a knotted or crocheted web.  Like much of her previous work, Ryan recycles a great variety of objects, some found, some bought and some given to her in addition to parts of her previous works or her own photographs. Personal and communal memories are evoked and never completely erased, lingering beneath. The fact that the objects have had a “previous life” contributes to the energy and magic power of the shields.

In order to discover these shields, the viewer needs to take time to examine them closely, as their intricate details cannot be seen at a glance. Sized like individuals, they invite us to encounter “the other” they embody as well as ourselves. Time is a crucial element for this series:  the time it took to complete it,  entirely hand-made in a labor intensive project that recalls crafts traditionally created by women; as well as the time it takes to explore the works, thus opposing our rapid “fast view” culture. A reminder of how precious time is and how gratifying it can be to take time to discover  - “the Other”, other cultures, other lives, the unknown. Mystery. 

Shield # 1 recalls a giant intricate flower, the metal base visible beneath the perfectly crocheted patterns, covering it like a dress.  In the center a photo of the face of a black woman with a head scarf calls for our attention and a needle on a thread  suspended from the shield makes us think it is still being worked on.  At the bottom of the shield a white wooden container with an old white cotton night gown inside decorated with stylized  “graffiti,” including “Egyptian” eyes  as well as the words “People Get Ready There’s a Train Coming”, the title of a gospel inspired African American freedom song. Inside the case we can read the letters “WOMB.”

Shield # 2 has a more rustic look: brown raw wool, decorated with blue pearls and flocks of off-white wool, the center showing hand-knit gloves above an  early 19th century open book, a novel on the crusades by Marie Ristaud Cottin.  Straps of sheep wool hanging down draw the glance to the pile of wooden branches held together by string at the bottom of the shield, all objects alluding to warming elements in the winter. The back of the shield is decorated with black strings and white knots as well as toothpicks. The contrast of black and white (here brown and off white wool and strings) in several of the shields could allude to skin colors – Ryan, the white woman in Black Africa.

Shield # 3 is dominated by three faces painted on board by African sign painters (part of Ryan’s previous works), their ethnic background ambiguous, the dress painted (again) with a sort of “graffiti” made of “Egyptian eyes” and the repeated inscription “To Be or Not to Be.” In the background we find pieces of old newspapers, braided black strings and white strips of cloth hanging down from the shield (front and back), while another inscription on the back says “Make art not war.”

Shield # 4 is covered in off-white sheep’s wool, in the center a 50’s style picture of a white woman in a bathing suit holding a white scarf covering the lower part of her face. She is standing in front of a lake and mountains as if on vacation, blonde braided strings covering the entire shield. Hanging from the shield is an ambiguous weaving object holding the photograph of a black woman with a chador. On the bottom of the shield a spindle with yarn. 

Shield # 5 is dominated by a photo by Ryan showing the inside of an artist’s hands, those of the late Ivorian artist  Frédéric Bruly Bouabré, the same photo featured in her collage The World in His Hands, with another of her photos showing an image of Lagos superimposed. Around this image blue puzzle pieces are held by superimposed nets of thread and knots. Hanging from the shield are colorful strips of cloth and thread. 

Shield # 6 holds the photo of the late Prof. Joe Nkrumah from Ghana, an image of Ryan’s series Living Go(l)d, a small weaver’s loom, silver pearls, knots, puzzle pieces, sugar, all held together with glue.  Green strings hold wrapped pens and paint brushes, the back of the shield featuring a long green string with little toy soldiers attached. On the bottom of the shield sits a soldier’s flask wrapped in green. 

Shield # 7 is the only shield made in Africa, recalling Ryan’s previous work Castaways (2003-8), showing found objects, shells, parts of dolls, flip-flops and other stranded objects found on the beach in Grand-Bassam, Ivory Coast, all painted in white, with a cotton spool lying at the bottom of the shield. 

Shield # 8 is predominantly held in blue colors with the found picture  of a child in the center, alluding to childhood and innocence, wrapped “drumsticks,” buttons and screws, green and blue knots, plastic bags with powdered colors from the market in Ghana, screw ends and large paint brushes, all wrapped in blue hanging from the shield. The object on the bottom contains a mystery – a rolled up canvas, a face all wrapped into a bundle and impossible to see. The back is beautifully worked with blue knots - very tactile - from which a blue bird emerges as if fighting for freedom, against all the restrictions the wrappings impose. Like a chime the screw ends make music as they are made to move.

Shield # 9  is covered with a white linen cloth layered with crocheted fabric. Spoons -  each holding Bouabré’s picture of a mermaid - are sewn all around the shield, implying the act of nurturing. Also attached are black and white passport photos of black men and women, round color photos of men, women and children and business cards with passport photos attached. White strings with red knots hang down from the shield and a spool of white cotton thread sits on the bottom. A drawing of a baby’s carriage can be found on the back.

Shield # 10 is covered in a grid of black and white faces on a red background painted by street painters in Ghana, interspersed with colored passport photos of black boys. Square images of painted faces hang down from the shield and almost on the bottom we find a square mirror with a bearded Arab male wearing a  white headscarf; again the drawn “Egyptian” eyes and a small inscription MIGRATIONS, on the back the mirror is visible  and holds a photo of two black women and the words “To Solitude.”

Shield # 11 shows a strange, menacing bearded face in the center, surrounded by burned black  material, blonde braids, white sheep wool and rolled up book pages with numbers, all covered in a net of strings. Hanging down from the shield are twelve bundles of rolled up book pages.

Shield # 12 is predominantly red, the center a photo of a black child, on his T-shirt an overlaid image of a white woman, around the photo a circle of tea candle holders with pictures inside, drawn and painted faces, a cut out image of a black male running outside the circle. African fabric patterns abound, a red web of strings covering the shield. Red threads with round images attached are hanging from the shield. 

Shield # 13 is a very colorful shield, the center showing a photograph of a black man, his nude torso painted  with a black man’s face. Intricate patterns and colors surround the photo next to some Russian script, a painted crouching figure is visible below and a lollipop shaped  image of a female(?) face with glasses and a sailor hat occupies the left side. The shield is covered with a white and red net of thread, holes in the net look like wounds (or Burri’s plastic combustions), a photo and copies of male boots are lined around the circle while a white pair of women’s shoes is hidden below. Writings allude to horrific events, with only selective words readable  (horrific, attack, collapse…). The back of the shield features African patterns, pictures of people, old screws and white strings, while red strings cascade down from the shield and the base features a colorful rolled up photo scroll of men and women. 

Shield # 14 shows a large photograph of a pregnant woman dressed in black and holding a white embroidery hoop, a digital photo by Ryan (Roberta, 2007). A big spindle covered in red threads can be seen on the right, while two photographs of exotic bare breasted white “odalisques” dominate the center. On the left a painted face of a man is hidden by red thread.  Below the center is the image of a woman seen from the back – Princess Diana – on the inside of a book cover decorated with Italian handwriting. Hidden left of center, a gun is tightly wrapped in white string.  Thick pieces of red and white string hang from the shield and a pair of red shoes wrapped in red string is placed on the base – the symbol to stop violence against women.

Shield # 15 is almost a yin and yang sign made with off white and brown raw wool circling the central  painting of the artist herself standing next to a black man presumably painting on an easel. Green color, the color of hope, surrounds them as if to point to a future collaboration and understanding between peoples of different colors. At the base of the shield the Italian trilogy  “Primo Viaggio di F. Le Vaillant nell’interno dell’Africa” (three books in a case) alludes to early European voyages to Africa. Strings with bells hang from the shield and pieces of a doll recall childhood.

The shields are thus packed with symbols that speak of uniting differences, overcoming fear and prejudice, exposing what is usually hidden and hiding what is overexposed. Like in dream-catchers, the knots in the threads can be seen as keeping negative energy from entering, the threads imply contact and connections – the ties that bind. All fifteen shields together form a powerful community of proud warriors that lead the way to a better understanding between cultures through powerful objects and a thoughtful contemplation of “the Other” – with the artist as shaman, as Joseph Campbell envisioned many years ago.

In addition to the shields Ryan created a series of five photo collage boxes (The Ties that Bind Us), two of which are included in  the exhibition. For these she layered copies of photographs mounted on board and painted, small mirrors, even a spindle, the entire collage covered in thread.  The artist used  copies of the photographs she acquired over a two year period from photography studios in Abidjan – studios that were closing down at the historic moment when digital photography replaced analog photography. Her collection now contains over 2000 photographs from these inventories – almost all of people from the local community, an archival process that recalls the influx of many nations to Ivory Coast. The Ties that Bind Us again speaks of the interconnectedness of all beings – literally, the ties that bind us all.  The strings also recall the streamers voyagers used in farewell ceremonies, as passenger liners departed from ports on long sea voyages. Lives are voyages, constant contacts, connections and relationships tied to the lives of so many others, a fragment here presented in Ryan’s fascinating  works.

The notion of the voyage is also represented by Voyager, a large sculpture/installation made of an old military case out of which flow huge braided strands of hair extensions, like tentacles of a giant octopus. Menacing and enticing, the work beautifully incorporates the sea:  the seemingly moving tentacles, the rusty blue of the case that seems to reflect the sea, as well as the allusion to the myth of Medusa.  Long sea voyages make us ponder migrations past and present. Seductive yet dangerous, this sculpture seems to embody the fascination by and fear of “the other” -  which is always just slightly out of reach, never completely comprehensible, and therefore always fascinating.

 Ursula Hawlitschka, Rome June 2016


Distant Lovers: Virginia Ryan's Objects at Sea 

Osei Bonsu / catalogue essay

 2016 for 'I WILL SHIELD YOU' Montoro12 Gallery Rome

The entanglement of the life of an artist and the history of the object itself  emains one of the great fetishes of modernism. As much as we may know of the peril of yoking the imagination and reality, constructing history has always been an act of provisional fiction. This artist, much as any "other", is simply unknowable or rather something in excess of what might ever be understood. Try as we might,  personal biographies contain slippages, blank spaces, historical trapdoors and, of course, counter narratives with their impervious layers of ambiguity. But what is at stake when the artist is aware of this construct, and sets about creating fictions as a means of writing a history of their own experience; each object indexing the story of a life laden with memories?  Virginia Ryan has cultivated a practice of irreducible complexity, where her lived experience is deliberately, and often literally, entangled with a world of matter; pictures, stories, books, fabrics and personal possessions. Her objects often bloom where she is planted, taking form as often on the shores of the  former French colonial city of Grand Bassam, east of Abidjan, as in the central Italian town of Trevi,near Perugia where she now has her main studio. 

These environments spawn the reality out of which Ryan's strange forms emerge, but they are also the backdrop of a broader narrative rooted in the historical present, a present fraught with the trauma of separation.

Upon first encounter, Ryan's offerings look as though they have been shored up from some other Utopian world. Various forms of matter and materiality seem to merge into one largely singular visual universe. Perhaps it is the accumulation of Ryan's nomadic existence - one where she may gather seemingly random objects from West African marketplaces or, a decade earlier, glean the left over ‘environmental data’ found along coastlines in Ghana; or maybe it is an innate understanding of the cultures within which she finds herself, that brings a unique sense of gravity to this disparate constellation of recent works. In any case, her forms could be read as deriving from  the kind of commodified folk art or 'play' on traditional West African sculpture so often been co-opted by western artists, but looking carefully at these objects  something far more unsettling is revealed. 

This has nothing at all to do with a rootedness in seemingly distant cultural narratives, but is more a reflection of Ryan's intense relationship to the imbedded histories found in the stuff of everyday life. 

Ryan interweaves personal references into a wider set of historical narratives, sifting through archival images, and ephemera with a  disregard for formalism (as a culturally enshrined form of Westernised elitism) and a spirit of youthful abandon more commonly associated with the performativity of West African dance traditions. To this extent, Ryan's process seems to be informed by a kind of interpretive logic, where objects serve to perform alongside and in response to one and other, like dancers engaged in physical combat.

However, to read Ryan's oeuvre as ‘African’ would be to submit the work to thesame backward logic that befalls many of her brothers; those masters alongside whom

she helped put the question of contemporary art on the political agenda. In being a self-possessed "white woman" as she subversively refers to herself, Ryan's work falls in and out of contention with the status of her identity, while becoming more various and complex as the narratives behind the work are revealed. 

The category of the 'African' artist is, as such, applicable to Ryan as it might be to her fellow brothers and sisters in the contexts of Ghana and Ivory Cost, i.e. those countries of relative throwing distance marked by two distinctly separate political and social trajectories. If one is to consider the reality of these worlds, we would begin to recognise the apparent banality of suchculturally determined categories forged from an ingrained ignorance. It is also worthnoting how Ryan, a "white woman" active both as an artist and within the administrativeframeworks of cultural production, is a catalyst in the development of her own practice.

Not only has she played a role in establishing a frontier of institutions, but has spend muchof her time working within the communities such institutions  come to serve. The outcome of her dedication to this wider project is a unified field of vision, which owesas much to the foundations of African folk traditions as it does to the radical informality of the Italian post-war period and artists such as Pino Pascali and Marisa Merz.

Within Ryan's work one finds a cacophony of fragmentary experiences set to therhythm of tides that lap against continental shores. In one instance, an installation

 uses artificial hair extensions acquired from the market of Adjame' in Abidjan, whileanother works with a military case washed up on a West African beach at the end of along journey from Europe.

 In this  unique series of shields of the cycle ‘I Will Shield You’ often completed with multiple reams of string spooled over and woven across the surfaces of circular forms, Ryan'swork takes an even more poetic turn. The utilisation of such visual effects can travel beyond their mere representation as art objects; they arise out of a process where in materials aretransformed into living organisms of a sort. 

The threads act as strands binding together personal, political and historical memory at once, forming a kind of surface upon which we might reflect our own experience. Their intense manual weaving is an attempt at thinking through the connectivity of Ryan's life which began in Australia, one marked by the undeniable privilege of her own familiar yet distant experience, as well as those undocumented lives silenced by history or submerged among the cries of oppression. 

Just as Ryan's analogic images have been used to tell collective stories, these works are used to elaborate an entangled set of narratives belonging as much to the artists as they do the communities, families, bodies and fictions that inform her life.


Fin dall’era primitiva lo scudo ha rappresentato per l’uomo un’arma di difesa personale, sia contro un attacco fisico, sia, metaforicamente, come protezione spirituale contro paure reali o immaginarie. Così Virgina Ryan (Victoria, Australia, 1956), nella sua personale I Will Shield You, installa quindici scudi che rimandano formalmente agli “acchiappasogni” tipici delle culture autoctone del Nord America. Sono scudi ricchi di oggetti seminascosti, e contemporaneamente interconnessi tra loro, che emergono alludendo alle paure e alla violenza della nostra epoca. Una sorta di entropia delle immagini, di derivazione New Dada, che colpisce lo spettatore come lampi in una tempesta, facendo scorgere i paradossi dell’era contemporanea. La stessa personificazione della paura, phobos, è figlia paradossalmente della guerra, Ares, e dell’amore, Aphrodite. Come ha osservato Jung, solo se poniamo consciamente l’attenzione sul nostro conflitto interiore gli opposti si avvicinano gradualmente uno all’altro, e ciò che prima pareva morte e distruzione si muta poco a poco in uno stato latente di unità. Bisogna avere fede nell’altro, la paura infondata porta a una chiusura tra culture che va assolutamente evitata, questo vuole indicarci Virginia Ryan con le sue poetiche opere.


Reticolare ratifica dell’esser tutti figli della stessa Dea Madre

Barbara Martusciello-Art a Part of Culture June 2016

Tesse, incolla, include, cita, sovrappone: elementi pittorici ed extrapittorici; e temi complessi oggi sempre più scottanti: identità, migrazioni, accoglienza e paure dell’altro da sé, tabù, multiculture, Africa, sud del mondo… lo stesso titolo della mostra, lasciato volutamente in inglese – I Will Shield You – per rispettarne richiami e assonanze linguistiche è volutamente ambiguo: chi è che protegge? Chi è protetto? E da chi? Da cosa?

Da sempre convinta del ruolo anche sociale che l’arte e l’artista possono assumere, fa una mostra piena in cui  le singole opere acquisiscono senso e valore più netto e coinvolgente se intese nella più ampia forma di installazione con una riflessione anche antropologica. Così, apre bauli e innalza scudi metallici che ha lavorato ricoprendoli di pluriformi elementi: foto, monili, piccoli dipinti, pietre, pelli, frange, capelli sintetici, scarti, reperti recuperati in Africa…; lega tutto con un meticoloso, reticolare – e simbolico –  procedimento di annodature, merlettature, cuciture, trame e orditi coloratissimi: che ricordano i costumi tradizionali e l’artigianato di certe popolazioni specialmente asiatiche e africane. Queste superfici raccogliticce di plurilinguismi si ergono come una foresta tridimensionale e praticabile in cui ci si può muovere, passandoci intorno, inoltrandosi in un percorso a zig zag che permette di scoprire un davanti e un dietro ogni singolo totem con tantissimi particolari da scoprire via via. Negando la frontalità sembra quasi abbattere il rapporto di verticalità tra opera e pubblico prendendolo per mano accanto a sé e aprendo all’orizzontalità.

La meraviglia è assicurata, come la suggestione e quel tanto di sinestetico che attraverso la visione attiva un effetto di tattilità e talvolta musicalità.Seducendoci, Virginia sembra suggerirci che siamo tutti figli della stessa Dea Madre e con le sue opere, che sono lontane, lontanissime da un’estetica predatoria e da qualsiasi sospetto postcolonialista, comunica con gioiosa voce argentina ciò che riguarda tutti noi dai secoli dei secoli


Rome Giugno 2016



Virginia Ryan pittrice, scultrice, artefice e quant’altro, in una visione totalizzante e complessiva dell’opera in sé, manifesta nella sequenza dei suoi “scudi” un ritorno alla ritualità magica africana (terra nella quale ha a lungo vissuto), nella ricerca amorosa dei nostri antichi precordi, ritualità “totemiche” che vogliono esorcizzare e intrappolare tutti gli spiriti maligni, come dicono i nativi, i fantasmi, le ombre, le paure che inquinano e oscurano il presente e il futuro che sentiamo di dover riconquistare alla luce di giorni migliori.

Sì, l’umanità è malata, vive nell’incertezza e nella fragilità che si annida pur nella luce apparente di una attualità che ci sforziamo caparbiamente di pensare tranquilla e rassicurante, nella continuità di una memoria ormai smarrita. Ma è un inganno: tutto ci sfugge e ci inquieta, paventiamo l’orrore dell’antica Medusa, come gli insinuanti neri tentacoli che invadono spazio e tempo nel suo ” voyager”.

Ma nei rotondi, magici “mandala” dei suoi scudi l’artista ingloba e cattura il bene e il male, violenza e speranza, eroi e parassiti, incubi di incombenti Apocalisse e tenaci speranze di redenzione.

Perché l’umanità, il miracolo dell’homo sapiens, apparso nel cuore delle savane africane all’alba dei tempi, ritrovi nella stessa terra, matrice eterna e misteriosa, la necessaria guarigione, il riscatto per ognuno di noi e per le genti future.

Tessuti, bitumi, cartigli, foto, emblemi, pietre, oggetti: tutto si assomma e si integra nei rotondi scudi che sono archetipi di cosmica totalità, difesa e sogno dell’eterno Assoluto, di una storia che ci appartiene da sempre, di un cammino infinito che ci chiama da sempre, palingenesi di un ritorno all’Uomo e ai suoi cieli.

Luigi M. Bruno


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