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“A perverted part of me likes to dive into what is forbidden”: Somaya Critchlow on his art that breaks taboos | Paint

SOmaya Critchlow knows we’re supposed to move a way to make images of naked female bodies. Socially and sexually available bodies. But his paintings express the attraction of laying bare a figure. “People try to position my work as being sex-positive or political or whatever – and it’s not, it’s just an investigation,” says the London-based artist, who is warm, open and soft-spoken like the are often brilliant people. “I’m not trying to be an activist. But I love to paint and I love my subject. Maybe it’s selfish.

It seems to work. This year, Critchlow’s small, intense portraits of curvy black women in various stages of undressing have featured in major group shows across the UK and a solo show at the Maximillian William Gallery in London. This weekend, two exhibitions she curated at Lightbox Gallery in Woking – Lucian Freud and Soul As Sphere – are anchored around two of her great loves: figurative art and her grandfather, the late artist Keith Critchlow.

“I come from a pretty creative family,” she says. Her mother had her when she was 20 and returned to art school when Critchlow was 10; she was a single mother and sometimes couldn’t have her children looked after, so she took her daughter with her. Critchlow’s grandmother was a quilter, her grandfather Keith a painter turned architecture teacher, writer and surveyor. “They had this lovely house in Stockwell [south London], with a wooden studio at the end of the garden. My grandfather used to work there and there was an office space where I sat and colored geometric shapes.

It was a strange kind of dual existence, says Critchlow, “growing up as a black girl in Streatham” and also being part of this “pretty white, middle-class environment”. While her father is Nigerian, she spent most of her time with her mother’s family, all of whom she would describe as “white smugglers”, and who had white partners and children. They always encouraged her to do what she wanted, but as she got older she began to notice the attention people paid to her skin color. A student at the University of Brighton and then at the Royal Drawing School in London, she also realized that she was learning about art history and black art as two distinct entities. “And that there are certain topics that as a black artist you are allowed to explore,” she says. “It made me uncomfortable.”

Somaya Critchlow: '
Somaya Critchlow: “I’m not trying to be an activist. My work isn’t sexual or political or anything – it’s just an investigation’ Photography: Lewis Ronald/courtesy the artist and Blau International

The same could be said of Critchlow’s art, which is bold and confrontational. “I think there’s a perverted part of me that likes to dive into forbidden subjects,” she says. When she painted a topless black woman leaning on a pair of watermelons, hinting at a racist trope, the director of an American gallery asked her: “How could you?” “My feeling is how things go unless we’re able to re-imagine them?” she says. “I think to really understand and interrogate something, you have to get close to the area that you’re told is a no-go zone.”

If they weren’t so small, his sultry portraits might prove too much for some viewers. As it is, they exude a quiet confidence. “I think there’s a strange feeling in the art world about taking up space, that big paintings show you’ve arrived and signify seriousness and value,” says the artist, who prefers to stick to a small scale partly because it makes him feel in control. His imaginary heroines also own and command the play, fiery and defiant. Illuminated on plain backgrounds, their naked bodies bring you closer, existing outside of time and space, like an icon.

Untitled (2022).
Untitled (2022). Photography: © Somaya Critchlow and Maximillian William, London

Her art mixes old master techniques and materials with images found in soft porn magazines of the 50s and 60s. hazy and reminiscent of Renaissance and classical paintings in the way they set up dynamics and scene.” She works on linen that has been primed and starts with raw umber before building it up with coats of Velázquez-style diluted oil paint in rich grays, purples and browns.

The Lightbox exhibits are also about building layers – of family history and figurative art history. When she was studying and researching why she kept coming back to painting people, Critchlow’s grandfather would tell her, “You explore the human condition, the greatest thing to explore. The Soul As Sphere features the work of seven artists who would surely agree and pays homage to the friendships of his grandfather; he was taught by David Bomberg, studied with Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach, and served in the RAF with Frank Bowling. Freud, who obtained a room of his own to mark the centenary of his birth, was another contemporary.

Critchlow likes the idea of ​​”having to be aware of being a black woman and being involved in creating a dialogue around these artists and adding layers of British history and viewing”. It’s also good, she says, to not just be asked to create an exhibition around black identity. In case any conservatives read this and wonder if she would be up for it too, her answer is definitive: “Well, no. I’m fine.”

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