‘Let every mark be a thought and every thought be a clear one’
I was born in 1968 in Hammersmith, West London to parents of Guyanese and Jamaican descent. My parents arrived in England from the Caribbean in the late 1950s. My mother worked as a machinist in a clothing factory, my father worked at the Firestone tyre factory.
As a child, I explored the history of painting through books and visits to the National Gallery where I would copy the paintings I admired the most, work by Gainsborough, Van Dyck, Rembrandt and Caravaggio. It had not escaped my notice that there were hardly any paintings depicting black people as individuals, although I knew there had been sizeable black communities living throughout Europe for centuries. Rather than put me off, this gap in Britain’s cultural canon actually served to inspire me.
In 1988 I moved to Manchester to study Fine Art at Manchester Polytechnic. I moved back to London to take up a Masters degree at the Slade School of Fine Art in 1991. On graduating from the Slade, I remained in London, where I continue to live and work.
The genre I have chosen to paint in becomes politically loaded when the painter and subject are both black, as historically oil painting has been assumed to be the domain of those in power: the elite of Western society. Paintings were commissioned to act as the material embodiment of sovereignty, wealth and imperial power – depicting life not as it was, but rather as their patron wished it to be seen.
Western Art has traditionally objectified non-white peoples as anonymous characters. They were included in paintings as ethnographic specimen or racially fetishized archetype to add exotic charm to a scene, or, in portraiture specifically, to function as a human commodity (a slave or servant) to elevate the stature of the aristocrat depicted.
My work inverts this structure. Rather than contributing to public aggrandisement of people of known status, I aim to endow that which is under-represented, undervalued or ignored in our society with the status they deserve through their becoming the subject of a painting.