Art

The Artsy Vanguard 2022: Sahara Longe

Salomé Gómez-Upegui
Nov 15, 2022 5:04PM

In Sahara Longe’s stunning paintings, soft figures emerge from lavish backgrounds shaded in rich hues—purple, pink, green, orange, black, and deep red. Longe’s delicate characters stare out at the viewer and at each other with cryptic expressions. Each scene features a hidden story, inside joke, or other bit of mystery, often drawing on the London-born painter’s own experiences with her friends and family.

Despite her undeniable talent, Longe didn’t grow up aspiring to become an artist. Instead, she spent her teenage years juggling jobs within the restaurant industry. One day, she simply followed a hunch to attend life-drawing classes. At the age of 20, her growing interest in drawing led her to the Charles H. Cecil Studios in Florence, Italy, where she spent four years rigorously learning how to draw and paint live figures.

Portrait of Sahara Longe in her Brixton studio by Bertie Hamilton Stubbs, 2022. Courtesy of the Sahara Longe and Timothy Taylor.

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Initially, Longe limited her palette to a few hues. “For the first year, you’re only allowed to draw cast drawings and sculptures, and then you’re only allowed to use five colors for two years. It sounds like they crush your creative spirit, but in a way, it’s the opposite,” Longe said. “It made me disciplined. It was an amazing lesson on how to paint and use mediums competently because it is so difficult. The paintings I used to do when I first started are so bad, and [then] you start to see your hand have this memory that builds up over the years.”

Longe’s training ended in 2018. She planned to dedicate her practice to commissions, thinking it was the only way to make a living with her art. But soon enough, she found commission work too complicated and unfulfilling.

Longe’s frustration peaked, the pandemic hit, and the artist quit painting to move into her parents’ home in Suffolk, England. She developed a great interest in the portraits painted by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch and, about a year into her break from painting, she began experimenting with her own self-portraits. Yet what truly led her back to the canvas was a new enthusiasm for color. “I began using colors that weren’t the six classical colors I used at school, and I got so excited, I started painting again,” she recalled. “Discovering color was fun and interesting, this idea that you can balance things with color and shapes, I found it fascinating and exciting.”

At the same time, the burgeoning artist also began experimenting with the methods of the Old Masters she’d studied in Florence. Her most prominent lockdown project was making copies of Peter Paul Rubens’s The Fall of Man (1628–29) and The Three Graces (1630–35). Though Longe started these for pure enjoyment, they became some of the first pieces she ever exhibited. Her return to the canvas gave way to a plethora of new oil paintings and the development of the rich, colorful style that’s become her trademark.

Longe continued building on the foundations of her classical training while further developing her now-acclaimed portraiture practice: She painted canvases, inspired by family and friends, with spare compositions. “Even when I was painting classically, I liked the idea of keeping things as simple as possible,” she said. “I tried to use simple brushstrokes, never complicate things, and now I’ve [landed] on a simpler, more refined version of that.”

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In pieces such as Pink and green sketch (2021), a lively and seemingly effortless self-portrait, or Walk in the park (2021), a rich rendering of two female figures against a soft purple and green backdrop, this easy, seamless quality of Longe’s work is apparent.

Longe’s classical training also inspires her use of rare materials. She counts lead white and Chinese vermillion—despite their well-known toxicity—among some of her most prized pigments. Longe says these evoke the methods and medium of Anthony van Dyck, who left lead trays with linseed oil in the sun for a month to create a goop, then mixed it with tree sap and turpentine. “This gives a certain gloss and thickness to the paint, and when you mix it, it naturally becomes so soft and easy to rub down,” she said. “It also just creates a shine that makes the painting come alive.”

Sahara Longe, Good For You, 2022. © Sahara Longe. Courtesy of Timothy Taylor, London/New York.

Such vitality is palpable in Longe’s large-scale painting February 14th (2022), in which a Black woman wearing a lilac dress and yellow mustard boots stands, expressionless, beside two men dressed in rich green suits who appear deep in conversation. The gorgeous piece combines Longe’s skillful use of color with a depiction of peculiar characters and narrative.

Last year, soon after Longe solidified her current style, her work started to receive commercial attention. Ed Cross Fine Art mounted her debut solo show at the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London. She then participated in numerous group exhibitions, showing with Timothy Taylor in Miami, Shanghai, China, and London; Ed Cross Fine Art Gallery in Lagos; and Christie’s, Gillian Jason Gallery, and Daniel Raphael Gallery in London. Longe also attended the prestigious Great Women Artists residency at the Palazzo Monti in Brescia, Italy.

Sahara Longe, installation view in Timothy Taylor’s booth at Frieze London, 2022. Photo by Sebastiano Pelliano. Courtesy of Timothy Taylor, London/New York.

This year, praise for the young artist’s work has mounted. In September, she enjoyed a solo exhibition at Deli Gallery in New York. Her work appeared at Frieze London with Timothy Taylor (which announced its representation of Longe earlier this year), and she participated in a series of group shows at the Whitechapel Gallery in London; Eduardo Secci Contemporary in Florence; and the York Art Museum in York, England. Later this year, she will participate in a group show at Alexander Berggruen in New York (on view from December 6, 2022, through January 11, 2023). In 2023, she is set to have a solo show with Timothy Taylor in London.

Through it all, Longe has privileged her own creative fulfillment. She is enthusiastic about experimenting with her process, even if it means, she said, “constantly throwing turpentine on canvases and starting again.” She added, “It’s a slight problem, but it’s way more fun [working] like this.” Thematically, she is eager to delve into psychology, mystery, and social interactions.

Sahara Longe, Triptych: Man Stuff; Charisma; Just Introduced, 2022. © Sahara Longe. Courtesy of Timothy Taylor, London/New York.

“I love using people that I know in my works,” she said. “Some are people that I love, and some are people I really don’t like. I put them in and make up stories, sort of in-jokes. I like that aspect of having little secrets in the work. I also like the idea that people can look at the paintings and come up with their own stories.”

This narrative quality of Longe’s artworks is most prominent in her series of street scenes and party scenes, which especially delight the artist. She plans to make many more in the future. “The first time I did [one of these scenes], it felt like everything I’d been trying to do solidified,” she said. “It was an ideal combination of color and the psychology of portraiture, and it was everything that I think I’d been building up to.”


The Artsy Vanguard 2022

The Artsy Vanguard is our annual feature recognizing the most promising artists working today. The fifth edition of The Artsy Vanguard features 19 rising talents from across the globe who are poised to become the next great leaders of contemporary art. Explore more of The Artsy Vanguard 2022 and collect works by the artists.

Salomé Gómez-Upegui

Header: Sahara Longe, from left to right: “Good For You,” “That's Her,” and “Evening Walk,” all 2022. © Sahara Longe. Courtesy of Timothy Taylor, London/New York.

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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019