With Kitsch and Eroticism, Somaya Critchlow Confronts the Politics of the Black Nude
Somaya Critchlow, Alone Again, 2019. © Somaya Critchlow. Courtesy of the artist and Maximillian William, London.
Somaya Critchlow, The Wait of Silence II (Afternoon Tea), 2020. © Somaya Critchlow. Courtesy of the artist and Maximillian William, London.
Three years out of art school, Somaya Critchlow is picking up momentum. Last September, the young London-based artist was photographed in head-to-toe Bottega Veneta as part of an Evening Standard feature on the new YBAs. In November, an exhibition of 13 of her tiny canvases at Fortnight Institute (only her second solo show) was favorably written up in The New Yorker. And earlier this month, she opened her first major exhibition, “Underneath a Bebop Moon,” at London gallery Maximillian William. The show’s 33 artworks range from rough drawings to delicate watercolors on brown paper.
Inspired as much by Rubens and Velázquez as Cardi B and Nicki Minaj, Critchlow’s kitschy canvases abound with full lips and hips, big breasts and cartoon curls, and exaggerated nipples that protrude like Hershey’s Kisses. The woman in Petworth Beauty(Abigail) (2020) examines her acrylic nails while casually clutching a bouquet, the straps of her yellow dress falling off her shoulders. Big Shelly in Wig (2019) kneels on the bed and smiles broadly as she presents her body—naked but for strappy heels and an open jacket—to the viewer. In The Wait of Silence II (Afternoon Tea) (2020), a nude woman hunches over a teacup, looking out of the frame as if in thought or conversation.
Somaya Critchlow, Petworth Beauty (Abigail), 2020. © Somaya Critchlow. Courtesy of the artist and Maximillian William, London.
Somaya Critchlow, Big Shelly in Wig, 2019. © Somaya Critchlow. Courtesy of the artist and Maximillian William, London.
Is Critchlow subverting stereotypes of hypersexuality that have been used to fetishize and subjugate Black women? Yes, you can read that into it. Is she paying loving tribute to curvaceous and charismatic Black celebrities, maligned by the art world but celebrated in the real world? Yes, absolutely. But to Critchlow, it’s so much more than that and, simultaneously, not that deep.
“I don’t think I ever aim to make work that is political, but I think I am a politically engaged and thoughtful sort of person,” the 26-year-old said over Zoom from her flat in West London. “I know people feel very strongly about how the Black body is hypersexualized, so it makes it this area in which you kind of feel like you’re not allowed to explore for [fear of] being positioned as a bad person…[but my figures] are unbothered by the connotations.”
Somaya Critchlow, Bunch of Grapes (Conceal an Eczema), 2019. © Somaya Critchlow. Courtesy of the artist and Maximillian William, London.
Somaya Critchlow, Bloody Sunset (Inset Eyes), 2019. © Somaya Critchlow. Courtesy of the artist and Maximillian William, London.
Whatever her intentions, it’s near impossible to talk about the Black body without getting political, and Critchlow knows it. As a Black woman in Britain (her mother is of mixed Jamaican and British heritage, and her father is Nigerian), it’s something she’s had to contend with her entire life. However, growing up surrounded by her mother’s white family, it was rare that she had anyone to relate to on issues of race. While studying painting at the University of Brighton, she noticed Black figures were absent from the textbooks, lessons, faculty, and student body.
“I’ve never had a Black art teacher ever, and never a Black woman art teacher,” Critchlow said. “When I did my degree, I was always taught to paint white figures, and it got really stressful, so I stopped painting the figure. I don’t think I was mature enough to realize there were so many complicated things going on.”
By the time Critchlow started her post-graduate degree at London’s Royal Drawing School, she’d had enough. “I suddenly realized I was being taught art history in a way in which I never saw or identified with myself, and was projecting that [bias] onto myself, in that I didn’t ever sit and draw myself,” she said.
Somaya Critchlow, Purity, 2019. © Somaya Critchlow. Courtesy of the artist and Maximillian William, London.
Somaya Critchlow, Study for Undone, 2019. © Somaya Critchlow. Courtesy of the artist and Maximillian William, London.
To rectify the situation, she turned to the mirror and cast herself as the subject. “Really looking at yourself for the first time is really uncomfortable, [but] you can only really see yourself once you can perceive how other people also see you,” she said. “I think, in a way, looking at myself and being like, ‘I am a Black woman and this is my body, and it is sexual, and it is so many other things,’ was a way to face up to how uncomfortable I felt wanting to be an artist.”
From there, Critchlow decided to let her imagination run wild. From self-portraiture, she moved on to her own characters, inspired by the playfulness, theatricality, and self-assured agency of Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, and Lil’ Kim, and the women of the Love & Hip Hop franchise. Critchlow drew from their “fascinating, interesting, and multifaceted” personas. “What I loved from Love & Hip Hop was that all these women, they look so glamorous and super made-up, and they experience pain, anger, and issues with their [families],” she said.
Somaya Critchlow, You Don’t Comb the Mirror (Conceals an Eczema), 2019. © Somaya Critchlow. Courtesy of the artist and Maximillian William, London.
Somaya Critchlow, Figure Holding a Little Teacup, 2019. © Somaya Critchlow. Courtesy of the artist and Maximillian William, London.
But where she sees multiplicity and creativity, Critchlow added, many viewers can’t seem to see beyond stereotypical notions of Black sass and sexuality. “I’ve noted that people might take the reference to Love & Hip Hop and pop culture and think, ‘Yeah, divas!’ and I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s really pretty basic,’” she said. “That I’m always amazed by. I think people perceive it as if there’s no humanity or substance to it.”
She’s hopeful that, given the current climate, visitors will be willing to take the time to think beyond stereotypes when exploring “Underneath a Bebop Moon.” When the exhibition opened on June 18th, London had already played host to a number of demonstrations asserting the value of Black lives in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. Now more than ever, people are being forced to think critically about who’s granted humanity, nuance, and the benefit of the doubt, and whose identities are flattened and policed.
Somaya Critchlow, Still Life, 2019. © Somaya Critchlow. Courtesy of the artist and Maximillian William, London.
Somaya Critchlow, Black Head Study, 2019. © Somaya Critchlow. Courtesy of the artist and Maximillian William, London.
Critchlow noted that the works in the exhibition ask us to consider: “What do we really think about what we’re looking at?” And that, she added, is something we’re all probably thinking about now. “What do we really think of the systems in place?” she said. “What do we really believe of what we read?”
“Art can often put into play things that can’t be said or negated on one level,” she continued, “and so I hope the experience of being able to interact with the artworks—something that can be a peaceful moment where you can think—is relevant right now, and that it does add something to people’s lives.”