Sheena Rose’s Playful Paintings of Black Athletes Defy Expectations
Sheena Rose’s work—whether drawing, painting, or mixed media—may start with the personal, but her oeuvre has the ability to transport viewers to a world of the artist’s own imagining. While her earlier works used self portraiture to explore African spirituality, the subject of the Afro-Caribbean artist’s current solo exhibition, “Spotlight: Sheena Rose,” strays further from her life.
On view online and in a private viewing room at De Buck Gallery in New York until November 20th, Rose’s latest series features Black athletes in archetypical poses. Diagnosed with the chronic autoimmune disease lupus, Rose cannot dunk, dive, or dodge like the athletes in her paintings, but that doesn’t stop the artist from pushing her mind to the places her body may be unable to go. Through Rose’s use of color, perspective, and eye-catching geometric designs, she highlights the potential for joy and humor in moments of tension and possible defeat.
The paintings achieve all this with the acrylics you might find at a primary school—the only paint Barbados-based Rose could find during the COVID-19 global pandemic. In previous pieces, she used finely detailed linework mixed with washes of watercolor paint to explore race, gender, sexuality, and heritage. Introspective and layered with meaning, the figures in her drawings are often grounded in the landscapes of Barbados. In Quidditative (2020) from Rose’s “Compendious” series (2019–present), for example, the central figure’s mind branches off in all directions, reaching towards the cosmos. While her new work isn’t as intricate in composition, Rose disarms viewers with approachable yet inspiring pieces.
Match Point (2021) demonstrates this new direction. Three women strike a power stance in front of a tennis court. Their afros are larger than life, reaching far above street lamps and trees behind them. They’re not dressed for tennis; instead, their rackets and tennis ball appear almost like props in a photoshoot, and the athletes seem ready for a disco-themed night out. These women can be anything they want to be, anywhere they want to be, and in whatever clothes they so choose.
Even when Rose features famous, rather than anonymous, Black athletes—such as former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson in Throw in the Towel (2021)—she brings a lighthearted quality to sometimes tense scenes. Similar to the themes that her self-portraits and cityscapes convey, Rose wants everyday Black lives to feel abundant with possibility. To achieve this, she intentionally flattens perspective, as seen in Ace (2021). The painting reimagines a pivotal moment when Naomi Osaka scored a crucial point in her final match against Serena Williams in the 2018 U.S. Open. Here, the tennis ball exists in the same visual plane as both Osaka and Williams, who hold their rackets cocked to the left. It’s difficult to tell the direction the ball is headed; the point could go to either of these star players. This isn’t a moment where two exceptional Black women are pitted against each other, but one where they both can be celebrated for the drive and dedication they bring to a sport they love.
Good comedy should use humor and lightness to create narratives and defy expectations. Rose’s paintings do just that. The work is a celebration of what Black people can physically achieve with their bodies.