Purple Magazine
— The Love Issue #34 F/W 2020

somaya critchlow


interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
portrait by JUERGEN TELLER
all artwork copyright SOMAYA CRITCHLOW
and courtesy of maximillian william, london

the young british artist somaya critchlow expresses her love for women in sensuous brushstrokes of dark, rich brown and purple oil on canvas. they depict, with humor and life, bold, curvaceous, and self-possessed female characters of her own creation — fantasy self-portraits, of a sort — that combine and subvert art historical conventions of race, gender, and power. love

OLIVIER ZAHM — Tell me about your subject. You love to paint Black women.
SOMAYA CRITCHLOW — Yeah, I do. [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is it a form of narcissism?
SOMAYA CRITCHLOW — It originated when I took a post- graduate course, and we were looking into art history — looking at great painters and artists. I was frustrated because I wasn’t seeing myself in history or reflected in artwork. It wasn’t that I needed to see myself directly, but that I needed to see things that existed that I felt a connection to on a personal level. There’s a lot of stuff in my own life, Black women whom I see, and they’re just not connecting. I’m really interested in fineart painting and fine-art history, but the visual side that represents me — I never really see the two combined. It felt quite weird because obviously I’m me, and I have to be me and my experiences every day. Painting is the thing that means the most to me in my life. So, [my work] came from not being able to see myself in it. I also realized that I never drew myself or painted for myself, and I wondered if that was a shame thing or about confronting myself. I saw a Max Beckmann portrait where he painted himself with a cigarette in his hand, and I just copied that. Because I was looking at so much history that didn’t represent me, I turned it back on myself. By figuring out how to use myself as a starting point, I got to where I think I know my own face so well it’s a kind of template, but then not actually me.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Right, because it’s you, but it’s not you. It’s a sort of universal Black woman, too.
SOMAYA CRITCHLOW — Exactly, yeah. It’s almost like they could all be the same person, but they equally could all be different people.

OLIVIER ZAHM — There aren’t so many representations of Black women in contemporary painting, are there?
SOMAYA CRITCHLOW — Now, in contemporary society, there’re more paintings of Black women than there ever have been. But prior to that, there was a huge period in history where they didn’t really exist, other than as slaves or servants, as a supporting factor of the painting. If I think of Velázquez, whom I love, there’s maybe one portrait of one of his studio assistants who was a mixed Blackman. He was kind of a slave/studio assistant to Velázquez. I’m sure the borders were blurred because he eventually was able to be a free man, and he was a painter.

OLIVIER ZAHM — In French painting, we have a lot of representation of “exotic” women because of colonialism. Mostly very sexualized. Your Black women, actually, are quite erotic, too. You’re not afraid of that. Does it refer to this history of sexualizing the Black woman? Are you making fun of that?
SOMAYA CRITCHLOW — I was looking for autonomy and freedom by taking the thing that I know bothers people a lot: sexuality is powerful, and sexual imagery draws such a strong reaction from people. I was always working from nude live models when I was studying, and I was thinking about the way that sometimes women choose to dress themselves because they want to. What does it mean to sexualize something? And in what context? If you move toward the thing you’re most afraid of, you’re opening up a whole new conversation.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And it’s also your own sexuality — your own perception of your body, and your body language…
SOMAYA CRITCHLOW — Exactly. There’s a big history within art where the radicalization of feminist viewpoints in art, at one point, was very anti having the female figure painted because of how men had portrayed it throughout history. But I felt that that meant it excluded me from being intrigued by something that I live with daily. It’s my body. Women are sexual in their own right and have their own desire. You should be able to explore that without it being about engaging with those ideas. It can be its own thing. And it’s a totally different thing to see a woman painted in a certain way by a woman.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s also full of humor. It’s very liberating because you’re not afraid — you express, in a very joyful way, your vision of Black women. Are they based on yourself?
SOMAYA CRITCHLOW — Definitely not myself. To me, they’re just a human form, and they’re Black women.

OLIVIER ZAHM — They just look Black because we’re used to seeing white women in painting. [Laughs]
SOMAYA CRITCHLOW — Yeah, exactly. And especially in that way.

OLIVIER ZAHM — We never say to a white woman painter, “Oh, you only paint white women.” [Laughs]
SOMAYA CRITCHLOW — That’s so true. And I’m a Black woman, so that’s what I’m going to paint.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How would you describe the power or the beauty of paintings, compared with photography or installation?
SOMAYA CRITCHLOW — Paint as a surface is so tactile — it’s so alive and vibrant, and you can mix different colors to make new colors. You can put one color next to another, and it changes the whole color. It’s kind of amazing. With a photograph, you see an image flat and laid out, but paint is alive and can suggest things that don’t really make sense. You can look at a painting over and over again for years, and you will still see new things that you haven’t seen. You conjure something from nothing.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And your generation is rediscovering the power and specificity of painting?
SOMAYA CRITCHLOW — I think so. When I started at university, I was told: “Many people have declared painting’s dead. It’s no longer necessary.” But it’s just not true. Doing things with your hands is so important. It’s a whole different experience of life to touch it and do it with your hands.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Your colors are beautiful. How do you pick your palette?
SOMAYA CRITCHLOW — I was always drawn to very earthy tones, maybe because I’m Black, but also because I like the way they look when you paint with them. And I’m a huge fan of the Old Master paintings, like Rembrandt and Piero della Francesca and Renaissance paintings. They always have such beautiful, earthy tones. And that really relates to me when I think about it; I’m painting different shades of being Black. It’s like a natural instinct. And then, it’s quite exciting to pair them with beautiful, brighter colors. I’m always conscious as well… I think the palette is dark, but with brightness in it.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes. Very vibrant. It reflects your psychology, maybe — your personality.
SOMAYA CRITCHLOW — Probably. On a fundamental level, it is just subconscious, what I’m drawn to. [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — Would you say that love is a source of artistic inspiration for you?
SOMAYA CRITCHLOW — Absolutely. Love is fundamental. I love my art practice — what it offers me and allows my mind to open up to and embrace further.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is it very important in your life?
SOMAYA CRITCHLOW — Definitely. Whether you experience love as an individual or don’t, or you feel it … both sides have a huge impact on you. Whatever love is, it’s a hard concept to grasp. Love is very important to me, personally. If I didn’t love what I was doing, I wouldn’t be able to do it — if I didn’t experience that sensation of whatever I think love is.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do we need a new model of love? We’re so narcissistic today…
SOMAYA CRITCHLOW — There is the tendency to become very self involved. And all people probably experience that at some point. Sometimes, when you’re too involved with yourself and what’s lacking for you, it’s a totally different experience if you go and help people — you do something outside of yourself even when you’re feeling the worst of the worst. It does have quite a profound effect. It’s a difficult question. Part of being human is contractual, and people do have agendas. Love would fit into that, at times.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Can love also be political or an inspiration to transform society? Because I see Black Lives Matter as a very loving movement.
SOMAYA CRITCHLOW — I totally agree. I was out at protests and was talking to my mom and asked her, “Do you want to come and see what it’s like?” She was a bit worried about there being a big crowd. She came, and all we could say afterward was how positive it was. If love is a whole bunch of different people coming together to believe in the same cause, and to empathize with life and how people should be treated, then yes, it makes a huge difference, to be honest. It’s a really positive and loving movement. And there’re ideas surrounding it that are really negative and continually try to reinforce the negative stereotypes. But when you actually get down to it, it’s all about love and acceptance.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I have the same feeling in Paris. And of course, there’s some violence involved in these protests. But this is really a side effect because the global feeling is about sharing a real love connection between all people. It’s quite positive that so many white people are embracing the movement.
SOMAYA CRITCHLOW — Totally. And I do think that even violence can be an act of love. It’s so easy to try and put love into a good or a bad category, but it wouldn’t necessarily be good or bad. And like you say, lots of white people coming together… My mom is of mixed heritage, but she could pass as white, and my entire immediate family that I grew up with, they’re all white and look white. It’s really interesting for me being the only visibly Black person in the family, with everything that’s going on. It’s really strange. We’re all discussing things, and in a way I think they feel outside of what’s going on, which is how I maybe have felt at times in the family. So, it’s a really interesting and good thing…

OLIVIER ZAHM — In your art school, were there more white people than Black people?
SOMAYA CRITCHLOW — Yeah. All of the places I’ve studied in have been predominantly white. I’ve either been the only one, or one of two Black people.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But London is quite a multiracial city. I don’t think there’s so much racism in the UK, is there?
SOMAYA CRITCHLOW — There’s a lot of racism here, but I’d say it’s more underhanded and built into societal norms, as opposed to outright, blatant racism. And sometimes it’s hard to tell which is worse. [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s more the system than the people?
SOMAYA CRITCHLOW — Yeah, exactly. I do think it’s very racist, and it was the most I’d ever had to think about it — why I was being told certain things or treated a certain way.And particularly for me, growing up in a middle-class, white family, it was really interesting to realize certain things are racist even though you may not think they are, that they’re so embedded in how people treat each other. And as you become more of an adult, and you’re fending for yourself, you really do realize it. And people don’t even mean it sometimes.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Your paintings have a political tone in this context, right?
SOMAYA CRITCHLOW — Yeah. It’s totally fine. I very rarely sit and think politically when I make them, but I’m aware that they all contain politics in the same way that I do. And they’ll contain elements of things that I’m concerned with that will be political and will throw up conversations.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you paint with a picture in mind?
SOMAYA CRITCHLOW — Initially, that’s why I was drawing myself. They started as imagined people and situations. I flip between paintings, which were entirely imagined. So, I just sit and do a sketch, figure it out through drawing, and then turn it into a painting. Sometimes I’ll sketch it out three times to get it right. I do use some reference imagery. But I find it’s best that I change it from the reference imagery so that it becomes very far removed from the original source. I always make up the faces. I never, ever use a real face. They may be modeled off one, but they’ll always be from whatever just comes out with my hand.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you have a personal definition of love?
SOMAYA CRITCHLOW — My experience of it is that it’s engulfing. It’s a very strong idea, whether it’s painful or happy. For me, love is very much on the spectrum of severe pain and severe pleasure. It’s so extreme, it almost comes full circle. It’s a perpetual experience you’re aware of forever.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How do people react to your paintings?
SOMAYA CRITCHLOW — At first, it’s love and disgust, like, “Oh, god, what am I looking at?” That happened a lot early on, and I find it intriguing that it causes such a strong reaction because where I was taking ideas from isn’t that crazy. It’s just that maybe you don’t normally see them in this way in fine-art painting.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you like to go to museums?
SOMAYA CRITCHLOW — Yeah. I love the National Gallery — it’s my favorite place to go in London — and also the Tate Britain to look at the permanent collection. I go from the beginning of the collection, from religious art, and make my way to what’s going on now.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re not scared of being a painter yourself in front of these masters?
SOMAYA CRITCHLOW — Of course, it’s really intimidating. Back then, if you wanted to be an artist, you worked in a studio with an artist. You copied what they were doing for years and worked with them before you found your own way. And my experience is very much being thrown in at the deep end, and no one really teaching me much. For me, it’s such a luxury that I get to go there, and I get to look at this work and try to absorb it. I try and break it down in a way that makes sense to me. I’m so engaged with it that it’s really scary, and if I did think about what I was trying to do, I wouldn’t do it.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re right. We don’t copy like before. Painters, at first, would copy, copy, copy…
SOMAYA CRITCHLOW — Yeah. I’ve done research to try to figure out how they primed the canvases, how they mixed colors, how they used different mediums to create different effects. It’s this mythical information that was passed down so naturally, and there’s a big gap. It’s like alchemy, all these crazy ways that they used to work. I’m really interested in that. And I want to make sure I spend a lot of time trying to read books and work out how they were do- ing things, and try out the methodology. But it’s huge. It will take me a lifetime because there’s no one to really ask.









[Table of contents]

The Love Issue #34 F/W 2020

Table of contents

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