‘A perverse part of me likes to delve into what’s off-limits’: Somaya Critchlow on her taboo-breaking art | Painting

Somaya Critchlow knows that we’re supposed to be moving away from making images of naked female bodies. Bodies that are socially and sexually available. But her paintings express the appeal of stripping a figure bare. “People try to position my work as being sex-positive or political or whatever – and it’s not, it’s just investigative,” says the London-based artist, who is warm, open and softly spoken in the way that bright people often are. “I’m not trying to be an activist. But I do enjoy painting and I do enjoy my subject matter. Maybe that’s selfish.”

It seems to be working. This year, Critchlow’s small and intense portraits of curvy Black women in various stages of undress have featured in major group exhibitions across the UK and a solo show at Maximillian William gallery in London. Opening this weekend are a couple of shows she has curated at the Lightbox gallery in Woking – Lucian Freud and the Soul As Sphere – which are anchored around two of her great loves: figurative art and her grandfather, the late artist Keith Critchlow.

“I come from quite a creative family,” she says. Her mum had her when she was 20 and went back to art school when Critchlow was 10; she was a single parent and sometimes couldn’t get childcare, so she’d take her daughter with her. Critchlow’s grandmother was a quilter, her grandfather Keith a painter turned professor of architecture, writer and geometer. “They had this lovely house in Stockwell [south London], with a wooden studio at the end of the garden. My grandpa would be down there working and there would be a desk space where I’d sit and colour in geometric shapes.”

It was a strange sort of double existence, says Critchlow, “growing up as a Black girl in Streatham” and also being a part of this “fairly white and middle-class environment”. While her father is Nigerian, she spent most of her time with her mother’s family, all of whom she would describe as “white passing”, and who had white partners and children. They always encouraged her to do whatever she wanted, but as she got older she began to notice the attention people paid to the colour of her skin. Studying at Brighton University and then the Royal Drawing School in London, she also became aware that she was learning about the history of art and Black art as two separate entities. “And that there are certain subjects that as a Black artist you’re allowed to explore,” she says. “It made me feel uncomfortable.”

Somaya Critchlow: ‘
Somaya Critchlow: ‘I’m not trying to be an activist. My work is not sex-positive or political or whatever – it’s just investigative’ Photograph: Lewis Ronald/courtesy of the artist and Blau International

The same might be said of Critchlow’s art, which is bold and confrontational. “I think there’s a perverse part of me that likes to delve into subject matter that’s off-limits,” she says. When she painted a topless Black woman leaning on a pair of watermelons, alluding to a racist trope, the director of a US gallery asked her: “How could you?” “My feeling is how do things move forward unless we’re able to reimagine them?” she says. “I think to really understand and interrogate something you’ve got to get close to the area that you’re told is a no-go zone.”

If they weren’t so small, her sensuous portraits might prove too much for some viewers. As it is, they radiate a quiet confidence. “I think there’s a strange feeling in the art world about taking up space, that big paintings show you’ve arrived and signify seriousness and worth,” says the artist, who prefers to stick to a small scale in part because it makes her feel in control. Her imagined heroines, too, own and command the room, spirited and defiant. Illuminated against plain backdrops, their naked bodies draw you close, existing outside time and space, icon-like.

Untitled (2022).
Untitled (2022). Photograph: © Somaya Critchlow and Maximillian William, London

Her art blends the techniques and materials of the old masters with imagery found in soft porn magazines from the 50s and 60s. “Contemporary porn is horrific – that’s not what I’m going for – whereas these images are soft and out of focus and reminiscent of Renaissance and classical paintings in the way they set up a dynamic and a scene.” She works on linen that’s been clear primed and begins in raw umber before building it up with Velázquez-esque layers of thinned oil paint in rich greys, purples and browns.

The exhibitions at the Lightbox are about building up layers, too – of family history and of the history of figurative art. When she was studying, and grappling with why she kept coming back to painting people, Critchlow’s grandfather would tell her: “You’re exploring the human condition, the greatest thing out there to explore.” The Soul As Sphere features the work of seven artists who would surely agree, and pays homage to her grandfather’s friendships; he was taught by David Bomberg, studied with Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach and served in the RAF with Frank Bowling. Freud, who gets a room of his own to mark the centenary of his birth, was another contemporary.

Critchlow likes the idea of “having to be self-aware of being a Black woman and getting to participate in creating a dialogue around these artists and adding to layers of British history and viewing”. It’s also nice, she says, not to just be asked to create an exhibition around Black identity. In case any curators are reading this and wondering if she’d be up for doing that, too, her answer is definitive: “Well, no. I’m OK.”

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