Thu. Dec 8th, 2022

WITHomaya critchlow knows we should move far from making pictures of naked female bodies. Bodies that are socially and sexually available. But her paintings express the allure of baring the figure. “People try to position my work as sex-positive or political or whatever – and it’s not, it’s just exploratory,” says the London-based artist, who is warm, open and tender in the way bright people often are. “I’m not trying to be an activist. But I enjoy painting and I enjoy my subject. 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 been featured in major group exhibitions across the UK and a solo exhibition at the Maximillian William Gallery in London. This weekend opens several exhibitions she curated at the Lightbox Gallery in Woking – Lucian Freud and the Soul as a Sphere – anchored around two of her great loves: figurative art and her grandfather, the late artist Keith Critchlow.

“I come from a pretty creative family,” she says. Her mum gave birth to 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 would take her daughter with her. Critchlow’s grandmother was a quilter, her grandfather Keith a painter who became a professor of architecture, writer and surveyor. “They had this lovely house in Stockwell [south London], with a wooden studio at the end of the garden. My grandfather would work downstairs and there would be a space at the desk where I would sit and paint geometric shapes.”

It was a strange kind of dual existence, says Critchlow, “growing up as a black girl in Streatham” and also being part of this “quite white middle and middle class”. While her father is Nigerian, she spent most of her time with her mother’s family, all of whom she would describe as “white transients” who had white partners and children. They he always encouraged her to do whatever she wanted, but as she got older, she began to notice the attention people paid to the color of her skin. Studying at the University of Brighton and then the Royal School of Drawing in London, she also became aware that she was learning about art history and black art as two separate entities. “And that there are certain topics that as a black artist you are allowed to explore,” she says. “I felt 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 exploratory’ Photo: Lewis Ronald/courtesy of the artist and Blau International

The same could be said of Critchlow’s art, which is bold and confrontational. “I think there’s a perverted part of me that likes to get into a topic that’s off-limits,” she says. When she painted a topless black woman leaning against a pair of watermelons, alluding to a racist trope, the director of an American gallery asked her, “How could you?” “My feeling is how are things going to move forward unless we can reimagine them?” she says. “I think you have to get close to an area that you’re told is a no-go zone to really understand and examine something.”

If they weren’t so small, her sensual portraits might show too much for some viewers. As they are, they radiate quiet confidence. “I think there’s a weird feeling in the art world about taking up space, that big pictures show you’ve arrived and signify seriousness and value,” says the artist, who prefers to stick to a small scale in part because it makes her feel in control. Her imaginary heroines, too, own the room and command it, lively and defiant. Lit on flat backdrops, their naked bodies draw you in, existing outside of time and space, like icons.

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

Her art combines the techniques and materials of the old masters with images from soft porn magazines from the 50s and 60s. “Contemporary pornography is terrible – that’s not what I want – while these images are soft and out of focus and reminiscent of Renaissance and classical images in the way they set the dynamic and the scene.” Working on linen that is clear coated, he begins with raw umber before building it up with Velázquez’s layers of thinned oil paint in rich grays, purples and browns.

The exhibitions at the Lightbox also deal with the building up of layers – family history and the history of figurative art. As she studied and grappled with why she kept coming back to painting people, Critchlow’s grandfather would tell her, “You’re exploring the human condition, the greatest thing there is to explore.” The Soul as a Sphere features the works of seven artists who would surely agree and pays tribute to her grandfather’s friendships; he was tutored by David Bomberg, studied with Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach and served in the RAF with Frank Bowling. Freud, who is getting his own room to mark the centenary of his birth, was another contemporary.

Critchlow likes the idea “that she has to be aware that she’s black and that she has to participate in creating a dialogue around these artists and adding layers of British history and viewing”. It’s also nice, she says, that you’re not just being asked to do an exhibit about black identity. In case any of the curators are reading this and wondering if she would be up for it, her answer is definitive: “Well, no. I’m fine.”