We are pleased to present an exhibition of new paintings by the British painter Sikelela Owen following her recent shortlisting for the John Moores Painting Prize 2021.
Sikelela Owen is a young black British artist who graduated from the Royal Academy School in 2012. She paints domestic scenes with a fluid gestural style, on the one hand impressionistic and informed by the history of painting, whilst also being disarmingly intimate and sincere. It is painting about closeness, of family and familiarity, as an antidote to the myriad conflicts of a fragmented society.
Impressionism is a strong influence on Sikelela’s painting, and in particular the figure portraits of Manet. But rather than depicting her sitters as part of a complex social scene, Sikelela emphasizes the inverse: subjects within the intimate, unassuming world of family. Children appear frequently as a motif of innocence. The voluminous frilled dresses of Manet’s socialites become tutus of girls going to dancing class or dressed up in their Sunday best. The white dress against a green background acts as shorthand in Sikelela’s work for a kind of emotional calm, representing simple pleasures in natural surroundings, a distillation of the desires that become so complicated in a multi-faceted society. In her work Sikelela strips away the noise of cultural conflict that surrounds contemporary life, and instead creates images that channel an essential ideal of human relationships. The self portrait of the artist with her recent first child on her lap articulates this aim exquisitely.
This emphasis on distilled emotional content is carried through to the structure of the image. Sikelela focuses purely on what is important and filters out all unnecessary detail, resulting in almost abstract imagery. Blocks of colour are assembled as if by pattern, echoing painters such as Hurvin Anderson who perceive visual scenes as subject to optical schemata. A sleeping baby in the warm hues of an afternoon sleep is described as an assemblage of colour blocks slotting together in seamless arrangement. Young figures appear against colour-block backgrounds reminiscent of abstract expressionist compositions but executed in Sikelela’s particular homely palette: greens, ochres, and earthy browns. Organic tones and purified colour blocks combine to emphasize the concentrated power of her works, creating images that look past all distraction to focus on what is most important.