For our first physical show at the gallery after lockdown, we are pleased to present a solo exhibition for the British painter Sikelela Owen. The show presents a group of Sikelela’s most recent paintings following her residency at the British School at Rome.
Sikelela Owen paints the people that give her a sense of belonging, ranging from family and friends to other Londoners in her community. It is a human landscape, the kind that is reproduced endlessly online to the point that such images start to lose their value. In this era of digital excess, Sikelela uses painting to capture something that is more meaningful and lasting, and to lend a sense of substance to the imagery of others.
Sikelela paints her portraits in a loose and gestural style that hides subtle allusions to the history of art. This new series is influenced by her recent fellowship at the British School at Rome. Her subjects appear in the open air, lying beneath a crystalline sky or relaxing in a garden, reminiscent of Manet’s plein-air family paintings but with a contrasting light indebted to Caravaggio. Reclining figures also echo the classical statuary that populates Rome, painted in running drips to suggest ruins and permanence over time. Sikelela brings many influences into her work with a disarming candour, adapting deep art-historical knowledge to the representation of everyday people. In the process she imbues them with warmth and empathy.
In the smaller works, reclining figures become close-cropped sleeping faces, where a deft use of paint captures the intimacy of an unguarded moment. The small works also depict children, symbolic of gentle innocence and a freedom that is so quickly lost. Some are girls dressed as ballerinas, echoing Degas but with a kinder eye. Others are boys in crisp white shirts as if dressed for a special Sunday, or young girls cradling baby siblings in their lap. All have the air of an album of family memories; the specific stories may be hidden, but the sense of emotional attachment is palpable nonetheless. Viewed together, the paintings explore how the relationships within which we exist come to define a sense of self.