In this beautifully evocative essay, Rolake Osabia reflects on her own practice as an artist and painter of portraiture, and describes what it felt like to relinquish control, have her own portrait painted, and become somebody else’s muse.
It’s circa 1998. A mother and father take their two-year-old daughter to her first day of playgroup. The girl notices tubes of paint and sheets of sugar paper attached to easels nestled in the corner of the room. Enticed by the array of colours and the ensuing chaos from the other children, the girl devises a plan of escape. With her coat still on, she releases herself from her parents’ grip, and her determined little legs move quickly towards the paint. Once she finds a paintbrush, she christens the blank sheet of paper with haphazard paint marks. When the half day is over, her mother is greeted by a nursery assistant who says, whilst carrying a stack of multicoloured A3 paper, “Look at all the artwork she made today! You’ve really got your money’s worth, haven’t you?”.
My first memory of painting actually belongs to my mother. I was too young to remember it, but it’s a story that I’ve heard her recount to others and relay to me at various points across my life. She likes to highlight her surprise at my lack of tears upon arrival in my new environment, as well as note that my first love – painting – was enough to soothe the anxiety of being left without familiar comforts.
In the present day, a monochromatic self-portrait titled Listlessness (2021) sits on my easel, stacked against a bigger canvas board and an even larger canvas. In early 2020, I approached my monochromatic portraiture series after experiencing ennui and creative disconnect. In my notes app, I wrote, ‘Everything is tinted grey, and while I can survive the tedium of grey, I flourish in colour’. As a result of this persistent feeling, I immersed myself in the greyness by using a limited colour palette. Through this, I found a sense of vibrancy and possibility in a black and white portrait. At the time, I didn’t think it would become a series. I began with a portrait of a friend as a gift – St. Peso (2020) – and the minimal black and white palette gave me a sense of clarity and direction. A pragmatic palette for a pragmatic subject. The monochromatic portraits of my brother – An Unbothered Brother (2020), and dad, Aggy (2020) – followed. I approached these pieces methodologically, beginning with a free-hand graphite sketch to work out the proportions and then worked intuitively with the paint to block in darker values, then mid-tones, and eventually worked into the highlighted areas.
Months after completing the first three black and white paintings, I created a mixed-media watercolour and collage piece called The Opposite of Neglect (2020). Using a ransom note effect with clippings from newspapers, I arranged the quotation against the bright green background of my painting. Hopeful that my injection of colour would remedy the bleakness synonymous with 2020 – death, collective grief, anti-Blackness – all of which existed before the unspeakable year but were overemphasised by its events.
In her essay, Art on My Mind (1995), bell hooks states that ‘art constitutes one of the rare occasions where acts of transcendence can take place and have a wide-ranging transformative power’. Typically, I am inclined to agree, both as an art-maker and an art-viewer. An image has the capacity to ensnare us, pull us in and dull the extraneous noise. Art can drive movements and act as an organising tool. Art is escapism for the lone writer, artist, or “maker-of-things” confined to their studio, bedroom, kitchen table as they work through their ideas to make the abstract more tangible. But a painting was not enough on this occasion.
I painted the first two monochromatic portraits in January and February, respectively, untouched by global uncertainty. I painted Aggy in April, amid global uncertainty, just before my 24th birthday and finished it approximately a week after. I was locked down and locked in, but as a subject, my father was a familiar presence, so I found joy in seeing the paint strokes develop and form a face that could momentarily quieten the chaos. On Twitter, I added Aggy to my media thread and expected minimal engagement from my fifty followers, but I received an affirming notification from a then-new friend, Hannah, who called my paintings ‘sensitive’.
Before this, the comments I had received from friends, family and strangers about my artwork had been complimentary and kind – emphasising my perceived skill or the striking likeness. Although sometimes, people met my work with cool nonchalance – my older brother, usually impressed and loudly supportive of my work, was less affected by An Unbothered Brother. He was not a first-time muse. Therefore, the appeal wore off. But I needed an ego boost, so I sent the image to my grandfather on WhatsApp, and he called me a ‘genius’. Balance. An Unbothered Brother remains my favourite portrait to date – the most visible in likeness and personality and representative of our siblingship – a reminder of my humility. However, until Hannah’s message, I had never considered that I could produce a ‘sensitive’ depiction of a subject through a painting.
I knew that the portrayal of sensitivity was possible through visual art, as seen in works by Toyin Ojih Odutola and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. Ojih Odutola’s delicate pencil and pastel marks become the skin that encases eyes full of wonder. Yiadom-Boakye’s muted tones and loose brushstrokes are soft – conveying the paint’s wetness and workability – her subjects become inhabitants of the painter’s ethereal world. Whilst I was unaware that my paintings could evoke sensitivity, I knew they could arouse joy despite my subjects’ often sullen expressions. Unfortunately, the joy I experienced as I crafted the first three monochromatic portraits was absent during my construction of Listlessness.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines listlessness as the ‘languid indifference as to one’s surroundings, or as to what one has to do’. Essentially, it is the complete loss of interest in anything – a destabilising chokehold. Like the colour grey, the state of listlessness has an innate quality of dullness. It becomes an encroaching fog, dulling the senses and consuming its host.
I am briefly transported back to the moment of destabilisation as I examine the painting. Its greyness has a familiar hold that momentarily grips me. The gaze in the portrait is contemplative, distant and averted. The figure’s body is awkward – the arms positioned are holding a cumbersome iPad that is out of view. The device provides a reference photograph for the eventual painting. There is a sense of stoicism that translates to something more akin to rigidness. I recognise the figure in parts but not in her entirety. As I examine my self-portraits, I notice their dissected and fragmentary quality. My paintings are often in dialogue with one another, a decision that is sometimes intentional. And at other times, an unconscious outcome. I repurpose elements of my artwork, particularly when I reach a creative block. The floral detail on my headscarf is borrowed, taken from the embroidered pattern on my dad’s shirt, which I depict in a painting of my parents titled My Parents Before They Were Parents (2019). The combination of my layered gold pendants is similar in shape to my mother’s necklace. My fondness for gold jewellery is almost genetic.
The figure in Listlessness represents a glimpse of my subjectivity that I have only caught through reflective surfaces and camera lenses. And the portrait conveys an expression that I’ve never seen but can identify with – neutrality. I’ve felt my face’s state of neutrality and the repercussions of what others read as unapproachable. As an artist, a portrait painter, and an over scrupulous observer of faces, I am selective when choosing my subjects. When creating portrait studies, I might find a reference picture of a person with an incredible feature that draws me in or a person with an angular face reminiscent of an octagon. Looking. Seeing. Almost knowing. There are various faces that I quietly observe in public spaces, all very different in shape and size and attractiveness, but embodying the same quality: paintable. “That person has a paintable face”, I think to myself as they walk past me.
However, the concept of ‘paintability’ is null when I observe my face. For four consecutive years, I’ve painted a minimum of four self-portraits a year – approximately one per quarter. Contrary to what others believe, I don’t paint self-portraits because I like my face and have never considered whether I deem it paintable. The aim is never to capture my prettiness (or non-prettiness), but I do so because it’s available. I’m an easy subject. Equally, I acknowledge the challenging nature of my subjectivity because I’m critical and evasive. I should recognise myself in Listlessness: the hoops, the name necklace, the nose that is an iteration of my mother’s, and lips that are an iteration of my father’s. And sometimes, when I look at the painting – an image on my phone’s lock screen – I can see myself very clearly. Other times, I see a familiar figure with a face that I know I’ve seen before but can’t quite place. I can identify the painterly style of the portrait, which fits the aesthetic of my preceding monochromatic paintings. But it lacks a certain cohesiveness. I refer to Listlessness as a construction rather than a creation. Mechanical and formulaic rather than intuitive. I needed to paint the self-portrait to meet my unofficial annual quota, but I didn’t want to paint the image. I didn’t want to see and confront the self and her uncertainty, tiredness, and power(lessness). Still, I proceeded with obscured vision. There is a reactionary nature tied to my self-portraits; they often act as responses to self-perception or external scrutiny.
When responding to external scrutiny, a sense of reclamation is visible in the finished piece. However, there is a palpable tentativeness embedded within the pieces that respond to self-scrutiny. The success of a painting exists on a sliding scale with blurred criteria. Listlessness is a successful painting in that it captures my likeness, demonstrates an understanding of form and value, and is generally well-received by viewers. It also qualifies as a personal and small success because it is a successor to the rough conceptual draft in my sketchbook. Listlessness was the only full self-portrait I painted in 2021.
I spent the entirety of 2021 confronting the self in other ways. As an English Literature PhD researcher, a postgraduate tutor, and a friend – all of which involve me vis-à-vis other people and embodying positions where others are in authority, where I am in authority, and where authority is a non-factor. Thus, I focused on how “the self” emerged, shifted, and evolved in these roles. But I paused in terms of my interaction with my physical and aestheticized personhood, as I was not quite ready to uncover how I might view the self from a renewed lens.
The renewed lens was manifested from another artist’s perspective. Last November, my friend, the talented figurative painter Cece Philips, asked if she could take some reference images of me to use in her work. In her message, she emphasised that she knows I hate being photographed (which is true), but I was happy to oblige, honoured that I might feature as a minor figure in one of her forthcoming works. Cece’s large-scale paintings often include Black women and femmes in power suits as central figures with a colour palette of vibrant yellows, reds, and more recently, gorgeous blues, in which she cites Alphonse Osbert as an influence.
Having studied History at university, her works have also engaged with Black British historical contexts and archival family histories, owing to her heritage as a mixed-race woman of Sierra-Leonian, Jamaican and Irish descent. Philips, a young artist with an impressive and growing oeuvre, has already produced a notable work that art critics will acknowledge as a seminal piece in her catalogue. The painting in question, Hingland (2020), is a re-presentation of a known image of John Hazel, Harold Wilmot and John Richards at the Tilbury Docks following their arrival from the Caribbean in 1948 as part of the Windrush Generation. Philips reanimates the original black and white image through her fresh conceptualisation. It is a bright and expressive rendering in colour that captures a moment of kinship. Hingland was amongst several pieces of work featured in Philips’s first solo show, ‘I See in Colour,’ at HOME by Ronan Mckenzie, in April 2021.
My first encounter with Cece’s artwork occurred two decades earlier, circa 2001, in Reception class or Year 1. A group of girls in our class gathered around a table littered with loose sheets of paper, crayons, and colouring pencils. We had collectively decided to draw flowers. I remember glancing opposite the table, spotting Cece’s drawing, and thinking about how pretty her tulips were. My eye was drawn to the oranges, pinks and yellows with flowing green stems and beautifully rendered leaves. But I also noticed a stylistic quality – a drawing style that developed as we made our way through the subsequent stages of primary school. Without realising it at the time, that day, I identified her as a fellow “art girl”.
Cece and I lost touch after primary school, and only loosely connected online – that was, until a few years ago, when we began the first steps to our cemented and rekindled friendship via Instagram. At this point, we had both begun publicly sharing our work on our respective profiles. When I scrolled through Cece’s profile, admiring the exquisite detail in the charcoal drawings of her grandmother and an image of her smiling next to a surrealist painting of a hybrid lightbulb-egg, my first thought was, “Of course, she’s still making art. She’s an
art girl artist”. We spent the next year liking and commenting on posts and responding to each other’s stories until we bumped into each other twice at Black Girl Fest in 2019. Shortly after that, our meetups began, only briefly halted by Covid lockdowns.
The day we met up to take the reference photographs, we followed our usual pattern of eating, laughing, and sharing minor life updates. My inner child appears when I don’t feel obligated to police my playfulness. I am looser, relaxed, and less self-conscious. Comfortable. Following our late lunch, we walked back to Cece’s west London-based studio, situated in the same area as our primary school. Using the outdoor space and her cousin’s camera, we began our mini shoot, which consisted of a costume of different blazers, in line with the attire of Cece’s subjects in her work. There was also a serendipitous moment in which Cece selected a book from her studio for me to use as a prop – the book was Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970). Since it is one of my favourite novels, this felt like a subtle point of reassurance urging me that it was okay to be seen. The reissued 2016 edition of the text has a deep blue cover, reminiscent of the hues used in Philips’s latest body of work entitled Between the Dog and the Wolf (2022).
This collection of works, drowned in blue hues, is an act of reclaiming space, time and autonomy. The blue hour, an ambiguous time between dusk and dawn, points to danger. But the women and femme figures focalised in these works sit, stand, and walk in boldness. Unafraid of the unknown.
Philips’ painting, Nightdreaming (2022), depicts the subject in a collared blouse, a blue suit, and black loafers. That day, I had dressed casually in a green round-neck t-shirt, culotte-style jeans, and converses; an unremarkable outfit once I removed the layered shirt and my faux-fur coat. The only aesthetic similarities between the subject and I, lie in the hair – an atomic turquoise, and the gold hoop earrings. But I observe and appreciate the green round-neck subtly peeping out beneath the exaggerated collar. We took multiple photographs in different poses: sitting, standing, and walking. I looked towards the lens and away from it. It took me a moment to take my role seriously; feeling slightly embarrassed and exposed, my reflexive action was laughter. When I eased into my temporary role as model, subject, and muse, I thought of my childhood self – a child who ran towards the camera. Baby Rols was ever ready, so I channelled her energy.
I wasn’t sure about the status of the painting until a few months later when Cece messaged me saying, “I started on your painting! You are so stunning. It’s such a joy to paint”. I replied, “Ahh! That’s so exciting. I cannot wait to see it. I already know it’s beautiful”. ‘Beautiful’, almost feels like an understatement, despite its use as a descriptor to suggest a person, place, or thing possessing the highest order of aesthetic appeal. Aside from the painting’s grandness, saturated colour, and composition, the painting possesses an undeniable beauty. The joy absent in my construction of Listlessness is present in Cece’s creation of Nightdreaming.
Two weeks after our exchange, Cece and I met for dinner, and I stopped briefly at her studio to see the work in progress. It was almost finished, only missing the final accessories – shoes and hoop earrings. The scale of the painting is awe-striking. The subject sits with her legs slightly spread apart and extended, visibly relaxed, and looks ahead, seemingly at the viewer. The subject’s eyes are darkened and bereft of intricate detail, but they invite the viewer to look at them. The viewer finds that the subject’s eyes aren’t windows to the soul. Philips creates a barrier between viewer and subject – there is an act of concealment. This stylistic feature is present throughout Philips’ work. Her paintings contain figures with closed eyes, faces with squinting expressions, and blackened sclerae. The figure in Nightdreaming is open in terms of body language, but her eyes create distance, warning the viewer that they can only observe from a healthy distance. Composition-wise, she sits firmly between two grand pillars. Like the subject in Listlessness, her gaze cannot be met.
Philips’ paint strokes are smooth and well-blended. Taking full advantage of the oil paint’s buttery texture, the painting embodies a softness that works well with the naturalistic but dreamlike quality it exudes. Nightdreaming is a fitting name for a portrait that takes the likeness of a subject with nocturnal tendencies and a penchant for daydreaming. The blue background is a sky, and the subject sits close to the edge of the polished marble flooring. The unperturbed subject leans back slightly but not far back enough to lose balance and fall. She steadies herself, unintimidated by the vastness behind her and the depth of what remains unseen. The solitary subject sits in self-assuredness, in control of the blue dusk.
As I examine the painting further, the outro to Kanye West’s 2010 song, ‘POWER’, reverberates in my mind. I observe the blue background, squinting and looking at the line of demarcation and hear Dwele crooning: ‘I’m jumping out the window, I’m letting everything go / I’m letting everything go’. Then Kanye’s voice comes back into focus, and he emphasises that ‘this will be a beautiful death’. Jumping is synonymous with active movement, suggesting a sense of control over one’s body to enact the jump. However, the image in mind when I listen to this song fluctuates between a jump and a fall. Falling is an accidental loss of control. The subject is seated, her position static. Yet I still anticipate some form of movement. Will this subject jump, will they fall, or will they remain composed?
To become another artist’s subject is to renounce control. As ‘POWER’ draws to a close, Kanye asks his listener if they’ve ‘got the power to let power go?’. Power, in this sense, relates to how one manages their subjectivity through creative practice. As Philips’ muse, I had to adopt a position from the other side as a participant in her active painting practice. Her perception of me – rooted in childhood memories, in our friendship, in her role as painter and mine as a sitter – is preserved in this oil painting. A portrait artist’s depiction, illustration, or portrayal of their subject is, in some ways, a collaborative process. But their perspective as the artist takes precedence. She had the brush; she had the control. I had to become open and allow myself to be perceived, and Cece handled that perception with care. Rolake Osabia becomes sitter, becomes subject, and becomes a character in Cece Philips’ visual narrative of Between the Dog and the Wolf. The figure is, as Philips describes it, an amalgamation of that which is ‘real and unreal’. I accept that the figure in Nightdreaming is an iteration of me, and I am performing a role that Philips paints onto the canvas. I jumped, I fell, I remained composed as I became somebody else’s muse.
Cece Philips’ current solo exhibition, Between the Dog and the Wolf, is showing at the ADA\ Contemporary, Accra, between 15 July – 4 September 2022. Follow Cece Philips on Instagram @cecephilips and via her website.
About Rolake Osabia
Rolake Osabia is an artist, writer and PhD researcher in the English Language and Literature department at UCL. Her research explores the themes of isolation and kinship in contemporary Black British women’s literature, drawing on works by Yrsa Daley-Ward, Bernardine Evaristo, Winsome Pinnock, and Zadie Smith. Her thesis examines how these writers construct representations of loneliness, as well as Black communities, friendships and intimacies in their respective texts. Additionally, Rolake uses her paintings and illustrations as a research method to accompany literary and theoretical analysis. In 2020, her artwork ‘Pattern Up’ was selected by Tate Collective to feature on a billboard in Camden. You can follow Rolake on Instagram @rolakeosabia and Twitter @rolsisrols
Feature image: Cece Philips’ Nightdreaming (2022), courtesy of the artist and writer. All other images are courtesy of Rolake Osabia and Cece Philips respectively, unless otherwise stated.