This artwork was created during my 6 month residency (December 2022 - May 2023) at Watts Gallery. The project was a research & development residency, without a focus on any fixed outcomes, in response to the ‘Faces of Fame: G F Watts X Simon Frederick’ exhibition. I found these parameters to be ideal, I was afforded adequate time and space to create my most ambitious work to date without any rigid production deadlines during those 6 months. This allowed me to work in new ways and develop my approach to making - which is something that I’ll carry forward beyond the residency.
Historically the act of creating a portrait in itself could be seen as a means of celebrating the sitter depicted. This notion of celebration is the reason I specialise in portraiture and why I feel the onus to champion figures that I believe should be given greater visibility within the context of contemporary British history.
My use of antique ephemera as the canvases for my works is part of a pragmatic process of adding further context to a specific artwork. I deliberately chose specific pages from Havelock Ellis’ Questions of Our Day (1936) as I feel the pages of text chosen highlight relevant questions of greatness, Britishness and identity in a way that allows for for a cohesion between the the ideas that I am look to explore within in the work and the figures I have chosen to depict.
G F Watts was working on a ‘hall of fame’ series of work literally until his death. Simon Frederick’s portrait photography, over 100 years after Watts was alive, celebrates Black British figures that he sees as deserving of recognition. The notion of ‘greatness’ has been associated with the works in the Faces of Fame exhibition, which shows portraits created by both Simon Frederick and G F Watts, this idea of what it means to be a great Briton is what initially drew me to the residency as that is something that I am perpetually considering with the concepts informing my portraits.
There is a beautiful synergy between the works of Watts and Frederick. I feel that my own perspective and my practice as a young ballpoint pen portrait artist working in a different medium to both of the aforementioned artists, allowed me to create a work in response to the exhibition that is an ode to British greatness.
The portraits shown in the frames on the walls within this imagined scene are of six living Britons from different generations that I believe represent what it means to be a great Briton. In the foreground I have drawn G F Watts and Simon Frederick, two men who could also be considered to be influential Britons worthy of celebrity. The narrative of Black British history has been distorted and revised with a colonial lens. This work is a holistic ‘hall of fame’ shining a spotlight on important British figures who happen to be Black, but I have not chosen them just because they are black. It is not a Black British hall of fame or even my hall of fame, thus the title of the work is ‘A British Hall of Fame’.
The 6 great Britons shown in the work are John Agard, Sonia Boyce, Dave (AKA Santan Dave), Lubaina Himid, Paul Stephenson and Phyllis Akua Opoku-Gyimah.
Afro-Guyanese playwright and poet, John Agard (born 1949) grew up in Georgetown, Guyana. He had his poetry published while he was still in sixth-form and published two books before he moved to Britain in 1977, where he worked for the Commonwealth Institute and the BBC.
His poems "Half Caste" & "Checking Out Me History" have been featured in the AQA English GCSE anthology since 2002, a significant achievement which means that his prose pertaining to race and representation will contribute to forming a brighter future for the next generation.
The artwork of Sonia Boyce (born 1962) can be viewed as a visual representation of her experiences being a black woman living & working in Britain. She has worked in an array of mediums. In 1988 Sonia Boyce became the first British-based black artist to have a show at the Whitechapel Gallery. Boyce was selected by the British Council to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale 2022, becoming the first black woman to do so. She went on to win the Venice Biennale's top prize, The Golden Lion prize. Her work concerning themes of gender and/or race is distinct and has been influential for many emerging and mid career artists, including myself.
Not only is Sonia Boyce one of the most important British artists living today, she also has a profound passion for education, teaching Fine Art studio practice for over 30 years.
South London born rapper, Dave (born 1998) is known for his socially aware and poignant lyricism - a feature which distinguished him as a force within UK Rap and Grime music since he was only 16 years old. The positive young male role model that the Steatham based artist represents is what for me earns him a place within this hall of fame.
2017 Turner Prize winning artist, Lubaina Himid (b.1954) is an important figure in contemporary British art. Her contributions toward the British Black arts movement of the 1980s were vital. With her distinctive style of figurative work, Himid is a pioneering living British artist that should be celebrated further.
Paul Stephenson (born 1937) led a historically significant boycott of the Bristol Omnibus Company in the 1960s. He campaigned against their racist recruitment policy designed to exclude African and Caribbean people from working as bus drivers or conductors. He was instrumental in the first Race Relations act being formed and passed in 1965, a law which still has consequences in the 21st century and certainly beyond.
Phyllis Akua Opoku-Gyimah (born 1974), also known as Lady Phyll is co-founder of UK Black Pride and a British political activist known for her work for racial, gender and LGBT+ equality. Lady Phyll is an important figure not only within the LGBT+ community but also for her activism and contributions towards all disenfranchised people in the UK, she is emblematic of what it means to be a great Briton.
‘A British Hall of Fame’ (2023) 891mmX838mm, Black ballpoint pen on antique collaged texts.