by Kristen Wawruck
In the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, in an attempt to counter that year’s upheavals, reminded anxious voters that “joy is an act of resistance.” She was relaying an important refrain from Black feminist thought, epitomized by Audre Lorde: “The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers, which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference.”
The Barbados-based artist Sheena Rose, in a powerful solo debut, Earth Black Lipstick, attempts to conjure similar sentiments in 17 joyful, brightly colored paintings that show Black figures engaged in acts of leisure and sport. By obscuring their faces with voluminous hairstyles, Rose anonymizes them into what she calls “avatars”— composites of herself, friends, and strangers sourced from Pinterest, Instagram and her own travels. In a country where Black hair can still be the basis of a discriminatory court case, it is meaningful to see a series of paintings so dominated by it. She recasts these figures in situations that range from improbable—the chaotic soccer field in Midfielder and the gravity-defying tennis game in The Sisters—to utopic, as in the inviting lesbian bar pictured in Star Moment or the carefree dancers in Confidence. We want to know the score in the former and the soundtrack in the latter. Throughout, you can sense the
artist’s background in animation, evident in flatly rendered paintings that read as stills from a cinematic diary in which lived and imagined experiences unite to form a visual lexicon of Black liberation.
So much of Rose’s work interrogates basic concepts of access and space, and how Blackness can (or cannot) enter. In her world, pools, bars, resorts and tennis courts become sites of refusal. Similarly, scenes involving figures lounging atop aspirational modernist furniture—painted in muted neutrals that read as code for whiteness—transform in Rose’s hands into celebratory moments that pulsate with Caribbean pinks, blues, yellows and greens. Likewise, in Salt, two female figures donning white flowing gowns pose before what could be either a magnificent vista of mountains in a resort or a large, expensive painting. This ambiguity upends and questions assumptions of race and class, further liberating her subjects.
Works involving animals also provoke questions of mobility and serve as vehicles for Rose to experiment freely with other painting styles. The camouflage in Spiritual Guidance, for example, turns a statuesque female figure into part of a fantastical landscape in which a pack of canines, seen on a trip to Mexico City, are ennobled, elevated from lowly street mutts to otherworldly spiritual guides. Class dynamics also play out in the show’s title piece, Earth Black Lipstick Kiss, wherein hens strut freely across a mid-century dining
room, crowned by an elegant branch chandelier. Brushy strokes and shadowing on their feathers sharply contrast against the flat paint handling seen elsewhere in the show. The irreverent gazes of Rose’s non-human characters disrupt the graphical universe they move in. They stare back defiantly. Who are we to say where they should be?
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Sheena Rose: “Earth Black Lipstick” @ Johansson Projects through April 1, 2023.
About the author: Kristen Wawruck is an arts worker, writer, and curator. Prior to moving to the Bay Area, she was the Deputy Director of Swiss Institute in New York.