Knowledge, Identity & Power: Sarah Owusu

Years ago, I learned of the Mona Lisa effect – the phenomenon in which portraits appear to direct their gaze at the viewer and follow them almost regardless of where they are positioned with respect to the painting.

My initial reaction upon reading about this effect was one of generous skepticism and disbelief. That was until I visited the Musée du Louvre, and locked eyes with the mythical muse who has captured the hearts and minds of countless spectators since she was immortalized by Leonardo da Vinci in 1503. Fast forward to 2019, when I recently found myself gripped by the same eerie effect after coming face to face with a striking portrait of the Honorable Marcus Garvey at a private viewing on Carnaby Street in Central London.

Unlike the soft, inviting eyes of Lisa Gherardini, the portrait that transfixed me was defiant, bold, and intimidating in its majesty and pomp. His penetrating, yet assuring, stare is accentuated by a strong mouth that seems to bellow in a deep and gravelly baritone, “Behold me!”

I can still hear the voice echoing behind me long after I broke Garvey’s gaze, and I’m reminded of a quote by the larger-than-life leader of the Pan-African movement… “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”

Whereas Leonardo’s most famous work was commissioned by a wealthy nobleman and merchant; Sarah Owusu’s motivation behind what, in time, will come to be viewed as one of her most iconic paintings, is her steadfast passion for paying homage to figures who inspire and empower generations of people across the African diaspora.

For Sarah, painting is both a passion and a higher calling, one she openly speaks of when she describes herself as a vessel of God – an artist on a mission to disrupt the prevalent and often ill-informed narratives around people of African heritage.