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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.

More significantly, her work is intimately connected with her own personal experience of grappling with her self-identity and esteem, after being diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy, a condition which causes facial paralysis and distortion. During that traumatic period, she could barely look at herself in the mirror without shedding tears of self-loathing; she summoned the courage to face the outside world as she responded to a sudden compulsion to express her anguish the best way she knew how – through art.

Armed with two canvases, acrylic paint and humble paint brushes, the artist embarked on a battle to defeat her personal demons and doubts, abstractly depicting herself on stretched linen, and sharing her story of vulnerability, pain and triumph with the world in the most open and transparent way that only an artist can.

Since that first self-portrait, which inspired and moved people enduring their own personal traumas, Sarah has been on a journey to inspire, motivate, and empower viewers through the subject matters she depicts in her art, often rooted in modern history’s period of colonialism and post-colonialism politics and the socio-economic ramifications for the affected.

While the artist’s style has evolved over the years, shifting from abstract to abstract figurativism and portraiture, her subject and purpose remain confidently consistent.

From her questioning and spotlighting of the African continent’s pillaging and abuse in her heart wrenching piece, “‘Weeping Africa,” to her more recent stunning tribute to political activist, Angela Davis – depicted in an army camouflage pigmentation, Sarah explores the full scale of Africa’s and people of African heritage’s state of vulnerability and subjugation, to their proud, tenacious and resilient qualities.

Her work, although empowering to all who view it with an open mind and consciousness, is especially emboldening for women who look like the artist, as her portraiture celebrates some of the most impressive and unapologetic women in living memory: Maya Angelou and Rosa Parks just to name two. In the midst of my conversation with Sarah, I couldn’t help but wonder when the public and avid admirers of her work like myself would be granted the privilege of viewing a solo exhibition of her paintings. It felt very much like a long time coming, during which time the artist has consistently wowed viewers with work at group exhibitions, and original paintings destined for eager collectors and art patrons.

She openly informed me of a solo exhibition she had been planning recently, that she shelved due to her belief that the body of work, while strong, was not up to par with her high standards. I smiled, confident in the knowledge that artists are always their own harshest critics. I am elated to hear that a new solo exhibition is currently in the works, though I am not at liberty to share the details just yet. I can, however, confirm that on the basis of the subject matter alone, it will be a solo exhibition that will be well-worth the wait, and that in true Owusu fashion, will force the viewer to explore their perceptions of identity, standards of beauty and convention.

After our conversation, which took place at my local cafe on Millbank, we walked toward the Tate Britain, and I left feeling both inspired and impressed by the artist. In another life, she could easily be an ambassador, activist or a politician as she effortlessly communicates her strong views as clearly and convincingly verbally as she does on a canvas. For the time being, Sarah chooses to affect change and inspire others through her gifts as an artist, although somehow, I sense that perhaps in the not too distant future, her work and calling will transcend that of art. I suppose only time will tell.

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