Olivia Sterling Depicts Modern Racial Issues in Bright Colors

On the anniversary of the opening day of Olivia Sterling’s exhibition Yowl, we’re celebrating this important artist! 

Olivia is a British artist known for her hard-hitting messages delivered in a colorful, picture-book style. As a Black woman, she uses her art to address issues of race in the UK. Another signature element of her style is something you might not see right away; little letters ‘B’ and ‘W’, to symbolize the labeling and compartmentalizing of people of different skin tones that she observes. 

The playful color palettes and whimsical touches in Olivia’s paintings draw the viewer in, but once they look closely, the letters and the symbolism lead them to the grave realities behind the paintings. 

Olivia’s most famous collection, Really Rough Scrubbing Brush, interrogates the phenomenon of self-tanning amongst people in the UK (although, it certainly applies to the US as well). One painting depicts white bodies slathering themselves with a dark brown liquid; it looks like pudding but is meant to represent self tanning. The stark contrast in the color of their skin, emphasized by a bright blue background, and the color of the pudding/tanner shows the practice for what it is: a form of blackfishing.

Conversely, another painting shows a Black body, lathering itself with a bright white ice cream, which is labeled with a W. In the words of FF2 Contributor Jessica Bond: “The painting offers commentary on how Black women are subjected to the idea of skin-bleaching or skin-whitening in the beauty industry by white figures. It also speaks to how, even in seemingly relaxing moments like sitting poolside during a vacation, Black women are forced to reckon with ideas of assimilation into western ideals of beauty. There is never a moment of rest when their very existence is politicized.”

“In Olivia’s exhibition Yowl, she utilized her signature cartoonish style to critique racism in a different way.”

In Olivia’s exhibition Yowl, she utilized her signature cartoonish style to critique racism in a different way. The term ‘Yowl’ here represents the noise that white people may make when they feel they are losing their privileges as a result of societal progress.

Just as in Really Rough Scrubbing Brush, the paintings in Yowl utilize bodies to depict issues that really are just that, issues of the body. But this time, Olivia zooms in further, mostly depicting hands. In these paintings, white hands are bitten by snakes, or stabbed with darts, while Black hands around them remain untouched. Seeing this image, one can imagine the “yowl” included in the scene. The paintings are meant to parody, or perhaps point out the ridiculousness of, arguments that privileged white people may make about being “targeted” or “attacked,” or their general complaining about progress that will ultimately improve society. 

Though Olivia’s art has only gained notoriety in the past couple of years, her paintings have moved people deeply, evoking the strong response she undoubtedly hoped they would. Olivia’s seething social commentaries, along with the incredible movement and life that she achieves in her paintings, make them uniquely powerful. She is certainly an artist to keep on your watch list. 

© Julia Lasker (1/20/23) FF2 Media


Read Jessica Bond’s review of ‘Really Rough Scrubbing Brush’ here.

See more photos of the Yowl exhibit on the KUBAPARIS site.

Follow Olivia Sterling here.


Featured photo: ©2021 Brynley Odu Davies. Courtesy of Olivia Sterling.

Bottom photo: Photo by Hendrik Zeitler. Courtesy of Olivia Sterling.

Tags: Blackfishing, British Artist, Jessica Bond, Olivia Sterling, Racism, Really Rough Scrubbing Brush, UK, Visual Arts, Yowl

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As an associate for FF2 Media, Julia writes reviews and features for films made by women. She is currently a senior at Barnard College studying Psychology. Outside of FF2, her interests include acting, creative writing, thrift shopping, crafting, and making and eating baked goods. Julia has been at FF2 for almost 4 years, and loves the company and its mission dearly.
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