From the series, Really Rough Scrubbing Brush © Olivia Sterling. Image credit: Rob Harris

British desserts and creams are on the menu for Olivia Sterling‘s slap-stick paintings and prints. Still, these are not puddings to be taken lightly, as they act as parallels to themes of marginalisation, alienation and how the London-based artist perceives life in Britain as a black person today.

In her latest body of work, Really Rough Scrubbing Brush, we see Olivia Sterling’s bold and confronting style full of dark humour as she examines the theme of race and body image in the UK.

Currently on display at Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art until 31 October, the brightly saturated canvases depict abstracted limbs influenced by late 18th century political cartoons, the golden age of satire in Britain when the body was distorted into grotesque forms to poke fun at kings, queens, and noble persons. But this is no laughing matter, as their interaction is often violent and ambiguous, passing food and sticky liquids or even just attacking one another in actions that Sterling describes as the product of “a systemic language of shame, exclusion, and cultural ownership”.

She explains, “The paintings are often placed in the bathroom, kitchen or playground as they ranged from private to public areas. I chose these as they were apt settings for moments of transformation of any kind – raw to cooked, dirty to clean, cool to burnt, which can parallel moments of othering.”

From the series, Really Rough Scrubbing Brush © Olivia Sterling. Image credit: Rob Harris

From the series, Really Rough Scrubbing Brush © Olivia Sterling. Image credit: Rob Harris

Look closely at Sterling’s paintings, and you’ll also spot the limbs surrounded by letters, as though the paintings are colour-coded, much like the ‘Painting By Numbers’ colouring books from our youth. “I create scenes of hands gesturing amongst others, silently communicating, as well as playing with objects of cream, suspended in a web of letters denoting their skin colour,” she continues. “Often a white hand will be accompanied by ‘P’ for pink or peach interrupting the superiority that oozes from ‘white’, be reminding us of its true, sillier colour. My aim for the paintings is that they are a place where absurdity and normality collide.”

There are symbols of British culture throughout, including milk bottles, brown sauce, or bowls of fresh strawberries, all familiar to the artist and Brits everywhere. All of her paintings focus on domestic scenes that “mimic how I perceive living in Britain as a black person,” she adds. It’s about highlighting the racism and stereotypes that exist in our society via familiar treats that are not good for our health.

Born in Peterborough, Olivia Sterling now lives and works in London. Before the Royal College of Art, she received her BA at The University of Derby. Really Rough Scrubbing Brush is on display at Goldsmiths CCA until 31 October 2021.

From the series, Really Rough Scrubbing Brush © Olivia Sterling. Image credit: Rob Harris

From the series, Really Rough Scrubbing Brush © Olivia Sterling. Image credit: Rob Harris

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