SELENA SCOTT is a painter going into her second year at the Slade. Her portraits illustrate the complexities in identity caused by acculturation and racism, exploring hyper-masculinity and prejudice. JEAN WATT interviewed her about her practice. 

Red Flower is Power is your most recent painting. What was the process of making that like?

I actually started this piece before lockdown, I had originally started it in 2018 which was a year before I came to the Slade. I had taken this picture of my cousin and I knew I wanted to paint it, but I hated the initial outcome. I left it for a while but recently returned to the image after finding a recording I had taken of him speaking about his experience of gang violence in Barbados. So I decided to redo it because I felt that it had the potential to become something meaningful and I wanted to do it justice. I met him as this innocent 14-year old boy, but he was telling me about friends who had been shot and killed. It’s this kind of thing that interests me, because there are so many people with experiences that aren’t shared. I believe a moment of sonder is necessary for progression, so I chose to centre this piece around his own story.

Red Flower is Power

 What is your wider work process like?

I do quite a lot of research and have been reading lots of books. For the past few years, the work of Frantz Fanon has been a main source of inspiration for me. He was a philosopher writing in the 1950s and 60s, but the fact that I can still find connections between the past and present-day is what I find interesting. I tend to go back to a lot of things and my process is very organic. I write my notes and go back to them and keep a constant flow of information coming in and out. There are so many different things that feed into my work. But it tends to always be related to Black culture.

What is the focus or driving force of your work? 

I particularly focus on Black men in my portraits. I find that people don’t view Black males in the same way as females. As a woman, even though I’m hindered in society because of my race and gender, I think my femininity protects me to an extent. I am not viewed as much of a threat, and even less because I am mixed-race. As a person viewing Black males around me, I can see how differently racism and hyper-masculinity affect them. Simply by googling ‘Black man’ and ‘Black woman’ the results are drastically different.

Of course. You spoke in your artist statement about your paintings as redefining portrayals of Black men, and you paint these very sensitive and intimate portraits…

Sensitive is definitely a word I would use to describe them. I think empathy is my biggest personality trait, I’m a very empathetic person. And I think that’s almost why I find it easier to paint men because I am able to translate the empathy that I feel into a visual representation for the viewer. It’s not my personal experience, it’s someone else’s. However, there is always a personal connection as most of my portraits are of loved ones or friends. Having been raised by Caribbean parents in Cambridge, I believe I’ve gained a unique perspective and I aim to use it to display the Black man in a way which expresses their fragility. There’s a quote my dad always said which I think relates to my work so much, and it’s something like ‘Until the lion can tell his story, the tale will always be about the hunter’; it definitely rings true.

Sketchbook pages

Has working during lockdown changed your work process?

I’ve been at an advantage because I have a studio space at home. But I found that at the beginning of lockdown it was really hard to get into painting. I ended up doing lots of sewing; I was making small stuffed bears and sending them to friends. It’s easy to do while I’m watching Netflix and makes me feel less guilty about watching nine seasons of The Walking Dead. It has certainly slowed my process as the abundance of free time has meant that I could work as much or as little as I pleased.

Have you been looking at any particular artists recently?

The last exhibition I went to before lockdown was Kehinde Wiley at the William Morris Gallery. It was really small, but I had never seen his work in person and he’s always been one of my favourite painters. This exhibition in particular was incredibly insightful to me because he only painted females. So it’s the complete opposite of my work, but painting from that same kind of perspective. That was really inspiring and I find I go back to that a lot. Since I’ve been back at home I’ve been thinking more about what initially started my inspiration with art and I have been looking at a painting which I loved as a kid at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge by Salvator Rosa called Human Frailty. It’s a painting that he created when his family died during the Naples Plague in 1656. I think I’ve been thinking a lot at the moment about how life is so fragile and you cannot plan anything. This whole lockdown has made me think about what I want from my life and what is the message I want to leave behind.

A Tree Without Roots

What are you planning for the future when you’re back at Slade?

The way I work, I always have something planned before I finish something else. I take loads of pictures and I have an archive of them that I can go through, taking notes and creating links. Since I’ve been home I’ve been talking to my dad a lot and he’s been telling me stories of his childhood. He’s a really good storyteller. I’m planning to link some pictures I’ve taken to the folklore in Jamaica, so I’m hoping to explore a bit more of that when I go back to Slade. I want to experiment. I think I can be quite uptight with my creating process and everything has to be perfect and I restart and keep going over and over again until it’s right. Even with this painting [Red Flower is Power], I’m not completely happy with it but I’m just saying it’s finished now because otherwise I’ll be on it forever. I hope I can feel more comfortable with my process and learn to push myself even more because I’m not at all at the skill-level I want to be at. I want to be able to get my message across as coherently as possible.

You can find Selena on Instagram @lenasc0tt.