Significance of belonging: interview with Rugiyatou Jallow
Nov 03, 2023
Clare Gemima had the privilege of delving into the world of Rugiyatou Jallow, a multi-media painter of Gambian and Swedish descent. The artist shares her insights behind And Her Eyes Were Held By The Sun (Oct 19 - Nov 22, 2023), her solo show that recently opened at albertz benda in Chelsea, New York. Jallow’s striking and vibrant paintings portray mixed-race and black women in moments of bliss, drawing from her own experiences amongst universal themes, most notably concerned with identity, and pleasure.
This conversation aims to unveil the intricacies of Jallow's creative process, a deeply personal journey that eventually led to her fusion of threads with oil and acrylic paint on canvas. Her applications of various mediums directly challenges traditional art making, and are reactive processes inspired by a deep contemplation of the ever-evolving tapestry that is the contemporary art world. The painter confronts her audience by addressing the globally misconstrued ideal of mixed women of color. With a lack of authentic representation in fine arts, Jallow subversively employs a blatant emphasis on tonality and pigment to challenge perceptions of skin color, cultural heritage, and the significance of belonging.
Clare Gemima (CG): What inspired you to depict mixed-race and black women in bliss?
Rugiyatou Jallow (RJ): My work focuses on mixed women and represents my own experience in life – growing up with parents from two different races and cultures specifically. My depiction of figures additionally represents the struggles of wanting to fit in, but never feeling a sense of belonging. For this exhibition – And Her Eyes Were Held By The Sun at albertz benda – I wanted to make a shift from my previous work, to show women who no longer feel torn in their identity. They feel comfortable in themselves and in who they are. I also endeavour into understanding what would happen if I were to place my subjects in different scenes throughout the summer months either getting ready to surf, or simply just soaking up the sun. What I generally don't see in paintings these days are mixed women being depicted “doing” much. I wanted my work to be about this particular demographic being able to do whatever they want to do. With the sun embracing them, it feels like they finally belong somewhere, and get to rightfully relax for a bit.
CG: There are numerous underlayers, over layers, stencilling, filling of negative space on your canvas through various paint finishes, and technical application of thread. Do you mind walking us through your studio process?
RJ: I always start with a bright color that represents nature as a base layer. Growing up in Sweden is what really catapulted my love for nature. I use a bristle brush with acrylic paint to create rough brush strokes, which then end up becoming part of the female’s body. I then work with oil, and start painting out the different blocks of skin color, representing black, white and “mixed”. In my case, my Gambian Black dad, my Swedish Caucasian mom, and me; those mixed colors. Once I'm done with skin tone, I move on to outlining whatever garments I've dressed my subjects in. I then paint a backdrop layer, and then finish with their hair. My final stages involve glueing threads to the canvas with a wax medium, and lastly varnishing or “fixing” the piece to create a glossy color-popping finish.
CG: Your works center upon unashamed, and some blatantly proud womanly characters. Could you discuss the importance of female empowerment within your new body of work, and elaborate on how your matrilineal lineage has influenced some of your studio processes?
RJ: My Grandma was an artist, and so is my Mother. So I grew up with encouragement to draw and paint with all sorts of mediums like acrylic, oil, pastel, and charcoal which I loved. My Grandma would work with batik, paint, weaving, and even create small sculptures. Mom worked with different mediums, at the time, but the ones I remember admitting the most in my childhood were her many colorful self portraits rendered in pastel. My mother has always been a very independent woman, and a strong role model as a female that can do it all – from chopping wood with an axe, to making healing ointments with ingredients from nature. Same goes for my Grandma. She's always instilled the importance of women empowerment in many different ways which influenced me to grow up exploring female figures in my work. I've always viewed all women as beautiful creatures, Goddesses capable of extraordinary things. I also believe we are all highly underestimated by society.
CG: In any case throughout your paintings, does the same female character appear twice? Is there a singular narrative enmeshed across several works in your show, or is that for the audience to contemplate?
RJ: Although I do rely on real people as references, my works are not about their specific face, or about them as a person generally. My works are about sharing the story of every mixed woman dealing with the struggles of not feeling a sense of belonging in either culture, race, or ethnicity they are mixed with.
CG: Can you elaborate on the significance of your use of thread specifically?
RJ: The threads are representative of the flow of life and the connection between races. I have a specific way that I lay them down. It's never planned out – it’s improvised in the process of laying them down on the skin. One could almost imagine them like blood flowing through veins, except it's not blood – it's the flow of life creating a connection.
CG: How does your presentation, And Her Eyes Were Held By The Sun at albertz benda contribute to a broader conversation about diversity, representation, and the challenges faced by women of mixed racial backgrounds, both in your immediate artist circles and beyond?
RJ: In general, I’d never had a conversation with anyone about what it was like to be mixed, but the issues I've dealt with are either being too light skinned, or not being white enough. It could also be an issue of people wanting one to choose which “side” you identify with the most. In my case, I'm proud to identify with all cultural aspects diversified across my entire family. I'm as proud to be Swedish as I'm to be Gambian, and I can credit both of my parents for that. Essentially, all of us as humans want to belong to something or someone, and I know a lot of people of mixed race that deal with these struggles of not feeling a sense of belonging anywhere. Overall, it's important in my exhibition to depict women in scenes that represent more of today's society in a positive manner – to show that we belong out here in the sun.
CG: There’s a loving and a longing in your subject’s facial expressions. If they were to be gazing out at someone or something else, who or what would it be?
RJ: It's almost a gaze out to the universe, but more so a gaze back at themselves. A sense of finally embracing who they are, and feeling comfortable in their own skin. They all do it differently but it's all about them feeling an utmost comfort in that very moment.
And Her Eyes Were Held By The Sun at albertz benda in New York is on from Oct 19 - Nov 22, 2023. For more information, please click here.