As part of our temporary weekly programme Under Construction, every Friday Bethlem Gallery present artists’ work through film & video screenings, conversations, resources and online projects.
This week we spoke to Zoe Rafah about the challenges of lockdown, painting a cultural icon, and standing up against racism and sexism.
Tell us a bit about your art journey.
Painting and art is something I’ve done all my life. When I was a kid in primary school I used to really enjoy drawing. I was introduced to clay at the age of 5 or 6, I loved silver stickers and putting them on pictures and colouring in and painting – I just really enjoying the creativity of making. When I went off to secondary school we had quite a big art department. Sometimes I was naughty and got sent out of class, so I would go to the art room and get materials and if one of my friends were passing I’d ask them to sit for me. So that’s where my love for portrait painting came from.
Then I left school, I got a B on GCSE in art and announced that I wanted to be an artist. I was told artists never make any money, so I thought, oh I’m not gonna bother then. I went on and did other things, a bit of radio, I got a journalism degree, and then I went into teaching. I did a bit of teaching media, English and I did a couple of weeks teaching art in a secondary school, and I kept finding that as an adult, no matter what I was doing, I kept gravitating back to the art shop. So I bought myself an easel and some paints and brushes and I felt so euphoric. I bought the BP Portrait Award 500 Portraits book, and a few years ago I started copying some of the techniques of some of the portraits that I admired.
So then I thought I’d really like to get a qualification for art. I applied to the Morley Foundation art course and they offered me a place – it was pretty tough going and it wasn’t exactly what I thought it would be. I thought I’d just be able to paint a bunch of portraits and improve my technique, but it was a bit of everything – I remember one morning we were making boxes out of paper and I was horrified, I thought is this what I’ve come to college for?? But at the end of the course, I did an exhibition on black art and for the first time in my life I did a 2×3 metre portrait of a friend of mine who is a children’s worker, and I wrote a bit about her and her journey of supporting youth. I got so much positive feedback for that piece, and I decided that doing large portraiture was something I wanted to move forward with. I did another one that summer, of a lady from church who is a mother raising two young black sons and a daughter, and I wrote a bit about her and exhibited that and my foundation piece at Theatre Peckham. I was there for about a month and I got a commission from there which was great. He contacted me and said he wanted a portrait to be done in his current stage of life, to be painted before he turned 50.
After that commission I didn’t do much painting at all – I think I was sitting there waiting for someone to contact me and ask for a commission, so I kind of relaxed with art and focused on the professional celebration cakes I do. And then we entered lockdown. That was on March 23rd, and I think it was that very day, when I had to self isolate from work for seven days, that I unrolled some canvas and cut it. I sent off for some pictures of Meghan Markle – I usually work from a few A4 photos of people and pin them up on the wall – and when they arrived I did the outline and the base tone of her skin, and then the stress of corona and lockdown started to get to me.
I’ve been dieting for the past fourteen months and lost about four stone of the weight I put on due to the medication I take for my health condition, and then I got into this sort of lockdown stupor. I started to get really low, I wasn’t exercising, all I would do is sit in the garden and eat chocolate biscuits. I kept looking at the Meghan portrait thinking to myself, the expectations for this portrait are gonna be so high. People know her face, she’s so beautiful, when people see it they’re gonna make judgements on my painting because people know her face, and also there’s so many people that unjustly dislike her, and there are also my feelings about them stepping down from royal duties… so I paused on the Meghan portrait for a while and then, out of the blue, I got an email from the Bethlem asking ‘do you want support with your art practice?’ And I thought, yes, that’s exactly what I need.
Rosie got in touch to set up an appointment to chat. We had a lovely lovely chat and I explained to her how I’d come to a standstill with the portrait. I talked about how at school when I painted I felt so much freedom and now I have an adult way of looking at things, these expectations that are really high and that people’s opinions of what I do have to be really good. Rosie said why don’t you do something else to get back that rhythm of how you enjoy painting. You don’t have to show it to anyone, just enjoy the process. It’s really funny that she said that to me because I was thinking something similar. Even though I’m not an expert in how to get your groove back or your mojo back as an artist, it was something that had crossed my mind, should I just paint something else. So that it was confirmation that that’s what I needed to do. I painted some fruit and I did it freehand, which I never do because I like to do a guideline in pencil first. But I didn’t, I just got some pears and a banana on a plate because that’s what I had in the house and painted in acrylic. I usually work in oil paints, that’s my medium, but because I wanted to just have fun and acrylic dries quite quickly I used acrylic this time. I sent it to Rosie and she really liked it which was really affirming. She liked the fluidity of it and that encouraged me to do another one. This time I did use my pencil which I do prefer to do, and I used watercolour and again sent it to Rosie and she affirmed it and encouraged me.
Then I got back on track with my diet, got my mojo back, stopped eating the chocolate biscuits, and decided that I’m gonna have another bash at Meghan. I sat down and I did about five hours which I rarely do, I usually work on my portraits for about two hours at a time. At the end of the five hours I really felt I had got over the mountain. The second session I did on the painting, I finished her eyes, and I sat back and said out loud, Meghan is in my house. I was so happy with the results of how far it had come and developed. It’s great when I am pleased with my work, whether it be a cake, my calligraphy, my cardmaking, or a portrait, and then an added bonus when others like it. I’ve got about another six hours to work on the Meghan portrait and then get it framed, and then hopefully get it in some exhibitions.
Why did you choose to paint Meghan?
I’ve always been a royalist much to my family’s chagrin, I like the queen and the royalty, very much liked Harry & William and very much liked Kate. The whole country was aware that Harry was still single and that he’d been through a few girlfriends that it hadn’t worked out with. And then there were these rumours circulating that Harry was dating a biracial girl… I thought to myself that that’s never gonna happen, he’s never gonna be allowed to marry a biracial girl, and then I discovered that she was divorced and I thought even more so that it will never happen. So I wasn’t really interested. But then he wrote a letter to the press against the sexism and racism towards his girlfriend, a really affirming letter really defending her and he got my attention. I thought he’s serious about this girl, he’s declared that she’s his girlfriend and he’s not having this sexism and racism towards her. Shortly after that the engagement was announced and I was so excited. I thought there’s finally gonna be someone of colour in the royal family. Coming up to the wedding I was saying to all my friends I can’t wait til the 19th of May, I can’t wait to see the dress, I can’t wait I can’t wait I can’t wait. I woke up early and watched it, went to a street party afterward, and the country was saying how refreshing it was to have something new, that it’s a modern royal family now. Then shortly after that I noticed a lot of derogatory things starting to circulate in the press. There were trolls on their instagram account and every little thing that they did was jumped upon, whereas with William and Kate it wasn’t such a big deal. It really broke my heart. I didn’t expect it – I know that might sound silly being a black person, but I thought she’s in the royal family and there must be a level you can get to as a person of colour to be untouchable. But that wasn’t true. When I actually realised that there was this conspiracy to bring them down, it really hurt. I thought to myself how hated are people of colour? What on earth stirs up these feelings of hatred and why? There were leaks all over the place of private conversations, even in the palace. There was a complete vendetta against them and it really hurt. All I was praying was, Meghan don’t give up, don’t give up, keep going, keep pressing forward, overcome.
So when the announcement came that they were going to be stepping back from royal duties I was devastated. It took me a few days to adjust, and even though I as a black person would never have given it up, I think maybe Harry & Meghan doing that is the right thing. It’s a way of saying, I have a life to lead, and I’m not gonna live it like this. When I started to look at it from that point of view, that they made a decision that she and Harry and little Archie were not gonna live their lives like that, I saw it in terms of not quitting, but moving on to a new and healthier phase of life. I just pray for them that they’ll do well and flourish. I believe it’s a new season of good things for them without the defamation of character that was happening. The last royal engagement that she went to I thought she looked stunning in that green. It wasn’t until later that I discovered the meaning of green is renewal, a refreshing from a challenging time and a replenishing, and I thought how fantastic that she wore that colour to her final royal engagement.
For me as well I love her heart. Personally I’m a Christian, but I find it really beautiful when someone who doesn’t call Christ their saviour has a heart to change the world. Even from when she was child, she changed the advert for washing up liquid from ‘women all over the world’ to ‘people all over the world’ because she was disgusted that women were just expected to wash up. From a young age she’s been like that, and I feel that both Harry and Meghan want to make the world a better place, and at a very high cost.
I also really enjoy painting women of all colours, but I believe that women of colour are underrepresented. I do believe that black lives matter, so I really enjoy representing that in my portraits.
Zoe is open for commissions for both portraits and cakes. You can follow her on instagram at @heavenly_cakes_by_zoe!