We recently met artist Zoe Rafah to talk about the work of Faith Ringgold & Kehinde Wiley, as well as her own portrait painting for Black History Month this year.
Tell us a bit about yourself, how you came to art and what kind of work you make?
So I have loved being creative all my life – creativity is my most prominent gift. My earliest memories are primary school where we had a variety of art resources, like paint, collage, paper chaining and clay modelling. As a young child I remember making a clay horse that I was very proud of. My passion for clay is what inspired me to work with sugar-paste as a teen, which is an art of moulding and shaping things like flowers, and people out of sugar-paste for cakes. I found a passion for portrait painting in secondary school if I got sent out of class for being disruptive, I would paint my friends who ‘happened’ to be passing by. This is where my love for portrait painting was born. When I experienced mental health issues it made sense to pursue self-employment so I could work at my own pace. My first business was selling decorated celebration cakes, and then I was on the high street as a beauty therapist after I studied a beauty NVQ. I then closed down the beauty therapy business to pursue other interests. I did a short spell at wedding planning, and then I did a journalism degree, then a teaching degree. However I have always enjoyed being creative with my hands so I returned to cakes and portraits and completed a Fine Art diploma and a cake-decorating diploma. I have been running a successful combined business of cakes and portraits called Heavenly Cakes & Portraits for the last 5 years. I also teach cake decorating and art lessons in my studio.
You mentioned you’d seen the Faith Ringgold exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, tell us about that?
Faith Ringgold is an 88-year-old American artist, teacher, lecturer and award winning children’s book writer. I went along to her exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery last year summer, while studying my art diploma and thoroughly enjoyed it! It was really refreshing to see a large display of a lifetime of artwork by a renowned black female artist. Faith does not shy away from political statements or the history of black slavery. I found some of her slavery work disturbing, as there were paintings of naked black females representing the regular rape that took place from white slave masters. There was one piece of work that really took my interest though and that was the Sojourner Truth painting “Ain’t I A Woman”. Ain’t I a woman is a speech delivered by Sojourner Truth (1797-1883), a woman born into slavery in New York.
Sojourner Truth gained her freedom in 1827 and became a well-known anti-slavery speaker. Her speech was delivered at the women’s convention in Akron Ohio. When she stood to speak there were whispers from the other white women “Don’t let her speak!” The speech was in support of women’s rights and was reported in 2 newspapers, a transcript was published in the Anti Slavery Bugle in 1851. The speech talks about the physical strength she has to be able to work that can match any man. There is a bit of humour in the speech, where she states that she can carry as much as any man and eat as much as him too! She goes on to talk about women’s rights and Jesus coming forth from a woman. She talks about never having been treated like a lady. Throughout the speech she repeats the question Aint I a woman? She talks about her strength and might being equal to that of any man and that the argument of intellect had nothing to do with whether women should have rights. She chastises a man who says women can’t have rights because Christ was a man. She points out that Christ came from God and woman, and man had no part in it! The cheering for Sojourner was long and loud and ended with roars of applause, considering she was a freed slave speaking in places where women usually don’t speak, and she is remembered and celebrated to this day. I highly recommend you Google the speech, its incredibly powerful!
(Installation view, 5 June – 8 September 2019, Serpentine Galleries)
© 2019 Faith Ringgold
Do you feel some connections between your own work and the work of Faith Ringgold?
I think where I find connections between Faith Ringgold and myself is that she likes to bring to life issues that are hidden, she likes to highlight the truth and injustice black people experience. When I painted Meghan Markle in her last official royal engagement, it was at a time when I felt she had been unjustly and unfairly persecuted for having a half black heritage by the press and by the public, and I wanted to speak up for her, and bring to the forefront what I thought was the real truth and story of her exit from being a frontline, serving royal who had been at the forefront of duty and criticism.
Tell us about Kehinde Wiley, what attracts you to his work?
I love his portrait of Obama as it has a deep meaning with the plants surrounding him. Obama became president in 2009 while I was at university and I woke up on my birthday on November 5th to the news that America had its first black President! One newspaper just had the headline WOW! I remember at the time that although I wasn’t an American that it was the best birthday present I had ever had!! To me this meant that perhaps discrimination towards black people was declining – well that’s another conversation altogether!
Obama became the Forty-fourth president from 2009–2017 and as a Christian I felt he made some poor decisions proclaiming to be a Christian, but over all I felt he did a great job and made me feel proud to be black because he is a decent human-being and dedicated family man.
One of the reasons I love this portrait of Obama by Kehinde Wiley is because I love colour and most of Kehinde Wiley’s work is full of colour! I also love that the background of greenery has a deeper meaning, in that the chrysanthemums, for example, reference the official flower of Chicago. The jasmine evokes Hawaii, where he spent the majority of his childhood, and the African blue lilies stand in for his late Kenyan father.
For me Kehinde’s work excites me particularly his bold use of colour, and his desire to fill the page, it takes a brave and experienced artist to do that! I too would like to develop the skill of creating interesting backgrounds that don’t distract from the subject matter. You always get a full and detailed image with his work, always more than you’d bargained for!
I like the way you, as a portrait painter, have selected two portraits for BHM. What is it about portrait painting that speaks to you?
I think what speaks to me the most is that eyes, nose, mouth, ears, hair, neck and complexion, are usually what makes a person visually distinct – it’s how you recognise people, and I find this incredibly fascinating! I get an incredible boost when people recognise, unassisted; who I have painted. I feel incredibly proud, and I am generally a person who doesn’t make a big deal of my areas of gifting, but when people like and recognise my work and make comments, it makes me feel like I have some significant purpose on this earth to bring joy to people.
If you’d like to contact Zoe about a painting or cake commission, please contact her via: