Painter Lily Kemp examines the sexualisation of women’s bodies in her graphic works

London born-and-bred, Lily’s works particularly look at how “women of colour are often sexualised through a racialised lens that is exoticising, fetishising and othering”.

3 November 2020
Reading Time
4 minute read


The work of painter Lily Kemp is instantly recognisable as hers. Through blocks of acrylic colour, she builds graphic scenes from existing and repurposed imagery to explore alternative narratives around women’s bodies. Specifically, she looks at how women’s bodies have been portrayed and consumed in visual culture and western art history, “in particular, in response to how women’s bodies are sexualised in the media and how women of colour are often sexualised through a racialised lens that is exoticising, fetishising and othering,” she explains.

Lily’s visual language is one informed by the tools she chooses to use, and she’s been working almost exclusively in acrylic for the past three years now. This is largely due to practical reasons “such as the quick drying time and the easy application of creating smooth layers of paint with it, both of which work well with my current style of painting,” she says. But it is also because it’s a method which allows Lily to continually experiment with “how I can create that illusion of texture in the clothes, for example, or areas of shadow and light, while still applying paint in a very smooth and flat, block-like way,” she continues.

The effect is unlike much else we’ve seen before, creating dramatic contrast which draws your eye around the composition, honing in on figures’ skin tones or the draping of their garments. Each subject’s clothing and how it is portrayed is something Lily pays particular attention to. “Fashion, in general, plays a big influence on my work. I love the shapes of the clothes, the texture and creases and folds of fabric,” she explains.

However, fashion also influences her work in terms of the compositions she creates as she employs similarly “fantastical scenes and sets” to those found in fashion photography “where there is this blur between the imagined and the real”. This is also inspired by Lily’s childhood immersed in books: “[I] loved how when you get deep enough into a book you become immersed in it and, in a way, almost escape into this imaginary world, a feeling I look to recreate in my own paintings.”


Lily Kemp: Out to dry (Copyright © Lily Kemp, 2020)

In two pieces titled Lights On and Out to dry, for example, the first two works Lily made after graduating, she created a break in the composition. “The main thing I wanted to do visually was to create a split in each painting where there would be a distinct yet quiet change in the landscape/scene and to create a feeling of a captured frozen movement,” she outlines. In Lights On, this takes the form of a sail blowing in the wind to “create that sense of movement and act as a transition between the scene on the left which is by water, and the scene on the right which is by green fields.” In Out to dry she continues this experimentation, creating visual layers within the painting. “This ended up looking like a spilling out of one scene/layer into another. I arranged the images for the collage so the water from the conservatory in the top left-hand corner would pour out of the room and eventually end up as part of a table cloth which then drapes onto the floor.”

Recently, Lily has also been using her practice to not only examine societal representations of women but to look inwards. “I’ve been thinking about the intersections of my own identity as a queer woman who is half Chinese half English and how this affects how I see and portray the people in my work, as well as reflecting on the ways in which my identity has been shaped growing up in a heteronormative white-centred society, as a now femme-presenting woman who can be read as ethnically ambiguous,” she explains.

Despite having such an incredibly distinctive style, Lily tells us it’s only really materialised in the last year or so but that it began during university. Choosing to take the diagnostic route during her foundation year at Camberwell College of Arts, it was during this year she found that “painting was the creative medium that I found most comfortable and natural to work with, and to visually express whatever it was that I wanted to express.” She then went on to study a BA in painting at Wimbledon College of Art (after a short stint at the University of Brighton). Still based in London, where she was born and bred, this year she was selected as one of the Bloomberg New Contemporaries and has already featured in too many exhibitions for us to mention.

Looking ahead, Lily’s hoping to continue playing around with colour palettes and composition and while she’s not currently sure how it will manifest, she tells us “I’m interested in looking more specifically at themes around identity, in particular queer identities and mixed race identities, looking at this through my own experiences and through talking and working with others.” Furthermore, Lily wants to explore the “different ways in which we express our identity, in particular, our gender identity through our choices in clothes, fashion, makeup (or no makeup) and hair, leading on from this looking at a fluidity in fashion and clothing in general.”

Significantly, too, she’s interested in expanding what has so far been a solo practice into something more collaborative, perhaps alongside a photographer or fashion designer. “I’m not sure how I’ll go about this yet or how to find and approach other creatives who would be interested in working together,” she concludes, “these are all just ideas floating in my head at the moment as to where I could see my work going in the future.”


Lily Kemp: Blue Morning (Copyright © Lily Kemp, 2020)


Lily Kemp: The dawn (Copyright © Lily Kemp, 2020)


Lily Kemp: The dawn (detail) (Copyright © Lily Kemp, 2020)


Lily Kemp: Lights On (Copyright © Lily Kemp, 2020)


Lily Kemp: Lights On (detail) (Copyright © Lily Kemp, 2020)


Lily Kemp: Out to dry (detail) (Copyright © Lily Kemp, 2020)


Lily Kemp: Vertigo (Copyright © Lily Kemp, 2019)


Lily Kemp: Watching the light pour in (Copyright © Lily Kemp, 2020)


Lily Kemp: A distant memory (Copyright © Lily Kemp, 2020)

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Lily Kemp: Planting seeds (Copyright © Lily Kemp, 2019)

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About the Author

Ruby Boddington

Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor. Get in contact with Ruby about ideas you may have for long-form stories on the site.

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