A painter originally from the English town of Peterborough, Olivia Sterling’s works speak directly and poignantly to Britishness. Zooming in on references that display domestic scenes in reaction to the quiet countryside she grew up in, across her paintings viewers can expect to see references to Brownies and Rainbows through to party food, notably “scotch eggs, store-bought packs of cakes with cheap icing, panda pops, pink panthers and cocktail sausages”. Stylistically Olivia merges these references in a practice she brilliantly describes as “sugary”.
Instantly nostalgic, Olivia’s style is unique and one she describes as both “caricature-ish” and “quasi-medieval”, with nods to “children’s colouring books or cooking instructions”. With these descriptions in mind, visually, Olivia tells us her work purposefully “skirts along the lines of normalcy, slapstick and nonsense... because I feel this is an apt description of what it is like living as a person of colour/other.”
Developing this approach largely at the Royal College of Art (from which she recently graduated), Olivia first studied her BA at the University of Derby. Making artworks since a young age as a useful expressive exercise “to literally draw out my emotions”, today she carries through this point of view “working out more complex issues concerned with othering into paintings”. Consistently a painter too, the medium has always proved useful in portraying what the artist feels she wants to say or depict. “Painting has always been useful to me as my work is often focused on skin colour and in painting you also focus on colour by manipulating pigment,” Olivia explains. “So, it excited me to make images where I am literally colouring people in – choosing their race, how one will interact with one another and the narrative this provides.”
Although explaining how her work “saw a real turning point” in her second year at the RCA, when she began to construct her paintings “more like my draft drawings”, subject matter wise, Olivia has long been exploring domestic scenes to mimic how she perceives living in Britain as a Black person. “Well, I simply cannot paint about much else,” says the artist. “I dip into focusing on food and childhood nostalgia, and I have made work about folklore and legends, but, because issues of race are ever-present in my life, and of all non-white people’s lives, I find myself making work about it or I find the work becomes about race anyway,” she describes. “I think this is because, even when I want to make a painting with a figure in it, not even focused on race, there’s so many connotations, stereotypes and attributes placed on the body that it’s not something I can run away from.”
Additionally, Olivia explains how making this work encourages her practice, as “my relationship to the subject changes, so it feels fresh and exciting every time I make a new series.” Highlighting her series Double Cream as an example, Olivia used her paintings to focus on “skin transformations” exploring how “people went from loving pale, pale white skin to this ‘exotic’ ambiguous brownish-white skin; fake tan and skin lighting,” as well as “how whiteness had updated itself to forward white supremacy,” looking deeply at blackfishing and light skin privilege.
More recently, her thoughts have focused in on “how a marginalised person processes becoming an adult with internalised negative thoughts about their identity,” in a show titled It Clings Like a Leech at Guts Gallery. Unpacking this, the artist’s pieces look to how an individual can dismantle these thoughts – “remove these leeches” – particularly while they may be among people “who either are doing the same, or have the negative thoughts stuck in their minds, and what this means for the person trying to rid of this idea.”
Referencing these two bodies of work as reflecting her thoughts and “the constant ebb and flow of accepting’ yourself but having that challenged by outside influences,” Olivia again references how ultimately this practice is “very helpful to work out these ideas through painting,” she tells us. “As oppression based on skin colour is absurd and confusing, I find myself making paintings that reflect this.”
In turn creating a body of uniquely engaging work which has us feeling very excited for the artist, Olivia is also busy getting ready for three exhibitions she’ll be partaking in during January and February. In particular is her solo show, “where my paintings play with 90s and 00s children’s birthday party aesthetics. So, expect more paintings of food and hands,” offering a new opportunity to see where Olivia’s practice will head next.
Innocent Mishap #5, Acrylic on Canvas (2020)
About the Author
Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019 she was made deputy editor and in November 2021, became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.