Around the world, the beauty industry has a reputation for preying on women’s insecurities. It has also encouraged women with darker skin tones to lighten their skin using cosmetic procedures such as skin bleaching. Olivia Sterling’s most recent work, Really Rough Scrubbing Brush, at Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art comments on the British tanning industry and how white women are praised for becoming “bronzed goddesses” while ignoring the detrimental impact this trend has on women with darker skin tones.
Currently on view until October 31st, Sterling’s paintings are inspired by 18th-century political cartoons that used caricatures as a tool for political critique. Sterling uses bright colors throughout the collection that contribute to the mayhem depicted within each painting. In the painting, Pasty Legs Begone!, two pairs of legs seemingly belonging to white women are covered in either tanning lotion or chocolate pudding. The painting depicts both half-eaten pudding containers and a tanning lotion bottle. As the curvy white women lather their bodies with either substance or the other, they enhance the curves on their bodies to a point that borders on racial ambiguity.
The inspiration behind the exhibition comes from Sterling’s memories of family vacations, which explains why some of the bodies are scantily clad in bikinis while sitting poolside. It also contributes to why Sterling notably used blue pigment for underpainting because it enhances the pink skin tones of the white figures in each painting. The application of the paint on the canvas — mainly in how the white figures are spreading either chocolate pudding or fake tan on their bodies — highlights a modern-day act known as “Blackfishing.”
Blackfishing is when white individuals (women in particular) excessively tan their skin and/or alter their body or hair to mimic the look of Black women. Ironically, the looks that white women attempt to emulate are the same looks that Black women have been demonized for. Black women have been told to assimilate to western ideals of beauty, which inherently mimic whiteness. These standards can be seen in skin bleaching and the use of perms and relaxers to chemically alter hair.
In the painting, ODE (SHINES LIKE A COIN), 2021, a Black woman sits poolside with her legs dangling in the pool while a bowl of vanilla ice cream sits beside her. The bowl of vanilla ice cream has the letter “W” imprinted on it, which can symbolize whiteness. The white ice cream, which can also be interpreted as skin-whitening cream, is smeared around the woman’s body by the woman herself and by a disembodied white hand. The painting offers commentary on how Black women are subjected to the idea of skin-bleaching or skin-whitening in the beauty industry by white figures. It also speaks to how, even in seemingly relaxing moments like sitting poolside during a vacation, Black women are forced to reckon with ideas of assimilation into western ideals of beauty. There is never a moment of rest when their very existence is politicized.
Sterling’s Coconut, Onyx, Dark Chocolate and Straight-Up Black, 2021, portrays how white women are often praised for having features that Black women possess. The painting shows the lower half of a white woman whose behind and legs have been covered with a brown product that mimics a fake tan. As she stands in the center of the painting, disembodied hands surround her, showing praise to her body, whether it be through hand gestures or the position of the hands coming towards the body, seemingly wanting to touch it. This piece contributes to the larger conversation around the fetishization of Black features found on women, evident in media depictions of Black women (particularly in the music industry).
As a Black woman herself, Sterling’s Really Rough Scrubbing Brush paintings offer insight into her own experiences living in the United Kingdom and give audiences the ability to resonate with her story. Really Rough Scrubbing Brush contributes to the larger conversation on the politicization of plus-size Black bodies in media and the right to exist without being either fetishized as the “Big Beautiful Woman,” or forced to assimilate into white standards of beauty.
© Jessica Bond (10/29/21) Special for FF2 Media.
To learn more about Olivia Sterling, click here. If you can’t make it to London to see Really Rough Scrubbing Brush up close & personal, we encourage you to watch this one hour talk held online and moderated by curator Natasha Hoare. Please consider purchasing this signed & numbered digital pigment print. (No one who visits you will ever forget seeing it!)
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: Pasty Legs Begone! (crop) by photographer Jessica Bond.
Middle Photo: Pasty Legs Begone! (full — click on image to enlarge it) by photographer Jessica Bond.
Bottom Photo: ODE (SHINES LIKE A COIN), 2021 by photographer Jessica Bond.
Photos taken inside the Really Rough Scrubbing Brush exhibit at the Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art in London were taken by Jessica Bond for FF2 Media © FF2 Media. Authorized for responsible use as long as the link to FF2’s webpage is included in the credit.