Contemporary artist Akilah Watts paints portraits that look incredibly life-like, well that’s because they are. The 26-year-old artist draws inspiration from her personal life, often reimagining images of her childhood growing up in St. James, a parish located on the west coast of the Island of Barbados, known for its white sandy beaches and gorgeous Caribbean sea coastline. Using the lush island as her backdrop, Watts whose currently doing a residency with ArtleadHER and the Monira Foundation explores how the colorful people of Barbados intertwine with the breathtaking nature that brings the country to life.
“A lot of the imagery that I use, at least in my most recent body of work, comes from family photos mixed with postcards from the island,” Watts told MADAMENOIRE.
The brilliant artist wanted to create Black portraiture from the Caribbean that was true to her upbringing and the Barbadian experience, a concept that she hadn’t seen other artists explore.
“A lot of black portraiture for the islands depicts the cane fields and the vendors. There wasn’t any portraiture of people that was true to the modern times.
So, Watts grabbed her acrylic paint and went to work, juxtaposing photos of her family with images of bright fruits, beautiful tropical landscapes, and colorful Barbadian-inspired fabrics native to her hometown. She brings her stunning artwork to life using real images and prints as inspiration, but there’s no tracing involved. Each and every last piece is drawn by sight. One of Watts’ stunning pieces called “Picnic in Paradise” depicts her as a young child sitting with her mother on a blanket seaside.
“We used to do a lot of picnics when I was younger, almost every Sunday with the whole neighborhood. I grew up just enjoying life,” she recalled of the special memory. The stunning painting is featured in her series “Moments From My Island Home” which explores themes of identity, culture, and belonging.
“It’s almost like the postcard view versus the family photo view. You’re getting a more realistic view from the eyes of people that have grown up in the space and that’s different from the imagery that’s perpetuated in a souvenir,” said Watts, who hopes the series will bridge the gap between the realistic and idealistic views of Black life in Barbados.
“It’s about looking at people as apart of the landscape. I’m interested in examining the ideas of Black bodies being bought and sold and the way in which sometimes people are examined by outside eyes. Those coming in as tourists may look at those from the native space as a means to an end, somebody to provide them with the services they need while they’re here, and less as an individual.”
Scattered throughout Watts’s work, you’ll find nostalgic and familiar photos of Black women and little girls donning braided beaded hairstyles, natural afros, and kinky twists, all of which capture the beauty, strength, and grace of women from the Caribbean and Barbados’ paradisiacal imagery. Her “Beautifully Braided” series takes you back to being a child again, sitting in between your mother’s legs as she parts through your tender scalp for hours to achieve the perfect hairstyle. That’s a moment that most Black women, no matter what part of the world can resonate with.
“In art school, there’ s a lot of explanation for the concept. I just wanted a break to create something that was less rooted in ‘why and how’ and ‘this and when,'” she explained. “I was drawing little girls with hairstyles just for practice and for a sense of freedom away from schoolwork and then once I graduated, I kind of combined the two.”
There’s so much more in store for the bustling artist too. Watts, whose had her beautiful artwork displayed at Miami’s Prizm Art Fair and in publications like Artsy, is currently busy developing a new body of work for her residency that will focus on mirrors and their ability to reflect reality and one’s true identity. The star said she also hopes to have her own solo show soon.
“That’s probably one of my main goals currently. I don’t know if I have like a five-year plan, to be honest,” she chuckled during the interview. “That’s probably the worst thing to say, but I’m just looking for what’s the best opportunity that comes about. I always take every opportunity as it comes.”
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