Philomena Francis, artist

 8 February 2011

The work of artist Philomena Francis stretches and alters over time. Her images, created using treacle piped directly onto walls, drip to form sticky puddles on the gallery floor.

Francis' untitled work appeared in the Awnings installation 'Distance & Proximity'.
Francis' untitled work appeared in the Awnings installation 'Distance & Proximity'.

From her earliest works, she has been interested in ideas of identity, be it cultural or gender. Her ambitious site specific installations re-appropriate images from popular culture, exploring and reclaiming the image of the black female body. 

Becoming an artist

Philomena was born in London in 1969 to parents of Caribbean origin. She always loved to draw, but initially trained to be a social worker.

“My parents came over from the Caribbean in order to make a better life and contribute to society. Their idea of a good living or career was to be a nurse or something very tangible and solid. The idea of saying – I want to be an artist – was something they couldn't envision”.

Philomena's passion for art and working with people subsequently led her to Art Therapy, an area that she has been working in since the mid-90s. In 2001 she went back to college to study Fine Art, embarking on a degree course at Chelsea College of Art.

The course, which was part-time and in the evenings, enabled Philomena to keep working full-time in order to finance her degree. The flexible nature of the course, she feels, encouraged diversity.

“It's anecdotal, but it felt as if there were more ethnic minorities and mothers than on the full-time course because of when it was. It was 3 days a week for 5 years. You had to commit to it, you had to do all the work without having a studio there, you had to bring things in, you had to have exhibitions off site. It was very demanding, but very worthwhile.”

Philomena graduated from Chelsea in 2006 with a first class honours degree. Since then, she has exhibited in group and solo shows in the UK and abroad. In 2007 she was the first artist to be commissioned by the Institute of International Visual Arts (Iniva) to create an installation in the window of their East London Headquarters.

The Sugar Series

The most recent show, a solo exhibition at the City Gallery, Leicester entitled Mo’Lasses IV, is her most ambitious to date. Her treacle drawings cover the entire walls of the gallery space.

"I wanted to move from the image, to what goes on inside the image. For that I needed something more fluid – that's when I decided to use treacle”

Philomena's use of treacle developed from a series of female nudes made using brown sugar whilst still at Chelsea entitled The Sugar Series.

“When thinking about portraying the black body, you bump into a lot of stuff. You can't separate it from the social, historical, political context. The auction block comes to mind, the exploitation of the body – it's the baggage that comes with you. That's why I decided to make the portraits from sugar – to reference the past and difficult history of the black body”.

Utilised by Philomena, sugar becomes a loaded metaphor for the sugar trade and slavery. “I liked the idea of the connection between the addiction to sugar that was developing in Europe and its need to be fed – the people in the fields, cutting and chopping, their bodies bruised maintaining this trade.” The use of brown sugar also could be seen as a re-appropriation of street language, the term 'brown sugar' often used in relation to black female sexuality.

With her Sugar Series Philomena wanted to challenge stereotypical notions of black female identity, showing instead how real black women saw themselves.”We are projected upon a lot. How much of that do you take in? How much of that is yourself, how much is not?”

Working with treacle

The Sugar Series led to further experiments with sugar-based substances. “Although I liked those works, there was something too concrete for me. I wanted to move from the image to what goes on inside the image and for that I needed something more fluid – that's when I decided to use treacle”.

In her most recent works, she has piped treacle directly onto the wall using an icing bag instead of a paintbrush. As the exhibition progresses, the images begin to distort slightly, the treacle becoming lighter in colour as it stretches and slowly drips.

Philomena appropriates images from popular culture, each image repeated numerous times across the gallery space. “There is something that I like about repetition rather than narrative. Repetition reminds me of an echo to the past or to the future and I like the rhythm that you can get with it rather than telling a story”.

In her window commission for Iniva, she depicted a woman sleeping, her image repeated three times. The figure, gleaned from a French film, seemed self-conscious to Philomena.

“There was something about this character that I wanted to capture. It gave me the feeling of always being watchful and for me it captured something that may well be in the female black persona – of always having to be aware of yourself because of what is projected onto you from past as well as present histories.”

Minorities in visual arts

"Every young black person thinks they can be a hip hop artist because someone has made it who came from down the street. That kind of exposure is not there for art"

During the past ten years black artists such as Chris Ofili, Steve McQueen and Isaac Julien have achieved huge success. Ofili won the Turner Prize in 1998, McQueen in 1999 and Ofili and Julien represented Britain at Venice in 2003 and 2009 respectively.

So have the visual arts changed? Does it no longer matter what gender or race you are? “I wish I could say yes. Minorities, especially those from the commonwealth, don't make up the most affluent stratum of the community. We don't have the money to help our children to go and become artists. We may be able to support them to do sciences and things that we know the government will give them a grant for. The government will pay for you to be a teacher but they are not going to pay for you to do an art degree. Because of the complexity of it all, I think it is still difficult.”

Philomena adds that there are many more black role models in the music industry than the visual arts. “The genre of music has a history, for example in America every young black person thinks that they can be a hip hop artist because someone has made it who came from down the street. That kind of exposure is not there for art. There is only a handful of very successful black artists and a lot of them are men.”

For her next projects Philomena will continue to work with treacle, but she adds “I don't like to pre-empt. I want to hopefully let the momentum take me where it will take me." She likes the idea of her work taking over the space, “of crawling up the gallery wall, a taking part of the territory for a while, bringing something that's beneath to the surface.”

Her exploration of slavery and the sugar trade is a way of looking at history in order to throw light on the present. “If we are unable to look at history then we are more likely to repeat it. Even although it is painful, looking back there and mining it helps us to understand it.”

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