Meet the Artist: Angelique Stephenson

Meet the Artist started in 2014 as a way to recognise and platform the incredibly ambitious work being made by artists based across the East Midlands! Following an extended break Meet the Artist is back for a limited run, which will see CVAN EM platform work by an artist from each county in the region.

Angelique Stephenson is a 47-year old semi self-taught artist. Born in London and raised in the Home Counties, she studied art up to foundation level, before going on to university and an 18-year career as a womenswear designer and technician.

Since leaving the fashion industry in 2021, in addition to self-directed study, Angelique has been mentored by fine artist Alvin Kofi Ferris and tutored by classical portrait painter Toby Michael. In the last 2 years her work has appeared in four group shows, including Reclaiming Magic, Royal Academy of Arts (London), curated by Yinka Shonibare and the NAE Open, New Art Exchange (Nottingham).

Where do you practice? 

I am very fortunate to have had my own studio space with NN Contemporary Art, Northampton for the last 18 months. For 6 years before that I worked on and around the bed in our spare room, which was very limiting. Every day I go into the studio, I am grateful for the increased physical and mental space. In spring 2024 I will move into NN Contemporary’s’ new premises, which will allow for a much more dynamic and collaborative studio experience, which I am really looking forward to.

You’ve Been Gone, Still I Know You (2022), Angelique Stephenson. Image credit of the Artist

What do you practice?

Since leaving a corporate career in 2021 to focus on my artistic practice, I have worked as a mixed media figurative painter. Until now, I have been exploring the repositioning of the popular narrative around Black fatherhood. My work has attempted to contribute to the evolution of the representation of the Black father figure and is a direct disruption to the contemporary cultural discourse that continues to position the Black father as ‘less than’.

Through conversations and photo sessions with families in their domestic spaces, I gained insights into the lives and characters of the fathers, from which I built visual stories that spoke strongly of who and why they are. As an artist of the African Diaspora, I feel that I have a responsibility for how I present our people through my work, and challenging history by enabling Black men to be protagonists in the creation of their own stories has been essential.

So far, my work has been exclusively mixed media paintings on canvas; the application of many layers of water-based textile dye to the surface prior to painting with oils, sets the visual tone of the work. Once the dye has dried and set, I prefer to paint with heavily diluted oils, to maintain lightness and transparency. Apart from simply liking how it looks, this approach is also a deliberate attempt to convey softness and vulnerability – fragility even; qualities not usually associated with Black men in the popular imagination. Very deliberately, this style allows for the surface character of the canvas to be read as part of the painting; I worked for many years as a womenswear designer and textiles are very much a part of my visual language, so it feels very natural to me to consider the canvas on equal terms to the painting material and composition, rather than simply as a surface to hold paint.

You Made Me Ask Questions Of Myself That I’d Never Had To Ask Before (2022), Angelique Stephenson. Image credit of the Artist

How is your work shaped by your locality? 

My work has been shaped very directly by my locality up until this point; most of the families that I have worked with so far live in the area and referrals for potential sitters have largely been through close personal recommendation. Northampton is very culturally diverse, with a large African Diaspora and I haven’t had to look too far for inspirational individuals who are willing to share their stories with me, which I am grateful for.

Since becoming a studio holder at NN Contemporary Art, I’ve been warmly welcomed into the community here and participate in NN events and workshops whenever possible. I’m always keen to step outside of my particular sphere of reference and workshops such as Performance As A Tool with Harrold Offeh and Drift Paper Tender Stones with Lucy Suggate and Charlie Ford, offer opportunities to actively participate in other art forms, gain valuable insights into established artists’ practices and expand ideas around what is possible within my own.

I have also been supported very kindly by NN Contemporary Board Member and one of the Founding members of the Northamptonshire Black History Association, Morcea Walker MBE VLL, to establish links and set up conversation spaces within the local community. The interactions are a great opportunity to bring individuals who would perhaps not usually interact with contemporary art into my practice, which is very important to me. This has also enabled me to get an insight into how my work is received outside of the specific context of fine art critique.

On a purely practical level, being based in Northampton has been absolutely central to my ability to focus on my art career in the way that I have. If I was still living in London, I would never have been able to leave a full-time job to take up part-time work, pursue a fledgling artists career and rent a large studio space all at the same time – it simply would not have been financially possible.

The Intimacy Of Everyday Things – The Leaf Is His Knife And His Wand (2023), Angelique Stephenson. Image credit of the Artist

What are you working on?

Over the last two years, it has become very clear that the collection and recording of peoples’ stories is central to my practice and stems from my interest in human life and love of having people share their stories with me. It feels like a huge privilege when a sitter agrees to take the time to share part of their journey, especially someone I don’t know very well or even at all; when our day-to-day lives can be so absent of direct, meaningful human interaction, these spaces for revealing, sometimes vulnerable conversation take on a kind of sacred quality for me.

Continuing to use storytelling with paint as the core of my practice, I am now looking to expand how I explore and present narrative. I make AV recordings of all the conversations that I have with my sitters (with their permission!) and for the last 2 years have been allowing ideas around the use of sound to emerge and slowly find their shape in my mind. I have recently started experimenting with the recordings, which, although daunting, excites me a lot! If I can bring them into the work in the way I envisage, it could propel things in a really interesting direction, which feels right and necessary for the evolution of my practice. This will generate a fundamental shift in how the work is presented. I’m also thinking a lot around how to get my paintings off the wall. I’ve been fortunate to have had my work shown in some very prestigious places, but to me, there is something that’s lost when I see it framed and hung on a stark, usually white, flat surface. I don’t feel like this when I see other painters’ work, so this feeling speaks very specifically about my relationship with the work I make and how I experience the movement of energy through the process, which I find interesting in itself to consider.

Being the child of a migrant and part of a Diaspora, I have a deep and personal interest in the experiences of those who find themselves living away from their place of origin. I recently completed a commission piece for a South African Indian family & I am really keen to continue to work with diverse groups of people, to collect and tell stories in a way that speaks of the extraordinary within seemingly ordinary lives.

It sounds like you’re at a really exciting point in your practice. Outside of collaborating with your sitters, do you plan to collaborate with other creatives to continue in developing your work and how you present it? 

I am due to start working with an AV technician shortly, to begin to develop the ideas that I have around audio. I have a vision of what I want to make, but need someone with technical skills to help turn the vision into something real that actually works! I am also hoping to work again with my mentor Alvin Kofi Ferris later in the year, to go deeper into the development of my visual language, with figurative abstraction as the focus.

I am very fortunate to have great support from the CEO and Artistic Director of NN Contemporary, Emer Grant, who regularly gives me impromptu guidance and critiques of my work. Ours is an on-going conversation about the development of my practice, so I look forward to what will come out of that.

Detail from private commission To Watch Us Dance Is To Hear Our Hearts Speak (2023), Angelique Stephenson. Image credit of the Artist

You spoke of the opportunities that being based in Northamptonshire has afforded you as an artist and how culturally diverse Northampton is. Is it important to you that the visitor understands where you are making the work and the impact that your locality has in shaping the work, from the communities you engage to the resources and networks you have connected with? 

It has never really crossed my mind to make audiences aware of where I make the work. I guess because, despite working mainly with people who live locally, as members of Diaspora groups, their stories take me around the world and I am always looking outward. Saying that, I do believe that knowing where an artists’ practice is based helps to contextualise the work somehow. In terms of what I do, I assume that I would bring a very different take on Diasporic narrative, than an artist working out of France or the US. Our different lived experiences would inevitably find their way into the work, so outside of my sitters, perhaps there is something intangibly and specifically Northampton about what I make.

However, your question has made me think about the possibility of recording the geographical journey of my sitters through the title of the works. So, for example, the title of one of the works in this feature could become ‘To See Us Dance Is To Hear Our Hearts Speak – India, South Africa, Jamaica, UK, Cornwall, Buckinghamshire’. It would make the titles even longer than they already are, but I don’t mind that.

Find out more about Angelique’s practice by following her on Instagram.

Angelique was interviewed in February 2024.

All images are courtesy of the artist.