The painter on using halos to transform women into icons
Whether she’s depicting Lucy Liu or her own mum, the people in Shyama Golden’s artworks glow with a fluorescent light outlining their bodies, highlighting their features or reflecting off their spectacles. Like a contemporary Byzantine halo, her subtle use of neon light transforms her subjects – who are often women of color – into icons.
“I choose to make images of people who I don’t feel like I see often enough in figurative art,” Shyama says. “I’m focusing on women for now since we’re so used to only seeing women from a male perspective.”
A great example of this is the illustration Shyama made a year after the Women’s March of 2017, to commemorate the largest single-day protest in United States history. Symbolic of all the women, past and present, who have been part of the women’s movement in the USA, the collective portrait features powerful leaders and activists from Rosa Parks to Laverne Cox to Beyoncé Knowles, standing in formation to create the shape of the country.
Shyama’s artworks are digital oil paintings created on her iPad using the Procreate app and the Apple Pencil. “I find that the oil pastel brush is remarkably true to real life oil paints because of its very subtle textured blending capabilities,” she says. She saves painting with oils and acrylics for her personal work that’s not time- and cost-dependent.
The child of two academics, Shyama admits to spending a lot of time researching an idea before she begins to paint. Her early work features concepts borrowed from botany and astronomy, the fields her parents worked in when she was growing up. “I have to obsessively find out as much as I can about a subject before I feel confident enough to start depicting it visually, even if often the information is only subliminally present in the final piece,” she says.
Interestingly, the same rule applies when portraying a person – she meticulously studies her subject’s personality, likes and dislikes before she starts painting them. “I feel like learning about someone is the least I can do if I’m going to be making their image.”
In an effort to elevate portraiture to a more interesting act than just depicting the person she sees in front of her, Shyama will portray them as a heightened version of themselves. “Maybe it’s a version of them from an alternate dimension,” Shyama says, “another time period, or something a little bit theatrical that one can appreciate without knowing who they are in real life.”
In this way, Shyama treats her subjects as actors playing a role with props and costumes that reveal their personalities and interests. Her friend Thilini, a rat-lover and violinist, sits in a make-believe room filled with friendly white rodents and a violin across her lap.
When illustrating a famous face, Shyama will draw from many reference pictures so that her work is as original as possible, and not a replica of a well-known photograph. She goes even further, designing the clothes and accessories her subjects wear based on their personal style.
In Shyama’s game of dress-up, Lupita Nyong’o gets a pair of bold, asymmetrical earrings while Issa Rae wears a high-necked top printed with delicate, luminous botanicals. The black and white print on creative director Kate Elazegui’s shirt comes to life in a fluid animated GIF to represent her creativity.
Like paper dolls, she tries different outfits on her subjects until she finds what works. “I’ve always been interested in fashion and how people communicate their identities through clothing,” she says. “It would be a dream to eventually bring it full circle and create patterns for textiles.”
Shyama looked to patterns of the 70s to reimagine the clothes on her young mother and aunt in an old photograph taken in Sri Lanka. She brings Igbo patterns into the future in her illustrations for fantasy writer Nnedi Okorafor’s short story Mother of Invention which tells the story of a Nigerian woman who gives birth assisted by her smart home. Her doctor – in wildly patterned trousers, of course – appears as a hologram and her baby is delivered by drone.
It brings to mind Covert Operations, an oil painting from earlier in Shyama’s career inspired by the women working as computer operators at Bell Labs during the 60s, a futuristic job for the time. Whether drawn from the past, present or future, worldwide stars or part of her own support system, Shyama’s cast of strong women shine bright.
Words by Alix-Rose Cowie.