We’ve missed a few opportunities to feature the work by Olivia Sterling in the past, but her current solo show at the Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art is definitely getting a mention here. On view from September 17th until the end of October, Really Rough Scrubbing Brush was commissioned by the CCA as part of their Episodes programme and is focused on the phenomenon of colour-changing (white) bodies.

Over the past few years Sterling has been developing an impactful body of work in which the aesthetics of caricature, illustration, comics, and similar simple visual languages are used to address questions of blackness and whiteness or body image in twenty-first century Britain. Interested in speaking of shame, exclusion, cultural ownership, otherness, with a racially charged undertone, the London-based artist is taking a step back and instead of painting the experiences, the end product of the existing state of things, she reveals much more subtle mechanics that perpetuate it on a daily basis. Borrowing the methodology from political cartoons in which the body is distorted into grotesque forms she is putting the focus on racist micro and macro-aggressions which often go unnoticed (for the person doing them, at least). Using the familiar domestic setting and depicting snapshots of everyday life she is exploring and portraying color and the existing racialized discourse through most relatable, innocent looking imagery. Insisting on the unusual framing in which characters are reduced to their limbs, the occurrence of the racially-subdued behaviour gets transformed into easy-to-digest colorful slapstick mayhem, all while suggesting its effect continuing well beyond the border of a format.

“I have been having an obsession with profiteroles recently – white inside, tan coloured on surface and covered in brown chocolate – whiteness at one end, everyone in the middle and then blackness at the other end. The spectrum is captured in one dessert. Cream, Creme, Custard is the birth of a profiterole – it is about the presence of whiteness in my life, how the colonial mindset is deep rooted. The title is almost me sighing – white, white and more white. It is becoming more and more tiresome to try and confront and unpack events and occurrences that are rooted in racism and othering. The production line of the making of the dessert is an attempt to mimic the feeling of going around in circles, of combating ideas,“ Sterling told Juxtapoz about the title of the show and the conceptual source of the recurring pastry imagery

.For this particular body of work she explored the phenomenon of tanning as a way of changing skin color and presenting oneself differently. Pointing out at the desire or even social pressure to look “exotic,” her muses are safely keeping the safe proximity to their whiteness. With an interest in depicting the fleshiness of the human body, meaty limbs, but also cream, gels, and liquids, Sterling created a series of snapshots in which almost exclusively white bodies are getting sunburnt, and/or are covered with cream or food. These vibrant, superficially humorous and amusing visuals are at their core exposing the transformation into a desired category of beauty as a debauchery to say the least, using a joyous atmosphere to stick a meaningful critique to it. The idea of categorization has been present through the oeuvre as Sterling frequently places letters and numbers inside her images, pointing to the obsessive compartmentalisation of identities in relationship to skin tones. Starkly dominated by white protagonists, beside only two works in which white hands are putting white cream on Black bodies, this exhibition takes another angle to revealing how someone’s amusement can be another one’s violence, just as someone’s celebration can be another one’s intimidation. —Sasha Bogojev