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British Bajans: Afrocentric Artist Karen Alleyne

by Karen Rollins Feb 18, 2019

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British-based artist Karen Alleyne had to overcome doubt and self-inflicted negativity before finding the courage to launch her brand ‘Oya Arts’.

Karen hasn’t had any formal training and is self-taught, but her work, which is inspired by the black diaspora as well as her Bajan heritage, has caught the imagination of admirers who seem to relate to her struggle with identity.

Karen spoke to Yello about her artistic career. She told us why she loves to draw, how she goes about creating a painting, and how Barbados has played an important part in her work.

Describe yourself using three words.

Creative, self-reflective and spiritual

Have you always loved art / drawing?

For as long as I can remember I’ve always loved to draw and create. If you gave me any pen, I would find a surface and I’d draw stories.

You can ask my dad about the amount of walls and surfaces I would cover with doodles and storyboards. Even his wallpaper or a table were not safe!

When / how did you discover your artistic talent?

I found out by accident when I was very young that people enjoyed engaging with what I created.

When I was about seven, I was put at the back of the class for talking too much and distracting the class. As a punishment the teacher gave me a piece of paper, and some coloured pencils, and told me that, “I was not going to waste anyone else’s time apart from my own”. I was left to my own devices whilst she continued the lesson without me.

However, what was supposed to be a punishment ended up as a blessing in disguise when sometime later she came back, and I showed her the picture.

I’d created a detailed and abstract drawing; full of movement, colour and emotion. At seven I was able to capture my anger over being segregated and transmitted that through the medium of art and what happened after that is the reason for my strapline today: ‘Make room for change’.

After the teacher saw the picture, she instructed everyone to recreate what I’d done.

It was then that I realised how powerful art is, how much it can challenge the status quo, make people question their thoughts and preconceived ideas and empower them to fight for what is right.

You recently launched your brand ‘Oya Arts’ – where did that name come from / what does it mean?

Oya is the powerful Yorùbá Orisha (minor god), and she can manifest as wind, from a gentle breeze to the raging hurricane or cyclone. She takes down obstacles and if something is in her way that threatens to stop her progression, she’ll rip through it, blowing down buildings and tearing up trees!

She’s known as a fierce warrior and strong protector of women. As the Orisha of change, she takes down the old to make room for the new, clearing a path for new growth.

I chose this name because it embodies my personality, but it’s also a testament to my story and the origins of my art journey. I’m a self-taught artist, with no formal training, however my work seems to resonate with a myriad of people due to the rawness of emotions that jump out from the canvas.

Copyright: Karen Alleyne

What challenges did you face in setting up ‘Oya Arts’?

The biggest challenge I faced in the earliest stage was getting my art out there and believing in myself.

I used to think my lack of official training made me less deserving but over time I realised it was actually a blessing. A lack of conventional training gives you a sense of freedom, a freedom of expression that cannot be suppressed.

The mistake I made in the early days was trying to operate as a ‘conventional artist’ (whatever that means). However, as soon as I internally re-branded myself as “Karen who paints” my business took off.

It’s testament to the power of thought and how in so many circumstances the barriers to success are often looking back at us in the mirror.

Where do you get ideas from for your work?

Everywhere! Sometimes just conversations with my circle of friends; lots of inspiration comes from my dreams, some from past experiences and others may be from a mental snapshot of a person or place.

In some instances, it can be obvious when looking at my work what has inspired me, and in others it can be so conceptual it’s open to interpretation.

My work explores the concept of identity within the black diaspora, what that means and unpicks what that looks like.

Identity is such a fluid and multi-faceted concept that spans the physical, spiritual, ideological, geographical and intellectual. It provides me with so much inspiration every day.

What is your process for putting a painting together?

It depends on what I am going to paint.

For me it starts with the idea which I cultivate in my mind. I may sketch it on paper very roughly before approaching the canvas. With my landscapes and seascapes, I go straight in with my paints and pallet knife and mix colours until I have built up the picture.

However, with my human compositions I will normally draw directly onto the canvas and then gradually build up the detail with paint.

The medium I use is acrylic paints, however I very rarely mix in any water. I mix the colours on the canvas and build up the painting that way.

I also often start from a blacked-out canvas as it’s a testament to the struggles many of us face in the diaspora. For the colours to stand out on a black canvas you need to apply more, and work much harder to achiever a result, but once it’s finished the result is often much better and stronger than from a blank white canvas.

It symbolises how I was bought up in the UK – as a black woman you need to work twice as hard and be twice as good as your white counterparts to stand out.

Copyright: Karen Alleyne

What’s been your proudest achievement so far?

My first sale and my first commission.

It affirmed to me that what I was doing was not in vain. Someone ‘that I didn’t know’ liked my work and wanted it in their house.

That was the best feeling in the world!

Which artist/s do you admire and why?

Kevin Andre, who is a Haitian American artist. His work is just out of this world. His images are strong and powerful, and he captures the black story through history right up until the modern day, but in a way that captivates you, challenges you, and makes you think.

Plus, his technical ability is amazing. He’s a realist and what I would call a proper artist 😊!

How does having Bajan heritage influence your work?

All day and every day. All my landscapes are inspired by the time I spent living in Barbados but more importantly Barbados helped to shape my identity in a way that I am truly thankful for.

I have the great advantage of seeing the world from a multitude of vantage points that wouldn’t have been possible if I did not live in Barbados or my heritage not been an integral part of who I am.

I have the flexibility of choice, and with that comes infinite possibilities, and with infinite possibilities comes creativity. For that I am blessed.

Copyright: Karen Alleyne

What do you love about Barbados?

The people make Barbados what it is. I know it sounds like a cliché, but it’s entirely true. Barbados is a unique island and I don’t think there is anywhere like it in the world. The culture, the people, the weather, the food. I could go on and on.

What makes Barbados different to the other Caribbean islands?

It’s diversity. For such a geographically small island, we have made some major waves in the world and I think that’s down to how diverse we are as a people and a nation.

What are your career plans over the next 12 months?

The next 12 months are all about going bigger and stronger. I’m off to the US to explore some more art opportunities, so watch this space! You will also be seeing a lot more of me.

Last year was about laying the foundations. In 2019, I’m building the house and putting in planning permission for the extension and outside pool.

What advice would you give other budding artists?

Let nothing get in your way! Negative self-talk is the biggest success suppressant of all time.

Your unique selling point is your originality and creating something that is true to you and your brand. Build your brand internally and then it’s easier to navigate negativity.

Click the links below to connect with Karen Alleyne and see more of her work –

Oya Arts website

Oya Arts on Instagram

Oya Arts on Facebook