‘The portrait has always been political, I want my portraits to be great works of art but also to work for positive change’.


Face of Britain, curated by Nahem Shoa, is an exhibition of portraits by outstanding artists who have painted British individuals from the 17th century to the present day. Amongst highlights from the Southampton City Art Gallery collection is a selection of Shoa’s own striking oil paintings of black and mixed race sitters. Face of Britain asks a question which is especially pertinent now as world events force the widespread reassessment of our history and institutions: What does it mean to be British in 2020? At a time when many of the paintings in our national museums do not represent a non-white presence in Britain, which evidence suggests stretches back to Roman times, this is a portrait of our country inviting us to consider our diversity.


Shoa has chosen work by contemporary black artists like Desmond Haughton, Sonia Boyce and Chris Ofili to be displayed alongside historic portraits by Anthony Van Dyck and John Singer Sargeant and paintings by seminal Modernist figures such as Gwen John, Walter Sickert and Frank Auerbach. Through his work and his longstanding engagement with the history of portraiture, Shoa explores the possibilities for a traditional genre largely devoted to the commemoration of society’s most powerful.

Head of Desmond Haughton (Red Top)

1997, Oil on Canvas 48.2 x 56.8cm

Image © the artist and Southampton Cultural Services

Giant Head of Gbenga

2001, Oil on canvas  152.4 x 185.4cm

Image © the artist

Giant Head of Tiffany Burnett-Biscombe

2003, Oil on canvas, 101.5 x 127cm

Image © the artist

Studio shot of Gbenga Looking Away

2002, Oil on canvas 104.3 x 129 cm

Image © the artist

Dan Sulleiman

2008, Oil on canvas, 50.8 x 60.9 cm

Image © the artist

Studio shot of Back of Gbenga’s head

2003, Oil on canvas, 91.4 x 122 cm

Image © the artist

Giant Head of Gbenga in Profile

2003, Oil on canvas,122 x 122 cm

Image © the artist, courtesy of Museums Sheffield

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