Powerful and imposing in both their size and gaze, Shannon Bono’s acrylic and oil portraits work to reclaim the black female body from its colonial history. By using the body as a canvas through which to highlight stories of liberation, the figure is imbued with renewed importance when discussing issues of representation and portraiture. “When you go to the National Portrait Gallery and see large scale paintings of important people it has a moving impact,” Bono tells me. “I’ve always been into the idea of presence and taking up a room, as well as the idea of the gaze when it comes to portraiture.”
Using the term ‘artivism’, which she came across whilst writing her MA Art and Science dissertation, Bono uses this to define what she is trying to convey in her work. The intersection of art and activism is a concept rooted in history which works to explore new ways of political intention and intervention that move beyond the traditional paradigms, actively engaging with these new ways of thinking to create and mobilise social change. Bono explains, “I always feel like the black female body is political in itself because we are underrepresented in the media and other fields, therefore it is always important to show the image of the black female in order to tell important stories that celebrate our culture and successes. They’re all stories of liberation or important times in history or current issues I feel need to be shared. I guess that is where the term artivism comes from, I’m always trying to advocate for our presence.”
Originally studying for an undergraduate degree in Biochemistry, Bono recalls using science as a crutch throughout her education as a means to guarantee a decent job. “I didn’t realise there were all these black artists, I didn’t have a knowledge of them so I just assumed I couldn’t make it myself as an artist. I used science as a crutch so I could just do my art on the side.” However, by her second year of studying Biochemistry, Bono was already researching different art schools to attend post-university. Settling upon the Art and Science MA at Central Saint Martins, Bono used the intersection of her scientific knowledge and artistic practice to create work that utilizes the anatomy as a means to convey her political message. Bono describes, “For me the science comes in as my work always focuses on the body and anatomy. Sometimes it can be very obvious in my work where I pinpoint different parts of the body to tell a story.
“I’ve always been into the idea of presence and taking up a room, as well as the idea of the gaze when it comes to portraiture.”
As well as the commanding nude figures, the symbolic backgrounds of Bono’s work serve to tell their own stories, drawing inspiration from the patterns found in African textiles and amalgamating these with structures found in biology or chemistry. “I use the structures from our body to metaphorically tell a story and those are the foundational pieces of my paintings. Even though I am inspired by African textiles I try to make them look as biological as possible to add to the story. That’s where the science comes into it both metaphorically and aesthetically.”
Our conversation moves on to a painting that Bono is currently working on that responds to the global crisis we are facing with the outbreak of Covid-19. Contextualising this pandemic through the lens of race and representation, Bono tells me, “Right now I am working on a painting of my Auntie who is currently working as a nurse. In the media right now, there are lots of images of the NHS but there is a noticeable lack of people of colour in these images, whereas a large proportion of doctors and nurses are people of colour.” Painting a portrait of her Aunt, Bono highlights these issues of race and representation and how they are existing even in this current context. Her Aunt’s portrait is superimposed on a background made up of the structures of white blood cells, in order to associate the strength and foundation of the immune system with the heroic efforts of the NHS.
Whilst discussing her work, Bono references Bell Hook’s term ‘oppositional gaze’, which proposes that, “in resistance struggle, the power of the dominated to assert agency by claiming and cultivating “awareness” politicizes “looking” relations – one learns to look a certain way in order to resist.” Bono explains, “I make sure that all my portrait figures have a direct look at the audience, implementing that oppositional gaze in the work.” As well as this, Bono uses the term ‘anatomical manipulation’ to describe her use of the body to tell stories. “On one of my paintings I am sliced open from my stomach and on another I have tracks of rubber across the body to directly reference the King Leopold era and the rubber trade. It all adds to the story when combined with the gesture and the gaze.”
Whilst discussing the subject of art education in schools and universities, Bono expresses her frustration with the art curriculum and its insufficiencies. Remembering her own secondary school experiences, Bono points to the whitewashing of the syllabus and the effect that has on people of colour. “All the references that I was trying to connect with, I guess I couldn’t connect with any of them. My teacher pulled me aside and introduced me to Mickalene Thomas and that’s when it all clicked in my mind. I was like wow there’s this black woman creating art about black women and she’s successful.”
Combining themes of reclamation and representation, Bono’s work challenges traditional sentiments towards nudity and femininity, steeped in an important cultural and political history. Her use of symbolic layering allows her work to deliver messages that remain necessary and relevant in contemporary society whilst simultaneously bringing light to typically erased histories. Through personal stories and her artistic practice, Bono’s work remains unapologetic for taking up space and advocating for the black female presence in political and cultural society.