Written by: Jo Beverley
Taking inspiration from brown bodies, biology, water, and Zouk dancers in Martinique, Herfa Thompson has managed to create a profound cohesion from an eclectic set of topics in her recent collection, “I saw a dog today and I thought of you”.
I managed to catch up with her on the penultimate day of showings, and we talked a bit about her well-travelled background.
Being born in London and growing up moving back and forth between two countries in Southern Africa, as well as learning about Caribbean culture from her grandmother, it was often difficult for her to define a home and identity. She started painting while living in Martinique, as it was an outlet to express herself by drawing worlds and help ‘depict [her] mind’. Around this time, she also started getting interested in the idea of love, which she picked up on when watching the platonic intimacy of Zouk dance - a partner dance involving small steps and lots of core and hip movement. She explores this theme of love and intimacy in her more recent collection, which includes a range of works including sculpture, oil, acrylic and watercolour on a mix of mediums.
The works encapsulate three main themes: ‘brown bodies in space’, water, and relationships. Water? You may be wondering, as on the surface her work doesn’t seem particularly nautical. However, water has always been a large part of Thompson’s life - the River Clyde in Glasgow, living by the sea, the growing threat of climate change that is already starting to impact the global south; water has often been at the centre of her life and work. This theme of water can be seen implicitly in most of her collection, whether in the fluid movement of characters or blending of colours, it is an interesting backdrop that accentuates the flexibility of Thompson’s style.
The more overt themes in her work: brown bodies and relationships, are centre stage in this collection. When talking about her background, Thompson acknowledged that part of her art revolved around being a woman of colour, but it was also about a lot more than that: ‘I was black, but there were layers to it’. Her recent mural with The Tetley Café Commission was an exploration of ‘brown bodies [that] are peacefully and joyfully existing’ along with inspiration from fruit and vegetables to create a serene, natural landscape proudly displayed in The Tetley Bar and Kitchen, Leeds.
In her ‘Cell Drawings’, aptly named Ovum (2021) and Spermatozoon (2021), Thompson combines art and science in a distinctly tongue-in-cheek manner. In Spermatozoon, the colours blend well into each other, adding an element of fluid movement to the overall composition. It depicts a woman with a large, cartoonish heart in navy in the middle of her chest. She is surrounded by the cell organelles Golgi apparatus and mitochondria, which is enclosed in a sperm cell. The painting contains white space which brings attention to the centre of the work (which contains the object), but the argument could be made that the negative space may be better utilised. Regardless, her work is beautifully individual and poignant, especially because many of her paintings feature faceless subjects who the viewer can superimpose their selves onto, making her artwork especially intimate.
Another piece from her collection, Insert Crush Here, plays on this message even more, with the object of the subject’s affections being a blurred out, almost ghostly silhouette. One interesting note about this piece is the subject on the left who is seen connected to a book by a snake. Thompson has previously said that snakes symbolise a protective force, namely for people with epilepsy, as snakes can sense when their owner is about to have a seizure and squeeze them in warning. This inversion of how snakes are usually presented in media -as associated with evil- adds to the serene natural quality of the piece, and harkens back to some earlier interpretations of snakes as guardians, like in Ancient Crete, possibly because snakes were often seen as protectors that would fight only as a last defence.
Herfa Thompson has recently gone full time as an artist. Look out for her upcoming exhibitions, prints, and collaborations with names like Belgrave Music Hall or visit her website to find out more.