Sharon Alexie on art and identity
‘I’ve started to paint my own reality, not just the version of reality the world wants to see.’ Model, artist, activist: Sharon Alexie talks about the search for self, her creative process and the importance of speaking out.
‘I’m trying to paint human feelings – the words that we can’t necessarily say out loud, but that we can read on people’s faces.’
An unfinished self-portrait. A 1971 conversation between Nikki Giovanni and James Baldwin. A series of childhood photographs. These are just some of the references you’ll find scrolling through the Instagram of Sharon Alexie. The model and artist has a knack for curating poignant, personal moments and filtering them through a perfectly unfiltered lens for her some 400K – and counting – followers.
Growing up in Reims, a predominantly white city to the north east of Paris, Sharon never predicted she’d be working with some of the biggest names in fashion from the age of 18. But as it turns out, a burgeoning modelling career was just a taste of what was to come. Part of a growing Insta generation of multi-taskers, she has amassed a dedicated audience thanks to her emotive and arresting oil paintings, open conversations, and thoughtful commentary on the anti-racism movement in France.
We spoke with Sharon after the COS FW20 campaign shoot about her journey so far, and the role of art and identity in today’s ever-changing world.
‘I make a living from modelling. But I want to forge a career in art and design. I was always interested in creativity. I studied the history of art when I was in high school, but I never thought I could paint. When I was younger, I wanted to be a fashion designer, and for my application, I had to prepare a portfolio. I only had four months to learn to draw, but I did it! I went to school, and even though I left after a few classes, I never stopped painting and drawing. Now, it’s my passion.’
ON HER CREATIVE PROCESS
‘When I’m painting, I’m searching for myself and telling the world about this internal journey. I post a lot of unfinished works on Instagram to portray the idea that my identity is still under construction. As I have started to get to know my Cameroonian origins better, my painting has begun to change. I’ve started to paint my own reality, not just the version of reality the European or Western world wants to see. Although I confront complex dualities in my work, I also focus on the simple things too. I paint people who look like me, my family and my friends. I’m trying to paint human feelings – the words that we can’t necessarily say out loud, but that we can read on people’s faces.’
‘Identity is what makes you unique. I paint Western culture because it’s my reality, but I am also influenced by my African heritage. I want to create a link with the diaspora through my work, and to show the cultural forces present in our community through these two global perspectives. At least, that’s my current thinking – it’s always evolving. It is difficult for me to use just one medium to express my vision, feelings and convictions. Sometimes I write them down instead or share references of those who know how to communicate it better.
‘I consider myself biracial. For me, it’s important for our Black and biracial community living in the West to learn about our African origins. I know how painful it can be to feel void of identity when you live in a country which has largely racist systems and hides behind universalism. Growing up in Reims taught me the importance of having a close-knit circle of friends, and how essential it is to feel represented in the world – especially when you are Black or biracial.’
‘Fashion has always fascinated me. I love that you can invent yourself or use clothes to show or hide parts of yourself. I’m not at my peak yet in terms of style, but I like structure, simple but beautiful details, and the element of surprise… I feel most at ease in neutral colors and architectural silhouettes, but I also love pieces that create intrigue, because they reflect who I am – I am very shy, but I have things to say.’
ON NAMES TO KNOW
‘I’m inspired by Black icons from the past like James Baldwin, Nina Simone and Kwame Nkrumah. And now, Devin Johnson, Sophia Yemisi Adeyemo Ross, Julian Adon Alexander, Richard Ayodeji Ikhide and so many others – these artists, activists and intellectuals continue to highlight the importance of expressing oneself. Any Black or biracial person who has had to deconstruct themselves in order to rebuild themselves is more aware than anyone of the importance of words, and how they teach us to live better, fight better and love each other better.’
‘To me, a better future means we must give more of a voice to young people and work towards a fairer analysis of history.’
ON THE FUTURE
‘I believe art can play a monumental role in politics today. Art has always been intertwined with politics. Even if it does not seem like it on the surface, painting or drawing always reveals more about social situations, whether intentionally or more broadly. For me, art has a role to play in society when it has a strong position and highlights what we are trying to hide.
‘To me, a better future means so many things when you think about it on a global scale. It’s about everything from equality, equity and respect, to dignity, rest and peace… It’s too many things to mention, but I know that to understand them better we must give more of a voice to young people, listen to them sincerely and work towards a fairer analysis of history.’
‘Take your time and listen to yourself. Try to imagine yourself as a whole and ask yourself: Am I a reaction to something? Sometimes these answers can bring new suffering. It hurts to realize we’re living in a reality that is not the one we want. But it’s important to search for your identity, make mistakes and question things. You are your own motivation. That's the answer I have right now, but I have more to say, so much more…’
Sharon Alexie (@flammedepigalle) wears the Fall/Winter collection for COS. Photography by Jack Davison. Styling by Clare Richardson.
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