Updated: May 5, 2021
Aged 19, Rachel Harvey is an ambitious artist committed to an inspiring mission. A self-taught visual artist, she centres black faces and themes at the heart of her work to showcase the beauty of black culture, history and identity. In vibrant watercolours, Harvey’s work primarily depicts portraits of people of colour, both recognisable faces and those who are unknown. Her work is a way of subverting the racial bias inherent to Western art, making the representation of black people joyful and empowering to viewers of all identities, rather than categorising black art as an isolated genre.
Here, Rachel Harvey talks to TNE about the experiences which influence her work, her aspirations and the launch of her new business website.
On her audience.
“I create artwork for nobody and everybody. The inspiration behind my creativity is not for materialistic gain or attention, nor do I create to produce work that is pleasing for anyone besides myself.
I am inspired to create art because it something I love – I love showing off to myself as I get better and better with my technique, I love the peaceful process of creating and working to make something special, I love the feeling that creating art gives me.
At the same time, however, I create art to make people feel. I create art for those who feel disadvantaged or unrepresented. My primary focus is to empower black people – specifically black women – and to allow black people to see themselves in art as a beautiful muse and not just as a servant, demon, or slave.
The purpose of my work is to make black people the focus of each piece without making a political statement. Through most of my portraits, I purposely leave out text or political symbols to highlight that black people can exist beautifully in art without the need for there to be a political agenda. We are not symbols to be used only to highlight oppression. We are humans of a nature that is just as complex and beautiful as any other type of human.
Despite this, it is not just black people I plan to focus my artwork on as so many identities are intersectional – people of all identities can be pro-black, pro-LGBT, pro-sustainable, pro-weed, pro-religion, pro-spirituality, pro-hoe, and pro-liberal. It is these people I want to empower. My work is to empower those who don’t feel empowered but, if no one were to see it, my art would still empower me.”
On experiences and influences.
“Like any artist, the work I produce in any medium is a reflection of my life experiences.
As a black woman, I am exhausted of seeing my people depicted as little more than slaves, bums, criminals, servants, thugs, idiots and struggling – sometimes all in the same film – and from the age of 14, I decided I wanted to change this. I wanted to create work that highlighted the beauty of black culture.
Growing up in my home, I was always fascinated by the black artworks that were dotted around my entire house and, at times when I struggled to accept my blackness, it was of some comfort to be able to attach myself to a culture through art. It is this connection I hope to spark in viewers of my work also – to enable viewers to look at my work and see themselves in each piece. As a very creative and expressive person, everything in my life is bright and colourful – even my wardrobe looks like a giant wardrobe. The bright colours I incorporate into each painting reflect not only my colourful nature but also highlight the importance of boldness.
As I’ve grown older, I’m no longer afraid to be bold, to be loud or to confidently take up space and be seen. I am continually growing less concerned with the opinions of others and love to experiment with new looks and colours in fashion as well as art; it is this confidence I hope to radiate through my art.”
On the artistic process.
“The first step of creating a piece of art for me is suddenly having an idea come to me at midnight, getting out of bed to find paper before I forget, and sketching with my back arched so badly I complain about back pain the next day.
I can’t just sit and think of an idea, and they come to me at the worst times. My greatest ideas for art pieces have come to me while I have been writing essays, during sex, sleep, chores and watching tv. Being spontaneous is very inconvenient.
The next step is gathering materials and taking a moment to be sad about how expensive they are. I’ll usually paint outside in my garden with my headphones on and having calming or uplifting music playing softly in the background.
I can spend up to 13 hours at a time lying still and painting while only taking breaks to eat and use the loo. It’s a calming process – I have learned to value the act of painting more than the finished work itself – while I am painting, I can focus entirely on the present. The wind on my face, the booming of my music, the way the grass around me sways; these are the things I can focus on while I paint.”
On black underrepresentation and how art can redress this imbalance.
“I think art can do only what the viewer wants it to do. A million people can look at one piece of art – or not – and feel different things.
In the National Portrait Gallery, I’ve seen a painting of a black man in the background, and I was reminded of the greatness of the historical influence of the Moors and the technological advancements they provided to modern society. Others can look at the piece and see a slave. Art can only provide the influence that a viewer wants.
There is a growing need to increase positive representation for black historical figures, and this can be perfectly achieved through art and film. Images are things that people of any age and intellectual ability can understand. Images tell a thousand stories and positive representation of black people should be one of them.”
On the lasting impact of her work.
“If one person can look at my artwork, see themselves and feel good, then the purpose of my creation is fulfilled. The greatest impact that my work has had in my lifetime, however, is on me. It has given me a sense of peace while I create, it adds colour and vibrancy to my life, and it makes me feel empowered when I look at finished pieces.”
On her business aspirations.
I aspire to have my business as a form of secondary income. I know it’s something I’ll always go back to because I believe that power over one’s life begins with power over one’s wealth, and it’s important to me that I can better learn how to make it, rather than rely on others. That said, I have realistic expectations. I wish to continue my business throughout term time in my second year of university to see how I’m able to cope with multitasking education and art. Beyond that, any success will be the result of organisation, hard work and self-belief.