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Elsa Rouy, Peckham, London (2022)
Elsa Rouy, Peckham, London (2022)© Courtesy of the Artist and STUDIO WEST

Portraits of young British artists in the seclusion of their studios

Brynley Odu Davies travelled throughout the UK to take studio portraits of the country’s most exciting emerging creatives, now he invites you to ‘immerse yourself’ in their worlds at his exhibition Artist Portraits

“It’s been a long time coming,” Bath-born, Peckham-based photographer Brynley Odu Davies tells Dazed of his first solo exhibition, Artist Portraits (at London’s Studio West). A kaleidoscopic collection of photos showing 200 UK emerging artists at work in their studios, Davies’ project offers a fascinating look into the practice of those currently reshaping the country’s creative landscape from within.

Developed over the last three years, Artist Portraits is a fruit of the pandemic; the uncertain time that saw us seek comfort in the most disparate means of self-expression – whether as a way of feeling proactive amid the government-mandated stasis of COVID-19, or simply taking a chance on our long-neglected creative aspirations. For Davies, who began to work on the series during the first lockdown, looking at it as both an outlet for and a proof of his artistic ambitions helped him stay motivated in a moment of crisis.

“When I came back to London from Bath a few months into coronavirus, I knew I had to shake things up,” he says. Having cut his teeth as a prolific music photographer, capturing the likes of Anderson .Paak, IAMDDB and King Krule, the enforcement of COVID-19 measures, and the resulting closures, left Davies out of work. “I remember thinking, ‘Shit, man… all of these venues have shut down, people are taking up coding courses and giving up on their creative dreams,’” the photographer recalls. “While I didn’t have any money, I also knew that there are only two things I am quite good at, and that’s talking to people and taking pictures.”

Driven by a desire to find a way to reconnect with the community traditionally gathering at the festivals he photographed as a live events photographer, Davies “doubled down” to ensure he wouldn’t have to pursue a different career path.

“I have always loved the beauty which lies in subcultures,” he says. Whether in the music or in the art world, what fascinates the British image-maker is “the nurturing support system thriving in these kinds of creative communities.” He sees these as the spaces in which “people come together to help and celebrate each other’s achievements rather than getting in the way.”

Intent on readjusting his gaze to the trailblazing generation of artists shaking up the UK’s emerging art scene, the photographer started to engage with rising Great Britain and Northern Ireland-based creatives on social media. “I didn’t know a lot of young artists at the time, so I built my own database,” he says. “I would spend days scrolling through Instagram profiles, reading articles and listening to podcast interviews, then connecting the dots.” 

Shot in the summer of 2020, the photograph that initiated Davies’ Artist Portraits depicts his friend Conor Murgatroyd – a painter from Bradford – inside his studio in Bermondsey, south London. “Conor is a real character,” he says. “I remember arriving at his studio, getting my film camera out and snapping a few portraits of him against his surreal paintings.”

From that point, it wasn’t long before Davies began to embrace the idea of developing his own documentation of those talents who, faced with the threats of an abruptly defunded UK arts industry, were enduring its challenges in the hope of carving themselves a place in it. “Sometimes you have a feeling about something and you know it’s going to be good,” he says. “That’s how I felt about this series since day one and then, boom! Suddenly I had worked on it for nearly three years.”

Despite the prolific nature and wide-reaching scope of the project – which spotlights the next generation of art world mavericks without distinctions of gender, race, class, nationality, or prestige – working on it wasn’t always easy. “I would wear my mask and steamed glasses for hours, travelling solo across the United Kingdom and shooting at least five times a week, without the possibility of coming any close to my subjects,” Davies says.

Portrayed in a heartfelt dialogue with Davies are not just artists who were born on any of the UK; but also talents who, hailing from different corners of the world, relocated here to make the next move in their professional journey. Immortalised at a crucial stage in their careers, these artists herald a brand-new chapter in the history of the British art scene. Through their uncompromising craft, they scrap its elite rules and entry barriers one artwork at a time. “I think there’s a lot of value in photographs and what they represent to people,” Davies says, reflecting on the relevance of his series. “A good picture can serve as a memory of something that’s close to you, it can remind you of how you looked when you were younger, but it can also be a testament to the long-lasting impact of your efforts, actions and decisions, like in the case of these portraits.”

From Natalia Gonzalez Martin’s sensory exploration of womanhood to Igor Moritz’ haunting vignettes of solitude, passing through Marcus Nelson’s visceral rendition of inner turmoil and Favour Jonathan’s Benin bronzes-inspired monumental sculptures, Davies’ debut show surveys the spectrum of UK artists’ biographies, techniques and preoccupations, pouring it straight onto the walls of Studio West. “I hope people immerse themselves into the universes of some incredibly talented artists, resonating with the personal and cultural veils stratified in their work,” he says.

Brynley Odu Davies’ Artist Portraits opens at Notting Hill’s Studio West Gallery from May 5 until May 31 with a private view on May 4.

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