Home has never been just one place for Phoenix-based painter Papay Solomon. His mother was pregnant with him when the First Liberian Civil War drove his family to neighboring Guinea. Later, political unrest forced Solomon and his family into refugee camps. Before migrating to Arizona at age 14, he found home in the faces around him; in the camp elders and childhood friends he sketched. Now the artist explores this kinship writ large in photorealistic portraits capturing the African immigrant experience.
Solomon’s sitters are young immigrants or children of immigrants from across Africa. “In a way, I’m telling my own story through their faces,” he says of the portraits, which mix European Renaissance painting techniques with richly patterned African textiles and modern fashion.
Solomon established this focus as a student at Arizona State University, tasked to paint a self-portrait inspired by the old masters. Something clicked when he found Dutch painter Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban. Seeing clothing reminiscent of traditional African headdress in a European painting, where faces like his were portrayed as subservient, empowered him. “I thought, ‘This is African. It’s mine. I’ll take it back,’” he recalls. Painting himself crowned in his mother’s traditional fabrics “allowed me to bring my other identities with me.”
He recreates this self-discovery for each sitter. They begin with long conversations, which he records to capture subtle gestures. He then photographs the subject styled with personal talismans, from a worn baseball cap to a swipe of their favorite lipstick, and fabrics that reflect their cultural backgrounds. “In the African tradition, textiles are never just decorative,” says Solomon. “They have a narrative.”
Recently, he’s also begun doing a quick sketch before turning to the canvas on which he layers thin, imperceptible brushstrokes of oil paint to form the translucent skin. In contrast to such detail, some sections are left “non-finito” (underpainted), exposing the layers beneath “because I like to show my journey.”
Capturing the beauty of Black skin feels “especially important at this time, when the Black body is viewed as a threat,” he explains. His subjects, swathed in textiles of their heritage, are “in a space where they can just be themselves.”