Shem is a painter and narrator, and a passionate Londoner. His paintings speak to us quietly, but urgently. They are intensely personal and reflective, but his subject-matter concerns the rueful task we all face, of celebrating the things that have made us strong and battling the things that have set us back. This is the starting point for When The Sun Falls Out The Sky: a private dreamscape and a very personal memoir. Shem’s range of colours, and the handwritten statements, poetry and symbols he deploys, give him a rich visual and emotional vocabulary. In his paintings, the conclusion is sometimes as clear as a traffic signal; more often it hovers in the dream states between sleep and consciousness. Even here, though, there is energy, a forward momentum, and an inquisitiveness: the dreams, for Shem, are the gateway to what comes next.
But beyond the private realm there is also, in these new works, an anguished celebration of a great city lurching from lockdown to lockdown, enduring an unfamiliar combination of uncertainty, chaos and emptiness. The rich night-time colours in All We Have is Now, or Reality Release, are perhaps the neons of Soho, or the lights on the deserted river. The mood of the paintings seems also to pick up the sounds of London, its movement and its emotional current. Slogans and headlines from the pandemic find their way into the mix too, and sometimes a robust retort as well. These are not, or do not appear to be, instruments of campaign or protest; but it is not hard to detect a low tolerance threshold for selfishness, or doublespeak, or bullshit.
It would be equally easy to reach for obvious categorisations when considering Shem’s work. But the careful viewer might hesitate before doing so. Shem’s wide and apparently chaotic range of media reveals a restless approach to his surroundings, his city, and this troubled period we are living through. We look at Telewalking, for example, and we see an immediacy in Shem’s use of found or reclaimed surfaces, acrylic paint, marker pen, crayon and collage. There is a value tenderly placed on the things and the people that might find themselves ignored or discarded. That comes with anger and indignation too. But there is delight as well, and optimism, even in times like ours; and these Shem exuberantly shares with us.
“Take control”, the paintings tell us. “Breathe”.
“Less limits, limitless”. “Learn to live in the now”.
“Nothing scares me anymore”. And, in smaller, more tentative letters: “Nothing at all”.
Shem was born in Tottenham, north London. His mother’s heritage includes ancestry from Maroon communities of rebel slaves and runaways who lived in the mountainous interior of Jamaica.
Shem performs with Cut With, an alternative hip hop group. Art Hop Life are three corners of who he his, and it’s how he sometimes signs his work.
Shem started painting in 2015. He successfully staged his first shows in 2018 and 2019 in disused premises where he lived as a property guardian, including a fish and chip shop in Clapham and a bookmaker’s in Streatham. In June 2020, he exhibited “We are in the Future”, a painted billboard in Old Street, as part of programme of installations curated by Trix Mendez and Outside the Zone. His work is in numerous private collections.
He now lives and works in Dalston.
Words: Sir Richard Heaton