She’s A Knockout: Artist Sheena Rose on Diasporas, Venus Williams and (of course) Rihanna

The Barbadian multi-disciplinary artist Sheena Rose is on the precipice of a major career milestone—her bold and imaginative painted works, which touch on themes of athletes in motion and feature scenes of luxe interiors and lush tropics, will appear as part of the upcoming exhibition She’s A Knockout: Sport, Gender, and the Body in Contemporary Art at the University of Miami’s Lowe Art Museum. Ahead of its launch, she spoke to Racquet about how her personal health journey with autoimmune disease led her to create pieces that have ended up in the personal collections of athletes such as Venus Williams, and how Barbados’ native daughter Rihanna has made it all possible. She’s A Knockout runs from June 21-September 14th.

Sheena Rose’s art career started early: Growing up in Saint Philip, Barbados, from the age of five or six, as she recalls, she began making small illustrations and harbored dreams of becoming a cartoonist. After formative years in the tropics, and a degree in Fine Arts from Barbados Community College, she began exploring the concept of diaspora in her burgeoning works through artist residencies from Amsterdam to Suriname to South Africa and received a Fulbright scholarship to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro for her MFA in studio art.

“I come from a small place,” she says. “As a Black woman from the Caribbean, it is important that I allow myself to exist in these worlds of luxury and motion. In my work, the colors, the flatness of the approach, the conversation it’s having today talking about race, gender, and coming from an honest place… I call myself an activist through these paintings, looking at spaces—art spaces and sports spaces—where everyone can be involved.”

Studying diaspora and genocide involving “Caribs, Black Africans and Tainos,” she has incorporated ideas about Black bodies in different contexts—often portraying them as joyously and in riotous color. But it wasn’t until her diagnosis of lupus, a pervasive and incurable autoimmune disease that took away some of her physical abilities that she became obsessed with watching sports as a spectator, and began incorporating it into her art.

“I started getting into the sports and looking at the athletes—their histories, their experiences, their bodies in motion and body language, their coaches, their backgrounds,” she recalls. “I started painting these fun disco characters, and then my breakthrough moment was when I had the idea to put a tennis racquet in one of their hands. That was the first work involving sports.”

Despite growing up with the popularity of cricket as the national sport of Barbados and herself practicing the martial art of kickboxing, watching sports led her to tennis, and specifically to some of the Black women— the Williams sisters, Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauff—who would become prominent subjects in her work.

“When I saw a picture of Venus on the ground [fallen] and she was still playing, that gave me this idea that no matter what I could keep going.”

That moment inspired The Sisters, which became the first tennis painting she created featuring both Williams in action, and the second, Believe in Yourself, was purchased by Venus Williams last year during Art Basel. Observing the scene of Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff embracing at the net after their 2019 US Open battle in the third round became the inspiration for another work, Good Omen, and found her reflecting on the power of Black women and athletes to fill the world with images of positivity. It also ties to her national identity as a proud Barbadian and how that has been a through line in her work, starting from her earliest days as an aspiring cartoonist.

“This morning I was vacuuming the house, and Rihanna crossed my mind—it’s the holiday for National Heroes Day here in Barbados,” she said. “I was thinking of why she was chosen and how she has represented our country, and how if she didn’t exist that I wouldn’t think any of this work I’m doing would be possible.”

Top, Challenge, 2023, Middle: Good Omen, 2024, Bottom: Believe in Yourself, 2023. All images courtesy Sheena Rose and Johansson Projects.