Actor Gugu Mbatha-Raw has long been drawn to stories that combined both art and activism. From her breakthrough role as Dido Elizabeth Belle, a gentlewoman of color in the film “Belle,” to her recent work in films like “Misbehaviour” and “Fast Color” and the Apple TV program “The Morning Show,” Mbatha-Raw is often at the center of stories that mix entertainment with social awareness. Now, she is finding another art form – painting portraits – as another way to combine the two, having painted portraits of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor that will be up for auction via the organization Still We Rise.
The auction, taking place June 20-29, will benefit several organizations including Equal Justice Initiative, M4BL, The Bail Project and Black Lives Matter and more information can be found online at www.stillwerisecommunity.com or on their Instagram page at www.instagram.com/_stillwerise. You can also check out Mbatha-Raw’s Instagram for more on her artwork.
Variety spoke to Mbatha-Raw about using art as activism and the part Will Smith played in revisiting her old hobby.
Have you always been interesting in painting? What caused you to take it back up now?
I studied art at school and have taken life drawing classes here and there but due to the all-consuming nature of work, I haven’t had much time to do it. In fact, this is how long it’s been: when I was shooting “Concussion,” Will Smith asked what my hobbies were and I mentioned painting. And in classic Will Smith movie star style, the next day in my trailer was the most amazing box of art materials. I dabbled while shooting but then shipped the box back to L.A. and sort of forgot about it. Being in lockdown, I rediscovered my paints and thought it was time to have a go at this.
How did you come to start drawing people like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor?
That Memorial Day when I learned about George Floyd and saw clips of the video, I just felt so upset and I felt so full of emotion and didn’t know how to express it. This was before protests had really begun. It felt like such a visceral turning point, as we obviously now are experiencing. I didn’t have the words to express how I felt and I just sat down and sort of painted him; I think it was my way of processing it. That time that it took me, it’s time to focus your emotions and energy into something creative. It was very grounding for me to take a few hours to center myself and honor him in that way. That was really where it started.
Then you painted Breonna and I believe you even took that painting to a march?
Yes, I did! I learned about Breonna Taylor and I thought she had such a beautiful face and obviously the injustice still going on around her case was obviously on my mind. Because it was her birthday that weekend, it was my way of sort of honoring her. I repurposed the back of the painting as a banner — I wrote say her on name on it and I took it out with me. That’s one of the paintings up for auction.
How did you come to be involved with the Still We Rise auction?
A few people had seen my paintings on social media and asked if they were for sale. At first I thought they were too personal, but then I realized I could help some of these amazing causes and it would be a great way to keep the message going. I was looking for somebody to partner with to help me with the auction idea. I asked artist friends of mine and they told me about Still We Rise. I had a call with Lindsay Meyer-Harley, who runs the company. Looking at all their different initiatives, I really liked everything they support. And it just happened they had an auction coming up in June so we talked about me submitting something for it. To be able to use art and activism hand in hand is probably where my strength lies.
Have you always looked to combine the two, or is that something more recent?
Coming out of drama school, I was just excited to have a job and be able to hone my craft. “Belle” was definitely an awakening for me, working with Amma Asante and the amazing conversations we were able to have about race, gender and class at the time. It made the work so much more satisfying.
And I definitely try to seek out that collision of art and activism in my work now. Even recently, “Misbehaviour” is about women’s rights activism and “The Morning Show” deals with the legacy of the MeToo movement. Even something like “Fast Color,” it’s funny how the world we’re in now looks closer and closer to the world of that movie. I was in the grocery store and the shelves were empty, there were three cans there and it felt so resonant.
Do you think you’ll keep painting now that you’ve rediscovered it?
I did have a moment where I wasn’t sure when we were going back to work and I thought, “Maybe I should pivot and become a painter!” (Laughs) Wherever it’s going to take me, I’m so, so grateful to having reconnected with this creative expression and having been able to align it with activism as well. Initially I was doing it for myself but I think it’s always amazing when you can take something nourishing for you and may help bring a greater awareness to the world’s issues. Also, I like that the control freak in me is able to decide when it’s finished; as an actor, you don’t get final cut of a movie, but I get the final brush stroke of the painting.