Regularly named as the world’s number one university for art and design, London’s Royal College of Art (RCA) prides itself on being a “specialist and research-intensive postgraduate institution” with an approach that “is founded on the premise that art, design, creative thinking, science, engineering and technology must all collaborate to solve today’s global challenges.” Counted among the college’s alumni are: Sir David Adjaye OBE, Sir James Dyson CBE, David Hockney OM CH RA, Tracey Emin CBE, Thomas Heatherwick CBE, Dame Zandra Rhodes DBE, and Sir Ridley Scott.

Like art schools around the UK, the RCA was forced to cancel its physical degree shows this year due to lockdown. While many students were left angered and disappointed by the cancellations, the RCA is one of many institutions that has sought to offered an enhanced digital offering as an alternative way to present students’ work. Featuring around 850 emerging artists, designers, architects and creatives, who contributed content from their homes and work spaces around the world, the RCA2020 online graduate show launched on 16 July and runs until the end of the month.

Speaking about the show, the RCA’s Chancellor, Sir Jony Ive, has explained:

“This is a show that is unlike any other. It marks the culmination and conclusion of work that was made in extraordinary times. It was work made in flats and apartments and homes around the world. Work made on the dining room table. It somehow marks – I think – a victory for creativity, for ideas. And for excellence, regardless of the circumstance…You will find it hopeful and I think extremely optimistic and I think you will see it as victorious.”

Olivia Sterling Double Cream 4

‘Double Cream 4’, acrylic on canvas (50 x 40cm) by Olivia Sterling.

To focus in on one of the people featured in the online show, The Net Gallery spoke to Painting (MA) student Olivia Sterling. Born in Peterborough, Sterling is a London-based artist who completed a BA at The University of Derby before going on to study at the RCA. Describing her recent work in her degree show statement, Sterling noted that it “focuses on paintings of domestic scenes that mimic how I perceived living in Britain as a black person.”

The Net Gallery: How did you find the transition moving from doing your BA in Derby to studying at the RCA?

Olivia Sterling: I found it both awful and amazing – going from the big studios, relatively small class and cheap rent in Derby to almost the opposite was very hard, but at the same time having my practice framed and moulded by the painting staff and my classmates has been invaluable.

TNG: To what extent has your practice and the work you produce changed over the course of your education, and when did you first start to produce work in a similar style to the paintings presented in the online degree show?

OS: My practice has changed as I was challenged in my MA to focus on the formal aspects of my painting, rather then in my BA where I was focused on my subject matter and reacting to what was going on around me – at the time Brexit, Trump’s election etc. I first started to produce work in a similar style to the paintings presented in the online degree show at the beginning of the second year where I ‘gave in’ to embracing the sketchy, line-focused quality to my paintings. This allowed the work to have a diagram-like quality in order to portray imagery that conveys a depiction of a Black person living in Britain with all its micro and macro-aggressions.

Olivia Sterling house

‘House’ (2020), acrylic on paper (21 x 29 cm) by Olivia Sterling. Part of the series Ban Marie drawings.

TNG: How do you feel about the recent Black Lives Matter protests and debate, and the way it has been covered in the media?

OS: The way it has been covered in the media has been overwhelming and disheartening especially when it panders to ugly gaslighting. However, I have been focusing on looking at what my classmates and colleagues are posting in order to empower or soothe themselves and other black people at this time in order to stop it becoming too much.

TNG: What are your plans after you graduate from the RCA, and do you have access to studio space?

OS: My plan after I graduate is to keep making paintings – I don’t have access to a studio yet, but luckily my bedroom has two sizeable walls. I’m also waiting for my paintings to be shown in Tomorrow: London (an online exhibition featuring new work by graduates from various London art schools) at the White Cube – I am week #3.

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Olivia Sterling


Article by Richard Unwin.

The RCA2020 online graduate show runs from 16 to 31 July 2020, and is viewable here.

You can view Olivia Sterling’s presentation as part of RCA2020 here.

You can also follow Olivia on Instagram @oliviaster

The painting shown at the top of the page is ‘Bittersweet’, acrylic on canvas (55 x 45 cm) by Olivia Sterling.