Sense of Self

When we hear the word “unbecoming”, we might think of something unflattering, ill-fitting or inappropriate. But for London-based Alias Trate, who is known for making bold figurative portraits, the term signifies much more. The title of the artist’s latest exhibition, UN/BECOMING, is a clever play on words, asking us to consider not only what we find beautiful, but also what it means for a person to grow and develop a sense of self. For many people, it’s a process fraught with emotions, obstacles and triumphs. As such, it’s a question with which philosophers have grappled for centuries. Now, Trate seeks to hold up a mirror to this very human struggle through a new collection of paintings.

“I have always painted to understand sensibilities and emotive states that would otherwise elude capture,” Trate explains. “Painting is a means to tap my subconscious and render intelligible the chaos of existence.” The artist is heavily inspired by existential phenomenology, which the show’s Curator, Dr. Hjördis Becker-Lindenthal, University of Cambridge, defines as “a strand of philosophy that addresses two interlaced processes of existential becoming: one concerning the relation one has with oneself, and one concerning one’s relation to the Other.” Trate’s paintings each signify a different emotion, from anger to compassion, prudence to angst, fortitude to patience. Each character is defined by an unyielding gaze and vibrant colour palette. “When we look at one of the works, it looks back at us, making us stop in our tracks,” writes Becker-Lindenthal. “The figures call out to us, luring, provoking, questioning.”

To bring these characters to life, Trate combines “raw emotive colour and distorted physical form” – twisting and bending facial features by applying, eradicating and smudging. He mixes vivid pigments with walnut, safflower and linseed oils, and uses fingers wrapped in turpentine-soaked rags for shaping. The results are at once graphic, like a poster or digital vector, and expressive. Sharp outlines separate figures from backgrounds, whilst soft gradients add tone to necks, hair and faces. The act of making these works is meditative, as Becker-Lindenthal describes: “Thick layers of paint resolutely applied are subsequently removed to create contours – a process Trate repeats several times until a face emerges on the canvas.”

All images courtesy Alias Trate.
1. Erratic Serenity, 2021, Oil on Canvas, 150cm x 90cm
2. Resummoned Longing, 2022, Oil on Canvas, 150cm x 90cm
3. Histrionic Pride, 2022, Oil on Canvas, 150cm x 90cm
4. Arid Lure, 2022, Oil on Canvas, 150cm x 90cm