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Emilia Photographed by Elwood Rainey (@aeo.rainey) 

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20 December 2023

In Conversation With Emilia Momen

ROSIE LOWIT

Twenty-two-year-old figurative artist Emilia Momen paints friends, lovers and strangers she passes on the street. Selected for the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition in 2021, she was offered her first solo exhibition at London’s Ronchini Gallery the following year.  

 

Chronicling fleeting moments on a large scale, Emilia freezes everyday scenes and turns them into glamorous odes to London and Florence, where she studied. A girl sits at a party with a drink in hand, her cigarette hovering over an ashtray. A man waits impatiently for the tube doors to open. Through use of light and colour, she captures the essence of her subjects to such an extent that we feel we might know them too. The life-size artworks are titled with playful familiarity, conveying an irreverence between the artist and the moment she is capturing. 


With recent participation in Miami’s Untitled Art Fair and a piece in a New York gallery exhibition on the horizon, Emilia’s style has certainly garnered art world attention. I met her over coffee to discuss the start of her career, painting her friends, fashion and what it’s like being a young woman in the art world.

Lyra at 5 Hertford Street, oil on canvas, 1.1m x 1.5m

Could you begin by explaining how your painting career came about?

I started my first oil painting when I was 17, which was inspired by a photo I’d taken of this eccentric man in a pink suit seated opposite me on the tube. About a year later I saw him again on a bus, so I plucked up the courage to talk to him and show him the painting. He probably thought, ‘who is this weirdo?’ Luckily he was an artist too - called Sol Golden-Sato - and he loved it. We became friends, and a couple of years later the painting made it into the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Sol went to see it and found himself completely mobbed. Recently he walked into a pub in Scotland and someone shouted, ‘it’s the pink man!’. 

It’s opened a lot of doors for both of us because people love the story and are still asking to buy prints of the painting two years later. So, it was the Royal Academy that started my career as galleries then saw the piece and got in touch, asking if I’d be interested in a solo show. It’s weird because I always thought that once I’d been accepted in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition that was the biggest I could get, that was the end of it. I’m now experiencing a whole other world that I didn’t know existed, and I still have so much to learn.

Pink Man, oil on canvas, 80cm x 100cm
  Emilia and Sol Golden-Sato at the private view of Men About Town, Ronchini Gallery, January 2023

And what about before this? Have you always wanted to be an artist?

My mum and my granny, they paint. So, it was ingrained in me, if I was ever bored, I was told to ‘go and do a drawing’ - it was never ‘go and play.’ I suppose I always loved it but it was never something I thought was going to be a career. At college I wanted to go into fashion, but everyone around me told me to be an artist. It became really frustrating because no one was listening to me! So I stubbornly went to Florence anyway to study fashion, and then ended up switching to painting. So I have to concede that maybe they all had a point! 

 

Sleaze Magazine is all about spotlighting young creatives. What is it like being twenty-two and in the art world, a space that has connotations of exclusivity and insularity?

 

A lot of people don’t take you seriously, which is frustrating. Often when I'm sitting at preview dinners, for example, I’m the youngest there by a long way and I feel like people look at me like I'm someone’s child that they have to make polite conversation with. It doesn’t help that I look and sound much younger either. But when I’m introduced as one of the artists they suddenly see me differently, and I want to say, yes, exactly! Take me seriously! A lot of my older artist friends have friends working in galleries, and so they go to parties and meet more people that way, which makes me feel out of the loop because of my age. My friends are still at university, they’re not working in the art world yet. Sometimes it feels like I’m just watching it from afar… Perhaps I’m just impatient!

  Nell, oil on linen, 50cm x 60cm
Jago II, oil on canvas, 50cm x 60cm

Speaking of friends - let’s talk about how they feature in your latest series. I can imagine that capturing someone you already know very closely is an intimate experience. How is the process of painting your friends different, would you say, to painting a stranger (like Sol) that you stumble across?

 

It’s funny because in my solo show I almost solely exhibited strangers: painting strangers I’d seen on the street was what I wanted to do. And now I’ve started this series of close friends and lovers, it’s a lot more intimate because I’m thinking about them throughout the entire process and I figure out things about their face - moles I didn’t know they had - and other little details. But, I suppose, I definitely idolise the people that I paint and I think you can see it in the portraits.

Is that behind your decision making of who to paint? Are these friends you kind of revere?

 

I’d say I know in the first few moments I meet someone whether I want to paint them or not. I’m not quite sure what it is about them, but you know how some people have, like, a sense of mystery about them and won’t ever fully give themselves away? I feel like if I paint them then I have time to sit and reflect, and fill in that part of them in my head. 

 Summer in Eygalieres, oil on linen, 50cm x 60cm
 Emily, oil on linen, 50cm x 60cm

You’ve mentioned your solo show, which was at Ronchini Gallery. Could you tell me a bit more about that?

 

Yeah, so after seeing my piece at the Summer Exhibition they asked to see further work. Obviously at this point I really only had a few other pieces, but they did a studio visit and were able to gauge my general style, which I think was beginning to emerge at that point. Hundreds of people showed up to the opening, a lot of them finding out about the show from art advisors or online listings. I guess that always happens but I just didn’t expect it. It was so intense and stressful! People were touching me, asking for my autograph. I didn’t have a moment of silence to take it all in.

How did you decide what to wear?

 

Oh my god! No, I knew. That was the one thing I knew. Ages ago I was going to a wedding and so I went to the wedding section at Selfridges, just for fun, and found an Alexander McQueen runway dress from 2004 maybe, or 2005? I have literally thought about it ever since. It was even my lockscreen! So, for my 21st my dad bought me the dress to wear for my exhibition opening.

Would you ever go back to fashion, is art your thing for life now?

Well, when I was in fashion classes, I would be zoning out, and instead of wondering how I’d style a dress I’d be thinking, ‘how nice it would be to paint it’! Being an artist is a much calmer lifestyle, although I’m quite driven in the sense that I’ll never take a break, I’ll just do painting after painting. I’ve been told I’m in a bad mood if I don’t have one on the go.

 

And lastly, what’s next for you?

I’ve just had two works on show in Miami at Untitled Art Fair, in the Ronchini Gallery booth, which was so exciting. I was also in New York last month, in conversation about having a piece in a portraiture exhibition this Spring, so stay tuned!

Iona at 5 Hertford Street, oil on canvas, 1.2m x 1.5m

View more of Emilia’s work here:

https://www.emiliamomenart.com/

@emiliamomen 

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