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'Black is beautiful', says...white artist

SPIRITUAL: A faith-inspired work

NESTLED AWAY in the heart of St Pancras church, is one of the best-kept secrets in London.

A completely unique place to have ever housed art, it is almost 200 years old and was designed for coffin burials.

The Crypt Gallery, opened it doors to art in 2002 and has been the backdrop for many amazing exhibitions ever since. The inimitable architecture and damp smell help create an immensely intoxicating space in which artists have displayed some brilliant work.

Luckily, for all people who appreciate good art, the current exhibit, 21st Century Baroque, is on display until September 29.

A retrospective exposition featuring fabulously extravagant paintings on wood and canvas, 21st Century Baroque has one constant theme; the iconic image of the black male figure.

SKILLS: Charlie Pi

Artist Charlie Pi has brought together a vast collection of works that explore the image of black men in an emotive and tender way. He explains why black men make the perfect portrait.

“I’m interested in the male figure, which is a lot more interesting to paint,” says the 63-year-old artist. “They have more surface structure. Women have a lovely padding all over them and are interesting to draw, but the actual structure of the male body is a lot more superficial, so the definition is much clearer, and even more so in the black male body.

“Even the least image-conscious black man probably has a better looking body than a similar white man; the light reflecting off the curves makes them more obvious.”

He continues: “Black skin reflects the light and colours in the light. White skin tends to absorb colour, but black skin bounces it back, so you get the wonderful affects of light and the colours of light, that is fascinating for me.
Plus, I just think black men are beautiful; they are stunning to paint.”

Creating a varied and innovative series of art , Pi depicts hard working and noble black men on his canvasses in a way that enables audiences to almost feel the raw energy and passion oozing from his paintings.

“In my earlier works, I was using photographs, but later on I started using my own models. In one, I have used an American GI who calls his body ‘a work in progress’, so I called the set of paintings Work In Progress. He is a great big muscular man but he also plays the French horn in a band.”

Iconic poses feature heavily in the collection, which the artist puts down to being born in the Catholic faith.

“Almost every day of the year at primary school, we would be given a picture of a saint. So I have images in my head of saintly figures standing with their arms out, with a cross or halo behind them.”

Originally from Coventry, Pi came to London when he was a fresh faced 18-year-old and absorbed black culture.

“I was a skinhead when it was respectable,” he says. “We were so into dance and we wanted to dance the same as black boys; we wanted to look in the mirror and see our reflections as the same as them.

“Back then, the only place you could get your head shaved was in a black barbers. White barbers wouldn’t shave your head; they would give you a crew cut, but not an all over shave. So us little white boys would go trotting over to Lavender Hill just to get our heads shaved. I was heavily into ska and used to go to the Ram Jam club in Brixton on a Sunday afternoon to learn all the new dances.”

Nowadays, Pi finds that people often mistake him for being black when they see his paintings. The responses he gets from black people when they find out he is white range from humorous to embarrassing.

“I had an exhibition in Willesden and there were two black guys admiring my paintings. One of them said ‘I wanna shake the had of the artist.’ I said, ‘here you go’ and put my hand out. He walked past me and said, ‘no I really want to shake the hand if the artist’. So I walked over to him again and said ‘well, I’m right here!’ He looked at me in amazement. It was so funny, he couldn’t believe it.”

The painter gave up a long career in community work to pursue his love of art and has only been painting professionally for a decade.

“Ten years ago, I re-trained as a therapeutic counsellor and in the course of that I had to have lots of therapy myself. I decided I wanted to go back into painting and what I wanted to paint was these beautiful black men, because there aren’t enough pictures of them on gallery walls.

“You go to some of the major galleries and the only black images you’re going to see are slaves or servants. So I want to present a different view; the pictures I want to see.”

21st Century Baroque is at The Crypt at St Pancras Church, Euston Road, London NW1 until September 29. For more information visit

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