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At Steven Zevitas Gallery, formal portraits rebuke refugee stereotypes

Papay Solomon's "As a Heart Attack, Portrait of Natalie Ruth – Ghana, first generation" from 2020.courtesy Steven Zevitas Gallery and Papay Solomon

“I am the nightmare in Trump’s America.”

That’s how painter Papay Solomon, an African immigrant, describes himself in his artist’s statement for “Nightmares Americana.” His show at Steven Zevitas Gallery was inspired by Ibram X. Kendi’s June essay about racism in the Atlantic titled “The American Nightmare.”

Solomon, 27, is a Liberian war refugee born in Guinea. His family came to the United States when he was a teenager. Today, he lives in Phoenix. His extraordinary realist portraits depict African friends in the refugee community there.

He fills in the gulf between the American dream and the American nightmare by doing what portraits do best: Capturing real, complicated people. These particular people juggle several social identities: African, immigrant, and Black in America.


Portraiture is a study in identity. Subjects compose themselves to encounter the painter, the viewer, and the world. What do you share of yourself, what do you withhold? What will be seen? What will be safe?

For such a young artist, Solomon is a terrific painter, with an unerring sense of light, color, and texture. His subjects pop against flat monochromes. The luminous pink ground in “As a Heart Attack, Portrait of Natalie Ruth — Ghana, First Generation” looks siphoned from twilight. This woman is already radiant; the pink surrounding her hints at some otherworldly power.

Solomon paints on linen, leaving sections bare, a technique that flies in the face of his hyper-realism. Yet he pulls it off. Against the muted tone and texture of natural linen in Natalie Ruth’s dress, her brown skin — rosy here, honeyed there — is sumptuous. Her gaze is direct and open. I could almost see her exhale.

“The Black Boy Who Wears White Skin, Portrait of Yaya Simeon Edamivoh — Nigeria” is no less captivating, although this subject, pale and red-headed, is more reserved, more probing. Red light floods him against a warm white ground.


Papay Solomon's "The Black Boy who Wears White Skin, Portrait of Yaya Simeon Edamivoh — Nigeria," from 2020.Courtesy Steven Zevitas Gallery and Papay Solomon

Of course, there’s much more to Solomon’s friends than their immigration status and the color of their skin — Edamivoh’s glasses hook into his collar, a loupe attached to one lens, suggesting a man of scrutiny. That’s this portraitist’s point, and his job: Look closely. That’s really all it takes to quell a nightmare and see who’s really there.

PAPAY SOLOMON: Nightmares Americana

At Steven Zevitas Gallery, 450 Harrison Ave., through Dec. 12. 617-778-5265,

Cate McQuaid can be reached at Follow her on Instagram @cate.mcquaid.