Portrait of a Top Boy
We have teamed up with Netflix to mark the final season of Top Boy. On-screen, the celebrated show has provided a unique and compelling glimpse into life on the estates of East London. In reality, it has helped nurture and guide emerging British talent towards successful careers in the arts and creative sectors.
Featuring portraits of the iconic cast of characters by 16 established and emerging UK-based artists, this online display, curated by multi-disciplinary artist Ronan McKenzie, celebrates the show’s lasting impact on our cultural industries.
Born in Peckham South London, and of Jamaican and Scottish heritage, multidisciplinary artist Aaron Bevan-Bailey creates ethnographic works that merge traditional portraiture and abstract graphics. Aaron’s practice explores fractured connections within his subjects and modern society, and in this portrait, Dushane’s strength and fragility meet. Subtracting elements of his subject’s face, and drawing the viewer into Dushane's eyes, Aaron describes them as a window into the iconic character who has mastered the art of stillness on the surface. Aaron’s previous work has been produced for Vogue, Saatchi & Saatchi, Mercedes and exhibited in The Other Art Fair.
Four features have become defining touches to Ghanaian artist Annan Affotey’s work. Red eyes, the dark hue of his subject’s skin, a texture to the touch and leaving part of the final portrait unpainted allowing the viewer to be and form part of the work. Painting Dushane, Annan chose to capture a moment of him in his mum's living room, and in this moment of stillness, he saw the perfect opportunity to hone in on Dushane’s facial expression. Annan’s work has exhibited in London, Los Angeles, New York, Miami and Accra and through co-founding the African Young Artist Organization (AYAO) he supports African youth in the arts through education and exhibitions.
Babajide Olatunji is a self-taught visual artist living and working in London since 2021. Here, he recalls being struck by more cultural influences than ever before. Gravitating to the precision of pencils and pastels, he layers these materials to form his painting of Top Boy’s Jaq, creating a three-dimensional feel that invites viewers to engage. Describing Jaq in this portrait as “pensive and full of the need to do things right”, he hopes viewers will see elements of themselves, or people they know. Babajide’s portrait paintings of imagined subjects have found a home in many private collections internationally; including the private collection of his highness, King Mohammed VI of Morocco.
Through her realist paintings, South London based artist Brianna Parker creates a portal for viewers to step into her subject's reality. She is interested in preserving the youth of Black boys in her art where society often tries to age them. In her portrait of Stefan, fans of Top Boy may note the pram in the background as a reference to the park bench Stefan’s mum brought him to as a baby – he continues to frequent this bench as a teen navigating life without his parents. Selected by artist Tracey Emin as the first winner of the Margate Art Prize for emerging artists in 2023, Brianna’s practice represents being Black and British just as Top Boy does.
Based in West Yorkshire, Gabriel is an artist combining the disciplines of printmaking and painting. He is interested in the African diaspora and themes of identity, mental health and grief – all things Sully interacts with throughout Top Boy. Intimately capturing Sully’s true likeness in this portrait, he invites viewers to think about who Sully is and his role in this world. Within Gabriel’s practice, he uses lines to provide a sense of location and journey, while oil paint populates and colours his subject’s existence within the world. Gabriel’s debut solo exhibition at Anima Mundi featured in 2021, the same year he was personally invited by artist Yinka Shonibare to submit for the RA Summer Exhibition.
London-based artist Hamed Maiye is guided by interdisciplinary principles. His body of work features paintings, drawings and colourful set design installations. With his portraiture assuming a monochromatic colour palette, his painting of beloved Top Boy character Jamie invites viewers to ponder themes of hope, religion and determination at all costs. The blue hue, reminiscent of moonlight across Jamie’s face, can be interpreted as a reflection of the road life his character is confronted with. Hamed’s work has been exhibited at Tate Britain and has appeared in publications such as Dazed, Elle and Afropunk.
An artist and teacher living and working in Dorset, Jack Dickson hears people's stories and seeks to tell them through his portraits. Drawing from a wide range of cultural influences as a person of mixed race heritage, Jack mixes materials and media in order to reflect the complex identities of his subjects. Within his portrait of Sully he captures melancholy, frustration but also an unwavering dignity in Sully and his principles. In 2020, Jack appeared in Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year and his work has been exhibited in galleries all over the UK.
Joshua Donkor is a Ghanaian-British painter who strives to tell a life story with every portrait he paints. Painting a “tapestry” of Sully’s story with this portrait, if you look closely you’ll see good coalescing with bad, as well as family colliding with threats to Sully’s life and status. Joshua approaches portraiture as a collaborative exercise between him and his sitters, usually interviewing them and gathering relics from their life to embed as image transfers within his paintings. Years of Joshua watching Top Boy is evidenced through the intricate pieces of Sully’s story weaved into this portrait - the artist becomes in conversation with the character. Joshua’s work has shown at The Other Art Fair and The Royal Society of British Artists.
Ken Nwadiogbu is a multidisciplinary artist. A trained civil engineer, he pivoted to fine art, first embracing hyperrealism and charcoal drawing before exploring other techniques. His fascination with eyes began after almost losing an eye in a childhood incident; the feature now forms a prevalent part of his works today. In his portrait of Stefan, eyes drawn in charcoal contrast the rest of the portrait in oil. Ken is drawn to creating large works in order to physically increase the visibility, and therefore status of his subjects, often migrants to wherever they reside, or facing adverse circumstances much like Stefan. Capturing audiences at Scope Miami, Prizm Art Fair, and ART X Lagos, Ken hopes to draw audiences into Stefan’s story.
Born and based in London, artist Kione Grandison combines painting and mixed media collage to build a story, imagined or real, for her subjects. In this dual, close-up portrait of Dushane, she gives the viewer a double measure of emotion. Having previously exhibited at London’s Migration Museum and creating artwork for the likes of musicians Afro B and Vybz Kartel, Kione’s practice often features symbolism found in Afro-Caribbean beauty practices. Surrounded by barbershop tools in this portrait, Kione aims to extend Dushane’s life beyond what viewers have seen in the show. The character frequently has a fresh fade but never do we see him cared for within places of community and mundanity.
Natasha Muluswela is a visual artist practising hyperrealism through her intricate and intimate portraits of her subjects. Frequently exploring the diversity of beauty, skin, body positivity and resisting the white gaze, Natasha’s portrait of Shelley interacts seamlessly with her character – a nail technician in the show. Frequently tasked with caring for others within their beauty regimes, but also trusted with keeping their deepest secrets, Shelley comes to know others intimately. Natasha has garnered commissions for International Women’s Day and HOME X Gucci.
Olivia Twist is an illustrator and educator from East London. The key threads in her work are place, overlooked narratives and the mundane through which she challenges viewers with 'the shock of the familiar'. Painting Dris, a Top Boy maverick ousted for his disloyalty, she situates him in the marketplace, establishing the sense of location that is so pivotal to her art. Olivia’s work can be found in the permanent collection of the Museum of London, and her practice spans artists residencies both here and abroad, and in community and commercial arenas.
Moving to London from Nigeria in his teen years, artist and designer Tejumola Butler Adenuga has built his practice around his minimalistic approach to figurativism and fictional West African mythology. Watching Top Boy as a teen helped Tejumola to understand parts of London’s culture and its lingo. Through his practice of using black ink, here he captures Stefan as a young boy in a state of turmoil that needs to be expressed. For Tejumola the eyes are the biggest communicator; characters can choose not to speak, but cannot control what their eyes convey. Tejumola has collaborated with international brands such as Adidas, Beats by Dre, MTV VMA's, Dr. Martens and Soho House.
Teoni is a ﬁne artist from London. Her art is largely autobiographical, a life journal depicted through painted works of herself and subjects around her. Inspired by romanticising the everyday, her portrait of Jaq speaks to the soft side of a character who will be remembered as a straight-talking doer. Teoni invites you to slow down and engage with the domestic scene, emulating the love and patience Jaq has for her partner, sister and nephew. The host of East London-based ‘Beau Beau’s Art Club’, Teoni is invested in fostering community and conversations around art.
Toby Michael is a classically trained figurative painter from Buckinghamshire. Painting Modie into his body of work, he hones in on the glassy, almost reflective, wounded eye and captures the likeability of this unforgettable character. Toby strives for the paintings he creates to be windows and mirrors, reflecting archetypes that underpin civilisation, and being influenced by the diverse landscape of 21st century England. A finalist on Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2020, Toby has been exhibiting domestically and selling his studio work to collectors internationally.
Based in South London and originally from Jamaica, Tonique Sewell is a recent MA Fine Art Painting graduate. Bringing to life Jaq in this portrait, Tonique is intrigued by the intersection of beauty and brutality within the character. Raw and realist, Tonique paints Jaq exactly as pictured in Top Boy, paying particular attention to her distinctive braided hair style; her painting highlights one of the ways Jaq’s image has been distilled in public memory. Tonique’s work has previously exhibited as part of shows at The Royal Academy of Arts and for HOME X Gucci.