As a white-passing mixed-race boy coming of age in Scotland, PJ Harper was surrounded by subtle negativity and outright racism that made him want to celebrate Blackness. “I can be inspired by a character from mythology, history, or current times, and then I think of how I imagine this person or being would be presented in my world,” he said. In his sculptures and drawings, he conjures Black women cast as flawless glamazons; their glamour can belie how confrontational the sculptures are as objects, projecting an unforgiving strength through the power of internet aesthetics: like sirens, they draw you in.
Fascinated by dolls from a young age, Harper began making his own as a child and developed his hobby into an intricate practice. After a brief stint at Glasgow School of Art, he began to sell work online, and received commissions from people including R&B star Elah Hale and movie director Lee Daniels that encouraged him to quit art school to put all his focus into his work. He makes his busts and full figures from polymer clay, presenting them in contexts ranging from rethought myths to sex scenes, addressing race and power through a lens that elevates Black strength and beauty to godlike status. “This is all about an appreciation of the feminine,” he said. “I don’t do drag. I communicate through making, and this is my way of communicating my appreciation.”
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Part of Harper’s inspiration comes from his desire to move Black figures from supporting roles to stardom. He grew up watching his late grandfather, the two-time Mr. Universe Paul Wynter, in sword-and-sandal films. But while he admired his success, he would have loved to see him as a main character rather than in the “helper” roles in which he was usually cast. In Harper’s artistic world, all characters are the main attraction, as super-beings evoking both ancient Greek myths and 1970s Blaxploitation films.
On Instagram, where Harper’s handle is Pig.malion, a nod to the Greek myth, Harper has racked up nearly 100,000 followers, and his online success has recently converted to the real world: This past December he had a solo exhibition at Good Black Art in New York. The power in his work, he said, “comes from [certain] influences initially. Then, once I work on a piece, the way it has been created takes on a whole new power of its own.”