It’s 3am and I am painting.

Two weeks into the Christmas break of my third year and I finally feel like myself again. There are no deadlines on the horizon, no lectures, and no essay crisis amplified by five shots of espresso and a side of self-hatred. Painting this early feels like I’m in another world – as I wait for the paint to dry, the sunrise slowly breaks across my room window and shadows appear, dancing across the wet paint. All is quiet until my phone vibrates – it’s a Facebook link, sent by my friend. The link takes me to a page about a Cambridge art exhibition, the ‘third space’, an exhibition of BME art which will be held in Lent.

‘You should defo send your stuff to this!!’ my friend’s message says.

My ‘stuff’. My artwork. My relationship with art is a difficult one. I’ve painted sporadically since I was a child, dabbling in pastels, oil and acrylic until finding a home in watercolour painting. I never paint people, just scenery and architecture. There’s an unforgiving structure I follow time and time again: I sketch, I paint, I outline. Pencil, watercolour, fineliner. I’m not lost to the irony – the freedom of watercolour confined in strict fineliner, structuring it and keeping it within defined spaces. No matter how many times I try and paint with just watercolour, it never feels truly complete.

January.

Lent is a drab frenzy of deadlines. I decide I won’t submit my art to the exhibition. Everyone is probably way more talented than me and it’s not the art that will be judged – it will be me. I resolve to just bluetack my paintings to my wall: a small private exhibition that only I will see. But as the saying goes – if you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans. My bedder randomly stops me in the hallway one day, but I have headphones in and can’t hear what she is saying.

“Your art” I think she is saying. “Your art is amazing,”.

“What?” My earphones are blaring Kygo so I remove them.

“I saw your picture of a temple when I was cleaning your room and I had to stop what I was doing and stare at it for. It is beautiful. You are so talented, I had no idea you could paint!”

(At this point I have to take a second because I’m crying).

She smiles at me “Promise me that you will paint me a picture, just a small one, of wildflowers – my favourite flower! And you must sign it so I can sell it for a million pounds when you are famous.”

I tell her of course, she hugs me and leaves.

My bedder’s name is Nina and she is the loveliest person in the world. I decide I will submit my art after all.

Shynee Sienna Hewavidana

8pm. Sidney Sussex.

The exhibition is bustling. There are more BME people than I have seen in all three years of Cambridge. Where were they all hiding? They’re wandering around, chatting with plastic cups full of cheap wine in hands, discussing the work that we have done, that we created, that we are. One piece is a Barbie doll, dressed in a beautiful sari and a red bindi on her forehead. I’m momentarily taken aback (I’ve never seen a Barbie dressed in a Sari) until I realise that the Barbie is white. Just to repeat: the Barbie with a bindi is white. I picture 7 year old me, in the peak of hatred towards my skin colour and my culture, being given a porcelain skinned Barbie wearing my cultural dress. I think about how much more I would have hated myself.


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Mountain View

third space preview: ‘we don’t get represented enough in the media, or anywhere’

Another exhibition catches my eye – huge portraits of brown women. Instead of the passive, coy, virginal brown women the media has fashioned us out to be, these women are powerful. There are snakes wrapped around them, they have five eyes, each one looking defiantly at the gallery-goer. The whole gallery reverberates with the power in their gaze. I think about how 7 year old me would have felt, to see these powerful brown women. We are supposed to be weak and we’re supposed to avert our gazes. These women aren’t doing that and neither am I.

Up the stairs to my paintings. My friends awe over them (I can barely look at them without seeing the flaws). My friend says that a picture of India reminds him of a Wes Anderson film and I think I may die of happiness. We leave the exhibition midway through the spoken word.

It’s 2am and I start a new painting. The same old method: I sketch, I paint, I outline. But Kings Parade is still busy, there are drunk people chanting outside, and their words are indecipherable, but it’s lovely. They keep me company, with their lyrics of Mr Brightside (what else?) and screeches of who got with who and who did what. I put my paintbrush down and sit by my window, looking out across Kings Parade which is lit by the haze of the streetlights and the slow rise of the sun. For the first time in a while, it’s 3am and I’m not painting.

The next day, I buy some flowers from the stall in the market and start a new watercolour. This time of wildflowers

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