LONDON - Director Steve McQueen, whose poetic visual style helped secure a best picture Oscar for “12 Years a Slave”, brings a sensibility to his films even when tackling harrowing subjects.

The 46-year-old receives the British Film Institute’s Fellowship award on Saturday, its highest accolade, in recognition of his movies exploring the endurance of humanity.

“He is one of the most influential and important British artists of the past 25 years,” said BFI chair Josh Berger.

Whether sex addiction or slavery, McQueen is not afraid to confront ugly issues - but his years as a visual artist bring beauty to his features nonetheless.

Burly, with a booming voice that sometimes betrays his working-class roots, McQueen cuts an unlikely figure in a creative world that seemed closed off to him as a child.

McQueen was raised in London by immigrants from Trinidad and Grenada.

His severe dyslexia made school a struggle, and his teachers had few hopes for him.

“There were no examples of artists who were like me,” he told The Guardian newspaper. “When did you ever see a black man doing what I wanted to do?”

McQueen’s unlikely journey to Hollywood’s pinnacle began when he earned a place to study art at London’s prestigious Goldsmiths College, which counts British superstar artist Damien Hirst among its alumni, as well as rock group Blur.

He quickly became interested in working with film and presented his first major piece, “Bear” - a 10-minute silent black-and-white movie featuring two black men wrestling - at London’s Royal College of Art in 1993.

McQueen later explained that the film was more an exploration of sexuality and masculinity than of race.

His 1997 work “Deadpan” pays homage to silent movie star Buster Keaton, and recreates his iconic stunt in which a house falls down around him.

McQueen’s rise was cemented with exhibitions at the Guggenheim and Tate galleries, and with the 1999 Turner Prize - the most prestigious award in British contemporary art.

However, much of the Turner publicity that year went to the provocative Tracey Emin, nominated for her unmade bed.

Big-screen acclaim arrived in 2008 with the release of “Hunger”, an unflinching look at Northern Ireland’s “dirty protests” and the death of hunger striker Bobby Sands that earned him the Cannes Camera d’Or, presented to a first-time director.

McQueen insisted he was not seeking to portray Sands as a martyr, but to make people “reflect on what went on in an adult, intelligent fashion”.

“The film is about people making decisions, bad or right decisions, and the consequences of that,” he told AFP.

McQueen’s raw feature focused on the slow death of Sands, played by Irish-German actor Michael Fassbender, who has appeared in all three of his feature-length films.

The director returned to the theme of sexuality for his 2011 release “Shame”, in which Fassbender and English actress Carey Mulligan explore sex addiction as on-screen siblings.

For his third feature, McQueen was inspired by a book given to him by his partner Bianca Stigter, a Dutch film critic with whom he lives in Amsterdam and by whom he has a son and a daughter.

McQueen said he was hooked from the moment he had “12 Years a Slave” in his hand.

He called the work - the autobiography of Solomon Northup, a black violinist from New York state who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery - a “revelation”.

Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch and Fassbender, the film was critically acclaimed.

It won the Oscars for best picture, best supporting actress (Lupita Nyong’o) and best adapted screenplay (John Ridley).

Since his success at the Oscars, McQueen has directed a video for Kanye West’s “All Day/I Feel Like That” release - an exhausting, nine-minute, single take of the US hip hop star chasing the camera around an empty warehouse.

McQueen is reportedly working on a television series following a west London black community from the 1960s to the present day.

His next film, announced last month, will be “Widows”, a heist thriller starring Viola Davis for which McQueen is preparing the screenplay along with “Gone Girl” writer Gillian Flynn.