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    Art as Activism: Otis Quaicoe

    Exploring the voices of Black artists with art curator, historian and educator Antoine J. Girard.


    So much conversation can exist in the art world over success, what defines it and the shortcuts one can take. We’ve moved away from the seductive fifteen minutes of fame art prophet Andy Warhol promised us, to the compressed fifteen seconds our Instagram Stories hold. While so many of the voyeuristic omens Warhol preached about authenticity and the speeding up of culture proved to be accurate, no one could predict the global halt we’ve all experienced. A shift so strong that the spaces in the art world, galleries and museums who have historically prided themselves on their ability to hold expensive expressions of humanity, were also left wondering where to turn.

    I wanted to reach out to four artists that challenge and cultivate new positions of connectivity, that lead the way—artists not afraid to create community in what’s missing. The voices of the artist originate from vastly different places: Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe of Ghana, Esmaa Mohamoud of Canada, Murjoni Merriweather of Maryland and from my home state of Texas, Riley Holloway. They represent the moment.

    In my experience as a curator, the voices of artists of color can work in chorus, expressing shared human truth and hardships, but the true intellect is mastered only when listening closely for their individual differences and high pitches and wildest dreams for us. It is more widely known than ever that Art, especially that made from creative minds of people from African descent, are not monolithic. No two walks of life are the same.

    The task was simple: open up a dialogue where the artist can comment on how they are maneuvering professional creative careers ahead in the frightening uncertain reality of our “new normal.”

    — Antoine J. Girard.

    This week, Antoine J. Girard discusses the inspirations behind Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe's work, a Ghanaian artist who relocated to Portland, Oregon in 2017. Through his unique palette, Otis navigates an array of narratives, from personal to collective and each figure seems to become a symbol, exploring varied thematics such as racial and gender dynamics, visibility and representation or cultural heritage and history. 

    LOCATION: Portland

    MEDIUM: Painting

    INSTAGRAM: @otis_quaicoe

    "Joseph Cubo" and "Portrait Of Nyawal Tut"   

    How are you? Where are you, actually? 

    I'm in Portland. I live in Gresham, but my studio is Downtown. I'm currently in the studio working a little bit. I’m from Ghana, West Africa originally and have been in the States for three years now.

    Do you remember the work that you've done and been like, ‘Yo, I'm doing this. I'm progressing as an artist?’

    I started with what we call the poster colors. That was where I started playing with colors and all that. I kept every little drawing that I did. In time, I [would] do a new one and try to compare it with what I did last time to see if I'm getting better, and I started to notice, ‘Okay, I'm actually good at this. Maybe I can do this, just to do something by hand.’ But growing up, I didn't know you could make a career out of it.

    The way that you handle representation is real. It doesn't seem like you're painting for the market to me.

    Exactly, and I'm glad you said that because it's one of the things that I always strive to achieve. Whatever I do, I do it for me first, before the people. I believe that when I do it for me and I love it, then the people will love it. Because you must first love what you bring out before you show it to the world.

    "Orange Turtleneck" and "Radiant"   

    Your work to me is something that you totally have to experience in person to fully feel the relationship to the person. Is there anything you really want people to feel when they are interacting with your work?

    When I first go into an art museum, I usually look at the old masterpieces, and I usually look at the portraits and I like to stare back at [them]. It's something that starts to go through my head—the mystery behind the person, who the person is, their life and everything. I pick those kinds of feelings and ideas and try to see if I can incorporate that in my painting. There's a feeling I want to create for others, for people to actually know who I am painting, even though you've never met that person. Try to feel this emotion, try to know who the person is.

    Figurative portraiture by people of African descent to me is my favorite thing in the world, art-wise. Do you ever feel not seen in the art space? Is that a concern for you? 

    It's not much of a concern. When I go to museums and see those paintings, I feel like the artists of that time were telling stories that happened during their era. People like you and I, Black, were always in the background because that is what was happening in that time. For me, as an artist now during my time, it's a way of documenting what is happening during my time. Now, Africans are stronger; now our fierce identity is a big thing for us. We like to show off who, what, where we are from. It's basically documenting what is going on during my time, so that one day when our era passes, and our kids go to a museum and see our paintings, they know that [they will be] in front and not behind. 

    "Wilde Wilde West"   

    Are there any other artists who are inspiring you right now?

    I've always loved Barkley Hendricks. I love how he's figured out how to make me laugh and cheer. It makes you feel relaxed when you're also looking at a painting—sometimes you are not consciously aware, but the kind of pulse that is present in it, and that is how you get involved in it.

    When it comes to painting, I always love [when] the figures look majestic, powerful and commanding. That is something that I like about [Hendricks’ work]—these are just regular people but he makes them look so warrior[-like] and majestic. We can learn how each of these artists represents our time, our people.

    You can tell when you see a Kerry James Marshall. When you see Kehinde [Wiley], you can tell this is Kehinde. We are all trying to tell one story, in different ways.

    When you make the choice to bring in color, is there some type of injection of positive light that you're trying to accomplish?

    It is. This is what I like, the contrast between the colors behind the figures, the grayscale, the black and white as they call it. It's not only talking about identity and the color of the skin of the African-American or the African. For me, it's also a reference to the past. I used to look at old  black and white photographs, and there is no color in [them] but still there is so much life. Working with images, or color schemes from the past and then putting the present and everything together–it's how I bring the characters to life.

    When you talk to people and they say [regarding] Black poetry and Black paintings, ‘Oh, this is a trend, it will pass’ and all that, I always tell people, "If [this work was going to pass], we wouldn't have portraits in museums right now."

    "The Artist II. Kwesi Botchway" and "Portrait In Yellow"   


    There will always be portraits being painted. While these Black artists are rising and finally being heard, and being seen, then [people will] say it's a trend.

    Kerry James Marshall told me that as long as people are around, this art is going to be around. It needs to exist simultaneously; it's not a trend.

    Yeah, I wish that people would just appreciate the work of art that these people put into it, and then just forget the rest. Because all we're trying to do is talk about our people, and how we live, that's all.

    "Sitter" and "Red"