By Emily Steer for Elephant
Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe’s Self-Portrait (2019) features on the cover of Elephant’s brand-new Spring/Summer 2021 issue. It is a powerful image, depicting the Ghanaian artist locked in an intense gaze with the viewer, against a brilliant yellow background. This potent and very direct eye contact threads through many of Quaicoe’s paintings, of both himself and others. It is intended “to give that sense of how we feel as Black people when we walk in our neighbourhood or walk to the grocery store”, he tells me. “It is also my own way of showing how strong we are.”
Quaicoe has recently opened a group exhibition with friends and fellow painters Kwesi Botchway (whose Metamorphose in July (2019) features on a limited-edition cover of our Spring/Summer 2021 issue) and Amoako Boafo. Homecoming: The Aesthetic of Cool shows at Gallery 1957 in Accra until 7 May.
You have this very intense eye contact in some of your works, where the sitter or subject is looking intently at the viewer. It is evident in the self-portrait that features on the cover of Issue 45, there is a real locking of the gaze.
It is the main focus of the whole thing that I do. This comes from self-experience. It is connected with one of the main experiences I had when I moved to the States, and it’s the experience that those already living in the States—Black people, like me—always have. I always say, if you have dark skin and move to the States, you are a Black person: the African aspect goes away, you are identified as a Black person.
When I go to the grocery store or I walk my dog, the gaze and the staring that they give me… I try to portray that same stare to the viewer to give that sense of how we feel as Black people, when we walk in our neighbourhood or to the grocery store. We know we are not wanted. I give the same look back to the viewer, to get that sense of the things we go through in our normal lives in the States. It also draws you in, to know the subject. Who is this person? Why are they staring so deeply at me?
It feels there is a real sense of pride in how your subjects are depicted: with a strong gaze and intensity that has historically been reserved for white upper-class subjects.
Exactly. How we have been portrayed in TV and all that… it is important for me as an artist to show us in a different way. That is why I love Kehinde Wiley’s painting, his figures are just so majestic, and they look so powerful. It is also my own way of showing how strong we are, even though we have been put down so many times. I give you the stare, but at the same time I let you know we have pride in who we are as Black people.
With a self-portrait you are gazing back at yourself. Do you ever see something in your image that is a surprise?
I always put my soul in my subjects’ shoes. My message, what I put out there, is based on my experience and their experience together. It’s a combination of what I experience and what they are. Sometimes it feels a bit weird when I paint myself. I get to struggle with it a little bit, not in terms of how I struggle to paint a figure or something, but I keep asking myself questions. I always feel: “Is it good enough? Am I representing myself well?” Painting the self is totally different from painting someone else. But I want to show that I go through the same things that the rest of the people on my canvases go through.
In this self-portrait, you have painted yourself against the most joyful yellow background. Is yellow an important colour for you?
I love super bright colours, and yellow happens to be one of my favourites, because it makes me smile, it makes me happy. Yellow, bright green, orange, pink… they are colours that make me feel alive. Any time I see bright yellow it just makes me really happy.
There is an incredible portrait you painted of Kwesi Botchway, which features in your joint interview in the magazine. I know you have both been friends for a while. Are you creatively inspired by each other?
I am always with Kwesi and my friends, and I also study them a lot. When we go out, there are certain moments where I don’t have my camera with me, but I have my mind. There are happy moments that I need to be able to remember to paint. It is always interesting for me to capture my friends’ spirit, or their essence. That painting, I found it interesting that the first day Kwesi came to Portland to visit me, he had that suit on. I said to him: do you know what you’re wearing? A prison uniform! He had no idea. He was going to wear that suit to an awards show. He is such a free guy, he is a free spirit.