“I want my paintings to stop people in their tracks,” said Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe. The Ghanaian artist’s striking portraits of Black men and women are known to do just that. His subjects stare directly out at the viewer, with Quaicoe aiming for dramatic compositional contrasts: skin tones in palettes of blacks and greys are countered by bright chromatic punches in the background.
“Colour has always been my way of trying to cut through and communicate,” says Quaicoe. “Colour makes people emotional. As an artist I need to understand how to tap into that to connect.”
Currently exhibiting in the two-person show Inheritance at Lumber Room in Portland, Oregon, which explores Black agricultural work in Ghana and America, he is one of several West African figurative painters to have recently catapulted to fame (others include Kwesi Botchway and Quaicoe’s close friend Amoako Boafo).
Just a few years ago Quaicoe was working for FedEx. Then, this October he completed a coveted residency at the Rubell Museum of Art, Miami, often a launchpad to art world stardom. (Sterling Ruby and Oscar Murillo were the first to participate, in 2011 and 2012.)
In 2018, Quaicoe moved from Ghana’s capital Accra to Portland, where his wife is from. In his adopted city, he has learnt some of the realities of what it means to be Black in America: “Overlooked and underestimated,” he says.
The relocation, however, fomented his artistic voice. “In Africa, all we talk about is European art: Old Masters, Picasso. In Portland, I started learning about a whole new world.” Barkley L. Hendricks and Kehinde Wiley particularly influenced Quaicoe’s creative process, as did burgeoning social movements.
“I believe you can learn about a person just by looking at a painting of them – it sparks ideas and opens the mind to different possibilities”
Watching the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, the artist was captivated by one group of marchers, the Compton Cowboys. This network of African American people from LA County embrace equestrian culture as a way to reclaim one forgotten aspect of Black history, and to counter destructive stereotypes of urban Black America. Quaicoe, who grew up loving spaghetti westerns, began to research the hidden history of the Black American cowboy and, earlier this year, he debuted a series of portraits dedicated to the subject at Brussels’ Almine Rech. BLACK RODEO: Cowboys of the 21st Century was his first European solo show.
Inheritance is a collaboration with his friend, the American photographer Ivan McClellan, and features Quaicoe’s largescale paintings of Ghanaian shea farmers who, despite the commodity’s growing value, see little of the big profits that come from its global trade for use in food and cosmetics. Quaicoe hopes his portraits will bring new attention to their stories.
Shining a light in this way lies at the heart of his practice. “I believe you can learn about a person just by looking at their portrait – it sparks ideas and opens the mind to different possibilities,” he says. “If I can be fortunate enough to bring this kind of information to people, why not?”
Marquee image: Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe with Portrait of Kortnee Solomon on Horseback, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Almine Rech. Photo: Mario Gallucci