Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe: Essence of America

You’re in America

Interview by Shaquille Heath // Portrait by Dan Kvitka

Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe wants to capture the essence of Black life. He carefully paints portraits that not only resemble his subjects but also draw from his personal experiences and memories. Quaicoe, originally from Ghana, moved to Portland in 2017, where he encountered the harsh realities of American racism. Inspired by this, he created his first solo exhibition in the U.S. called “Black Like Me,” which showcased the richness and importance of Black existence in a country that often undermines it. The exhibition, held at Roberts Projects in LA, received recognition and appreciation before the pandemic put everything on hold. Quaicoe’s mission remains the same regardless of the challenges he faces, as he continues to use his art to shed light on the experiences of Black individuals and confront social injustices.

Finding Solace in the Studio

When asked how he finds joy and takes care of himself amidst these turbulent times, Quaicoe explains that his sanctuary is the art studio. It is a place where he can escape from the world and immerse himself in the creative process. Surrounded by colors, brushes, and music, he feels a sense of calmness and can temporarily detach himself from the chaos and craziness happening outside.

The Power of Portrayal

In a time when society is undergoing a “racial reckoning,” Quaicoe feels compelled to showcase Black people and give them the dignity that is often denied to them. He believes that his work was significant even before the current awareness and attention on racial issues. However, he recognizes that the current climate has helped more people understand the importance and depth of his art. Through his paintings, Quaicoe aims to capture the spirit, emotions, and unspoken narratives of his subjects, allowing viewers to gain a deeper understanding of the Black experience.

Many people who have seen Quaicoe’s exhibition have reached out to express their newfound appreciation and understanding of his art. They now see the significance and meaning behind his work, which may have been overlooked or misunderstood in the past. Quaicoe is grateful that his art has resonated with audiences and that they are now able to grasp the messages he is conveying.

The Dilemma of Inauthentic Support

Quaicoe reflects on the influx of attention and support he has received since the beginning of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. While he appreciates the sentiment, he also acknowledges that some of this support feels inauthentic and superficial. He questions the intentions behind this sudden surge of interest and reminds people that the struggles and contributions of Black individuals have always existed, even before they gained widespread attention. He believes that genuine support should come from recognizing the potential and value of individuals, rather than merely following a trend or joining the bandwagon.

Inspiration Amidst Protest

Living in Portland during this time of protest and activism has undoubtedly influenced Quaicoe’s art practice. He mentions that the constant exposure to instances of brutality and injustice can be overwhelming, especially when browsing through social media. However, Quaicoe channels his emotions and reactions into his work, using his brush and paint to speak when words fail him. The protests and rallies serve as motivation for him to create even more powerful and commanding figures that resonate with viewers. By making his subjects visually striking, he strives to create a form of protest that is as impactful as his voice would be.

The Impact of American Racism

As an African living in America, Quaicoe has experienced firsthand the effects of American racism, which has significantly influenced his art. When he first arrived in the U.S., he thought there would be a distinction between Africans and African-Americans. However, racist encounters shattered this belief. From being followed by police while jogging to various microaggressions, Quaicoe realized that, in the eyes of those who discriminate, all Black individuals are seen as a threat. These experiences propelled him to use his art as a platform to address and raise awareness about these issues.

Telling Powerful Stories

Quaicoe’s paintings are not merely representations of his subjects; they convey a story. When painting someone he knows, he immerses himself in their world, trying to understand their emotions and capture their essence. The process becomes deeply personal as he translates their stories into visual form. He believes in presenting the subjects with authenticity and always seeks their approval before sharing the finished artwork.

For subjects he doesn’t personally know, Quaicoe draws inspiration from the Black community and incorporates various elements that represent his own experiences and encounters. By telling multiple stories through his artwork, he aims to capture the emotions, spirit, and unique characteristics of his subjects.

Silence as a Powerful Communicator

Quaicoe often covers the mouths of his subjects in some of his paintings, such as the piece titled “Steady Gaze.” This symbolizes the silence forced upon individuals due to fear and oppression. As a Black person, Quaicoe understands the need to remain vigilant and aware of his surroundings at all times. He reflects on the unspoken communication that occurs between Black individuals, where a simple nod or glance can convey a deeper connection and understanding. This unspoken language and the limitations placed on self-expression become powerful tools for conveying emotions and messages.

A Journey of Understanding and Solidarity

Throughout the interview, Quaicoe emphasizes the universality of the Black experience. Regardless of one’s country of origin, being Black in America often carries similar challenges and discrimination. He encapsulates this shared struggle in his exhibition, “Black Like Me,” stressing that anyone with Black skin is likely to face adversity and hostility. By highlighting this common thread, Quaicoe aims to foster understanding and evoke empathy from viewers who may not directly relate to the experiences of Black individuals.


Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe’s art serves as a poignant representation of the Black experience in America. His vivid and powerful paintings capture the emotions, stories, and spirit of his subjects, shedding light on the often overlooked or silenced narratives of Black individuals. Through his art, Quaicoe confronts racism, amplifies the voices of his community, and encourages dialogue and understanding. His work stands as a testament to the power of art in addressing social issues and promoting change.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

1. What inspires Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe’s art?

Quaicoe draws inspiration from his personal experiences and the Black community. He aims to capture the spirit and emotions of his subjects, conveying their stories through his paintings.

2. How does Quaicoe address the issue of American racism in his art?

Quaicoe uses his art to bring attention to the impact of American racism on the Black community. Through his powerful portrayals, he aims to raise awareness, create dialogue, and challenge societal norms.

3. How does Quaicoe’s art contribute to the current discussions on racial injustice?

Quaicoe’s art serves as a visual representation of the Black experience, offering viewers a glimpse into the struggles and triumphs of the community. By humanizing his subjects and showcasing their stories, he facilitates greater understanding and empathy.

4. What message does Quaicoe hope to convey through his exhibition “Black Like Me”?

Through “Black Like Me,” Quaicoe aims to emphasize the universal nature of the Black experience. Regardless of one’s background, being Black in America often involves navigating systemic racism and discrimination. By highlighting this shared struggle, he hopes to foster solidarity and encourage dialogue.

5. How has the current social climate influenced Quaicoe’s artistic process?

The ongoing protests and activism have provided Quaicoe with motivation and inspiration. The urgency to address racial injustices has deepened his commitment to portraying powerful figures and capturing the emotions of his subjects.