Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe

In SWAG high profiles 3
text Nadia Sesay

“ One could argue that Quaicoe’s cadre of sitters naturally possess that swag. But since the artist selects both friends and people known less formally, whom he encounters on the internet, the consistency of control in rendering subjects that he appears to know endearingly hints to the artist’s hand as the perhaps, here, the true arbiter of cool.”

As with many great stories, this one begins with Hollywood. Not set in the romanticized Californian locale that births and often, and more notoriously, burns desires of stardom – this story begins in Ghana. While many children admire starlets of feature films and imagine their own futures in celebrity, in this plot a young Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe viewed movie posters and, inspired, devoted himself to art. 

The hand-rendered movie poster is an art form that emerged in Ghana in the 1980s. The popularity of these posters peaked in the next decade and was the time when Quaicoe, who was born in the greater Accra region in 1990, first encountered them. In one interview the artist, who now lives in Portland, Oregon, recalled his early awe-struck encounter with the poster visuals: “I was stunned when I saw the detail in the paintings, and I took it upon myself to find out how it was done.”

Ghanaian artists took creative license with their cinematic renderings. Sometimes the artists even created images without having yet seen the correlating movies, resulting in eccentric interpretations inspired by each artist’s own creative imagination. The movie posters made in Ghana were painted brilliantly, on the backs of flour sacks repurposed as canvasses, and with over-the-top and idealized iconography: Stars, animal imagery, and concepts of good versus evil as metaphors found in Christianity, co-existed in bizarre but eye-catching amalgamations with bursts of red, yellow, and green – the colors of the country’s flag.  

While present day digital printing has replaced the hand-painted advertisement for film promotion, the posters retain their popularity among niche collectors and in museums. Exhibitions like Baptized by Beefcake: The Golden Age of Hand-painted Movie Posters from Ghana, at Poster House museum in New York City in 2019, testify to the global and contemporary appeal of the movie posters.

The art of exhibiting the movie poster was an entrepreneurial venture. The canvasses were used in mobile cinemas that would travel to the towns outside of Accra to surrounding villages for open air screenings. The more vibrant and exaggerated the imagery to promote the film, the larger the crowds in attendance. The aim of those artists was to induce feeling, ranging from amazed to grotesque (horror movies were a popular film genre among cinema-going Ghanaians at that time), in the audience through graphics. At the end of the film viewing the canvasses were simply rolled up and transported to the next destination, leaving the audience with lingering visions of the amped-up posters that perhaps exceeded the memories of the film. 

Quaicoe felt both shock and delight at seeing the detail of the posters, he says, which inspired him immediately to discover how they were created. After his initial encounter with the posters, a moment he says when he “fell in love”, he bought a sketchbook and began to draw the scenery and people around him. He ultimately earned a Bachelor’s degree in fine art from Ghanatta College of Art and Design in Accra.  

Nykhor on Blue Couch, 2019
Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe Nykhor on Blue Couch, 2019 / Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles

In Ghana, Quaicoe explained to me on a phone call, his early portraits were of street children. His move to the US inspired a new artistic direction, however. “I noticed a racial struggle that was not in Ghana. In Ghana we are all black so there was no daily struggle on skin,” he explained. In response to the dynamics of his new environment Quaicoe now produces large portraits of friends and strangers alike, with a strong emphasis on skin tone and fashion. He paints figures in trendy attire – sometimes their own (he says, “after all [their fashion] is what caught my attention in the first place”) and sometimes in ensembles he imagines – contrasted with equally noticeable and sincere facial expressions. Their skin, consistently painted in a combination of black or with gray tones, stands out against their plain but brightly-colored backgrounds.

Read the full article in  something we Africans got issue#11

                                                                     something we Africans got
                                                                     issue# 11, preview
                                                                     Nadia Sesay