When Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe was a kid raised in Accra, Ghana, he loved watching old spaghetti westerns on TV and in the cinema. He called them “TNT movies” and nodded to the station best known for offering their vintage movies. A few years later, he learned that the story of an American cowboy had far more subtle nuances than Hollywood had drawn.
In 2019, Quaicoe, who lives and works in Portland, Oregon, watched the Black Lives Matter protests unfold. Suddenly, Quaicoe’s vision for cowboys across the United States suddenly changed, and the artist soon began a long-standing research project on the long-hidden history of black cowboys (and cowgirls). Portrait.
These images are bright and visceral, with Quaicoe’s stylish subjects placed in front of colorful, sometimes patterned backgrounds. The artist recently presented his work in Europe at the exhibition “Black Rodeo” curated by Larry Ossei-Mensah at Almine Rech in Brussels.
We talked to the artist about the hidden history of black American cowboys, why he finds these characters so interesting, and why he probably won’t adopt the Western lifestyle right away.
What was your first acquaintance with the Cowboys? How did you first learn about them?
I loved watching movies at the age of 12 or 13, especially westerns. In Ghana, they are called “TNT” movies. I was intrigued by the cowboy’s outfit, speaking style and boots. It wasn’t something I was pondering — I liked the way they threw guns. It was fun to see and I didn’t think too much about it.
The cinema was one of the early encounters with art making.
At that time, I didn’t want to be an artist. I wanted to be a soccer player. However, I was hanging around the movie theater and realized that the poster was also requested by the artist at that time. Having discovered the studio where these artists work, I wanted to learn how to draw out of curiosity. Later, I began to wonder if there was a school where I could learn to draw more seriously.
Tell us about the discovery of an African-American cowboy.
When the pandemic broke out, following the murder of George Floyd, when I saw the Compton Cowboys, I went to many Black Lives Matter protests. This is a group of black cowboys and girls riding together today. It hit me, awesome, there are people who look like me as cowboys. As a kid, cowboys were fictional to me like superheroes. It really changed the way I think about it. It was actually my first encounter with an African-American cowboy, which turned fantasy into a new reality for me.
After that experience, how did you move on to cowboy and cowgirl painting?
I have begun further research on the history of African-American cowboys, primarily online. That’s why I really got to know the whole history. As an artist, I feel responsible for disseminating information to the world. In particular, many people, including myself, know that this history is there and does not know that it is still alive.
What were some of the more interesting things you learned about cowboys in general?
Well, given that I’m a kid watching these movies, even the way the cowboy wore his bandana, I’m that it makes sense along with colors such as black, white, or red. Did not know. The way they put on their hats also made sense. Bandanas were often not only to show loyalty, but also to hide their identities and protect them from dust as they traveled from state to state.
Can you tell us a little bit about how these stories influence your work? I also know that I’ve approached Portland-based photographer Ivan McClellan. He records the community of these black cowboys.
These black rodeo works are a combination of my imagination and reality. When I was studying African-American cowboys, I met Ivan McClennan, who became my incredible friend. He is a self-taught photographer who has devoted his life to concretely filming this culture and the phenomenon of black rodeos. His photographs are the starting point for some of my paintings. The interest in these black cowboys overlapped with the pandemic, so it was not possible to go out and experience these rodeos in person. I asked Ivan to share resources to learn about his photography and history.
Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe, Wright brothers (2022). Thanks to the kindness of Almine Rech.
Cowboy ideas are rooted in past ideas, but through color choices, patterns and fashion choices, your portrait looks very modern. Can you talk to it?
My art is about the present, and the future is what I can say. I now wanted to create an image that captures this reality, so in the future I will be able to see a black cowboy in a museum, similar to a Renaissance painting, and be able to identify something of the reality of the era.
Will your “Black Rodeo” painting series continue from here?
Yes, there’s much more to say and explore about how African-American cowboys came to exist, and the separate worlds of cowboys and cowgirls. And there are so many connections between politics and how it relates to the cowboy community. There is a certain aspect of history that is swept away. It’s still going on. There is a cowboy movie of a white actor based on the story of a black cowboy. why? African Americans have played a major role not only in American history but also in world history and are still shaping the future. I want to awaken mainstream people to these stories. Black cowboys exist and still exist today.
Last question … Are you planning to embrace the cowboy lifestyle anytime soon?
I love horses, but I’m afraid to get close to them! Maybe it’s because I saw a lot of videos of people being thrown and kicked. However, I tried horseback riding and was invited to many rodeo shows.
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