Painting the Black Mundane – in conversation with Kenneth Aidoo
Kenneth Aidoo is an artist whose powerful and thought-provoking works delve into the historical experiences and contemporary realities of Black people. Inspired by forgotten narratives and untold chapters of history, Aidoo aims to create an emotional connection with viewers with his vivid and emotive compositions, inviting them to explore themes of identity, faith, and the everyday lives of Black people. Thierno Deme talks to Aidoo about his practice and the shift from narratives of Black excellence towards narratives of the Black mundane.
How did you begin your artistic practice?
‘I was studying film and screenwriting at a Dutch film academy, but I couldn’t continue with the program because my Dutch grammar wasn’t very strong. They found it hard to read my writing because I used a lot of slang – straattaal – in my writing. I really wanted to get my diploma, so I applied to the Gerrit Rietveld Academie. I was accepted to VAV – moving image (previously known as the audiovisual department), where I started creating video installations and short films. In my second year, one of my teachers asked me what I wanted to do besides filmmaking. I was reading a biography on Basquiat at that time, and it inspired me to explore painting. I made a triptych and a video installation exploring the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till, and Eric Garner, drawing parallels to Christ and biblical scenes. That’s how I began incorporating painting into my artistic practice.’
‘I don’t see any conflict in expressing my faith through my art, even if it goes against the prevailing beliefs in the art world’
How did your practice evolve after graduating?
‘I was quite depressed at the time. I had a broken heart after ending a relationship and things weren’t going well financially either. Art helped me get out of that depression. Gradually, things got better. I got into exhibitions and friends invited me to participate in their shows. My first real exhibition was with Iriée Zamblé, who invited me to join her show at Roodkapje in Rotterdam, which became a duo show of both of our works. Then Amal Alhaag and Rita Ouedraogo invited me to participate in A Funeral for Street Culture at Framer Framed. That same year, in 2021, I was nominated for the Royal Painters’ Prize [de Koninklijke Prijs voor Vrije Schilderkunst, red]. I didn’t win, but it made people aware of the work I was making. During Covid, Instagram helped a lot in terms of exposure. I was making paintings with oil pastels on a daily basis and posting them. It was nice to get positive responses from many different people.’
Has Christianity and Christ always been a recurring theme in your work?
‘Yes, Christianity and Christ have always influenced my work. In my studio there are paintings of Saint George slaying the Dragon of Babylon. I have found the strength to create in my faith. I don’t think I would be as strong and self-assured if God was not present to guide me through my artistry.’
It’s interesting that you openly embrace your faith in your work, especially considering that the art world can be quite atheistic. How do you navigate presenting your work in such a space?
‘I don’t mind it. I believe that God is an artist Himself, evident in the beauty of nature and the colours of the sky. Art, in a way, is an imitation of God’s aesthetics. So, I don’t see any conflict in expressing my faith through my art, even if it goes against the prevailing beliefs in the art world.’
What I found interesting is that the world likes to look at Black people, but real-life engagement with Black people is different
You have said that you are interested in exploring different shades of Black. How is that exploration going?
‘It’s going well. I have been focusing on incorporating brown tones into my work. A fellow artist, Bo Bosk, who has a studio close by shared a technique where combining blue and brown can create a unique Black shade. I have started incorporating this technique into some of my paintings of African football players, such as Zijn wij dit niet zat in de 21e eeuw. I like to paint with this particular Black tone because it evens the playing field. What I found interesting is that the world likes to look at Black people, but real-life engagement with Black people is different. I myself am of African descent and the complexity of the differences in the hues amazes me. The world keeps on forgetting how much of African aesthetics they incorporate into life while trying to make the African ashamed of his own aesthetic when doing so.’
Could you tell me more about your paintings of African footballers?
‘I felt that this particular theme resonated with me the most at that time. These works tell the story of African football players who came to Europe to play in the Western leagues and the challenges and struggles they faced. The current generation of African footballers still has to deal with racism, which might even be worse than what their predecessors experienced. I wanted to shed light on this ongoing issue. I reflected on the experiences of players like Hakim Ziyech, a Moroccan player who decided to play for Morocco despite being born and raised in the Netherlands. His decision raises questions about identity, belonging, and how society perceives individuals with diverse backgrounds. Another painting is of Edgar Davids, a renowned Dutch soccer player of Surinamese origin. I imagined a scenario where he and his fellow players chose to represent Suriname instead of the Netherlands. What would it mean for Suriname if they showcased their skills and talents while wearing the Surinamese jersey? Would it enhance the country’s image? Would the Netherlands accept such a decision?’
Are there new themes you want to explore in your work?
‘I want to make more work about being Black in this particular moment. I’ve been making works that touch on historical themes. I’ve made a lot of works that are about people who are Black and their accomplishments or the things that they have gone through that we shouldn’t forget. But I also feel like I can start developing new stories on what it is like to just be.’
‘I feel like I can start developing new stories on what it is like to just be’
Do you mean that you want to move away from portrayals of Black excellence and towards moments of the Black mundane?
‘Yeah, what is it like to be a person of colour in the western world? How do we exist? How do we engage? I feel at times that our existence in the world gets overlooked. Does our presence matter or is it just an inclusion? We contribute to a lot of gains in the world but we are not being acknowledged for it.’
Can you give me an example of how your work explores the Black everyday?
‘One of my paintings is titled Five Peng Black Sisters on Labadi Beach. It’s part of my series Queenmothers and was exhibited at PRE-RESERVED in Amsterdam earlier this year. In Ghana, women hold a significant role in the family and society, often in a matriarchal context. If there’s a decision to be made or a king to be chosen, it is the women who have the authority. I created this artwork to highlight the idea that women of color can also enjoy life and relax at the beach, just like anyone else. It’s a portrayal that challenges the lack of representation of such scenes involving women of color. To add depth and symbolism to the painting, I used gold foil for the beach, referencing the colonial name of Ghana: the Gold Coast. I also incorporated fabric into the artwork. I’m quite pleased with the outcome, the texture of the hair, and the overall composition.
I understand why artists would want to depict mostly moments of Black suffering and excellence. They are important to express. But we also want to feel how life can be without all of this racism. Can people really see us and accept us for who we are, regardless of the color of our skin? Can people see an everyday scene from a Black household? Maybe a painting with two Black children sitting on a couch, watching television or reading a book, and the mom is on the way with a plate of bread. Something without all the drama that people associate with the Black experience.’
Kenneth Aidoo’s work will be featured at Unfair23 – New Perspectives, from 16 – 19 november 2023 at Gashouder Amsterdam
is programmer at Metro54 and founder of The Black Diaspora