The artist and illustrator is championing his Ghanaian-London community and making art more accessible with billboards across the UK
For King Owusu, the streets are his canvas. Celebrating his West African heritage and the matriarchal figures across his Ghanaian-London community, his brush forgoes the page and decorates the streets he grew up on.
In a partnership with the BUILDHOLLYWOOD family of JACK, JACK ARTS, and Diabolical for Your Space or Mine, the initiative is designed to give artists and creatives alike the platform to share their artwork on mediums outside of secluded museum walls. Spanning billboards across London and other UK cities such as Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield, Edinburgh and Glasgow, the campaign provides artists with a platform to broaden their audience and open up the dialogue further.
The latest iteration from the artist, illustrator and model is a vibrant portrait dedicated to his family and friends, through varied motifs of figures and hieroglyphics. A visceral tableau of intimate storytelling, Owusu is championing to close the ridge between the public and the art world that often feels so inaccessible.
“The idea behind this project is not only to support the creative community, but to also use our street space to inspire and energise local neighbourhoods. We believe art and culture should be for everyone and made accessible for all to enjoy,” share the creative street advertising specialists in a statement.
The ongoing project is enriching the future of street art, stimulating neighbourhoods and championing diverse cultures to create conversations that matter and distill the antiquated belief that art is just a framed portrait hanging on a wall. We caught up with the artist to discuss the importance of connecting with wider audiences and the process of birthing an idea before bringing it to life.
What prompted the collaboration with the BUILDHOLLYWOOD family and what stood out to you about the Your Space Or Mine initiative?
King Owusu: Now more than ever, we as artists and curators need to explore new ways to present our work, with galleries and museums closed for the majority of this year. The need for a new kind of space – specifically a physical exhibition space in open-air has never been more apparent. During this difficult period, BUILDHOLLYWOOD is really pushing to present local creatives using their unique brand and billboard platform to completely facilitate art meeting the people. I believe that is so important in breaking down the barrier to self-expression, in showing artists from a diverse range of styles, backgrounds, and practices. Putting the artwork on street-view gives it a new level of validity and the opportunity to connect to a wider audience. The project makes me think of the work of KAWS and his reimagined advertising posters or Keith Haring’s subway drawings and even a new Banksy – the curiosity and excitement that these works spark are priceless.
Talk us through the process from the birth of an idea to executing paint onto canvas. How do you navigate this journey?
King Owusu: In lockdown, I spent a lot of time with my mother where I could grow closer to her and learn more about the journey she went on raising me and my family. She showed me all these beautiful clothes and garments that she would wear to community and spiritual events. I saw them as a kind of community uniform and wanted to document them and celebrate her. So we documented this in our kitchen/photo studio with a broom and a fridge as the backdrop to create the series of photographs that I would use as a reference for the painting. With the photos, I needed some words to guide me to make the paintings so I worked with my brother to write a poem to use as inspiration where we reminisce about our relationship with her listening to ‘Sweet Mother’ by Prince Nico Mbarga. With this poem and preliminary sketches, I was ready to create my final artwork.
What encouraged you to capture the spirit of the strong and inspiring women surrounding your life through paint?
King Owusu: It's only right to give thanks and praise. Over the last few years I’ve been looking at myself introspectively, to understand my voice and what I stand for, and at the core of that is my mother, my soil with all other aunties who raised me. I’ve been blessed to have been able to spend more time with my mother over this lockdown period and I think as a community there just isn’t enough art that illustrates these amazing people in our lives.
“I think it’s important that platforms outside of traditional galleries keep pushing arts from a diverse range of communities and backgrounds, and for the people that create that work to know that their voice matters, no matter how loud or quiet – it is valid” – King Owusu
How does it feel to be sharing your work over billboards across major cities as opposed to more intimate portraits hanging on a wall?
King Owusu: I think that’s the wild part. I made these paintings on a journey from my studio, to my dining room table, to my childhood bedroom. So it blows my mind to see my work in real life on street view but not just that, its engagement with so many people outside my own little bubble. For them to be sending me photos and emails of the work from their location and how much they loved it, it was super special. I get excited by the idea that a young person may be seeing the work and that inspires them to pick up a pencil and create and share what they love and feel. I often feel like my life is a digital experience with the bulk of my work being shared only on social media, but if lockdown has taught me anything it feels great to be outside and to share these paintings with you all.
How important is accessibility in your process and sharing your work in open spaces making the art world more universal?
King Owusu: Ultimately, art is to be shared, so accessibility is fundamental. I strive to make work that is reflective, enjoyable, and relatable so that my audience can connect with the work. I think it's important that platforms outside of traditional galleries keep pushing arts from a diverse range of communities and backgrounds, and for the people that create that work to know that their voice matters, no matter how loud or quiet – it is valid.
Can you describe the moment when you make the final touches to your portrait and finally put your paintbrush down?
King Owusu: This is the most exciting part, I kinda turn into a big kid if I’m happy with the result. There's usually a bit of a boogie and I can’t wait to share the work, be it with my friends or family members in neighbouring rooms. This is often at 3am because I’m a bit of a night owl.
Your paintings take on a life of their own through the vibrant colours you choose. Is this something you plan before you start or do you factor spontaneity into your work?
King Owusu: When working on this project I made quite a few preliminary sketches, where I played and experimented with many different colour combinations. I always keep myself open to the possibility that the final artwork will look a bit different because of the change in material. I like to go into my work with no exact expectations. It allows me to enjoy the process of making and even be surprised with the final result.
Community and identity are the bold themes at play within your work. What message do you want people to take away from your collaborative portraits with the BUILDHOLLYWOOD family?
King Owusu: I am grateful, grateful to be raised by my community, grateful to be surrounded by so many strong and inspiring individuals, grateful to be from such a rich heritage and culture. My community village shaped me and gave me my thick bold lines. If there’s anything I want people to take from my work it is to show love and appreciation to the people that inspire us, that motivates us to believe in us. For me, it has been my community of queens, but for you, it might be a friend, a partner, a family member – heck, even your barber! Just show love to the people that make us, us.
Check out the Your Space Or Mine project here