An Honest Conversation With Artist Kasem Kydd

Kasem Kydd, born in Brooklyn, New York is an artist currently based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His multi-disciplinary work is a window for black artists. It serves to create volume in the art world for both his own work and other black creatives. His work, however, is not one dimensional. It touches on issues of queerness, masculinity, and power, to name a few. Kydd's work is strongly fuelled by his own identity and experience but successfully communicates his commentary to all. 

Hi Kasem! You have such an extensive and experimental repertoire in terms of medium. Do you remember the moment you learned art could be pretty much anything?

I don't know if my use of materials is experimental, maybe because I'm always trying to push my work materially and figure out new ways of working through ideas. To me materials are extremely important and specific. I think I'm often considering how to reinvent something, how to change something materially, especially recently. I think in sculpture and in painting the way you alter a material or an object can totally change the direction of the work. I probably first learned art could be pretty much anything when I was a toddler, I think at that age I didn't know what art was and the limitations that maybe structure art as you get older weren't present. You can create anything as a child, even if the things you have are limited, with just your imagination. I think that innocence I had faded over the years. I didn't even consider art as a thing till I was in high school. I had no exposure to it. So maybe knowing art can be pretty much anything is something I'm still trying to get back to even now.

Do you have any particular mentors who have shaped your practice significantly?

I don't think I had any mentors that shaped my practice when I think of what it is now. There were definitely people who pushed me to challenge myself and begin to start making art. I think one of those people is Todd Bartel, the first art teacher I ever had. This was in high school. Maybe now those people are constantly changing, for example, right now I think Devan Shimoyama is someone who has altered the way I've been thinking about making over the last year or so. Angela Washko is another person who helped me considerably in terms of thinking critically about making video and performance work. I also have a lot of people who influence me, whether they are artists or writers: David Hammons, Martine Syms, Chris Ofili, Kerry James Marshall, Arthur Jafa, Claudia Rankine, Darby English, Will Pope L, Thelma Golden, Claudia Jones, Amiri Baraka, Assata Shakur... I mean, the list is pretty extensive in terms of people I look at and read constantly. And now I'm looking back more into my history and my family history and as someone of West Indian decent places influences me a lot. New York City, Jamaica, Queens specifically and my time in Bequia. It's mainly black people, haha.

Currently, the art world is still highly dominated by white artists. Your art directly goes against this norm. Can you talk about your goals with your work?

I think the goals I have for my work are always changing from piece to piece. I think underneath that all there is a desire to take up space in a white dominated art world, to create space for other POC in the art world. To physically have spaces that are for black people, you know sort of following that idea of for us, by us. For me my work is for black people first, in generals and in specifics. I think spaces of healing are extremely important, especially considering how overt a lot of the dangers surrounding black people are in our present day. I think healing, protest and fighting go hand in hand. My work is about fighting, reinventing histories, creating possible futures and creating current spaces that are for the larger community I am a part of.

Abstraction is integral to your work. By removing obvious clues, how do you think you are able to insert, and your audience is able to perceive the themes of black masculinity?

I wouldn't say that I remove obvious clues in my work, and that this is what abstraction is. I also wouldn't say that these intentions are about black masculinity. While I do think the work has elements of this, the body of a black man, the one I inhabit, I think that abstraction certainly serves more than that one simple trajectory. I'm really about the history of abstraction by black artists and the ways that these artists have had to navigate the history of representational work being the only work that was considered "black".

I mean the history of black people making abstract work stretches back far to pre-modernism. I also don't really consider my work to be totally abstract, I think my goals with the work are to make abstractions, but also representations.

The balance between abstraction and representation is something I'm very committed to. I think the need for representation of myself is important, representing myself, my history, my family, etc. But abstraction and representation are definitely linked in my mind. There is ultimate freedom in abstraction I believe, maybe there are opportunities there to make work that bleeds into new realms, and perhaps subverts established norms of making. For me abstraction is also about colour. It's about black as a colour, as a space, as a community and as a body.  Everything is always changing and it's exciting. Like I really don't know what I'm doing, but I'm committed to continuing to try things out, learning about those before me, and myself just in the process of making and researching.

You have such a strong conceptual stance on your work, can you talk a little bit more about the physicality of your art? What is your favourite medium to work with? What is your method in the studio?

I think all of my work is extremely physical. Whether that may be in the process, the outcome or the aftermath. A lot goes into the work. I think all of my work is about my body and place, in simple terms... I remember hearing from someone who worked for Kara Walker that they would watch her in her process and she would be fighting the work, crying with the work, rejoicing with it and that really was something that struck me, maybe because in this moment I'm trying to put myself really all in there. I've cried with the work, I sweat over it, fought it, been so frustrated. The process of making is so draining but also so rejuvenating simultaneously. Even if the work is a video or a painting, things that for me end up becoming less physical than sculpture or performance, the body is in it. The physicality of fighting with yourself, grappling with your history, identity and the world around you. I think those feelings are so important. They're generous. When making it's almost like a dance or partnership with your work. It's always give and take or give give give or take take take. It's kind of like trying to make a romantic relationship work.

I also am always thinking of materials. My studio method is a lot of pondering, and just continuing to make things. I don't do a lot of initial tests but I make series and stay on tangents and bring other tangents together. There's experimentation in there too, but mostly a lot of reading, thinking and just doing things without trying to think too much about them in that moment. Sometimes I just make things just because I want to, there isn't any concept there. But over the course of doing it over and over again something comes out, you see something or feel something and you have to sort of pull it out of the muck. Meanwhile you're sweating, crying, and so frustrated.

Your work is about your experience being a black man in society. Do you have any advice for others on making work that is reflective of their own identities?

My only advice would be to stay true to yourself. Stay out of the box that people try to put you in. Over the last couple of months I kept hearing about the box from someone who was teaching at the time while I was doing a residency thing. I think maybe the box that whiteness and "well intentioned" art world whites, not only in visual art, try to put people of colour in is dangerous. It's suffocating. They tell you what your work is about. Your work should speak but you also should too. I guess taking up space as a minority is linked to that. Don't let others tell you what your work is if it's not for them, right? I think one of the ways to avoid that is digging deeper into your story and into yourself. Be truly vulnerable with your work and audience. I also think it's important for black artists to support each other, no one else tends to do so. Practicing self-love and healing, staying rejuvenated and ready to do the things you need to do to take care of yourself. The world is really crazy right now and always has been but we know that. I don't know! Just keep doing you and creating space for others!

More of Kydd's work can be found on his website, here or his Instagram here.

By Amanda Poorvu.


Nathan McLaren-StewartComment