This series of interviews with a group of former Slade School of Fine Art students, whose works have been on display at this year’s Frieze London, is aimed at demonstrating the diversity of life and experience that is to be found within the world of professional artmaking. Coming to Slade from a wide range of backgrounds, from Nigeria to Seoul to Bristol, and across a wide range of years, these artists have each approached art and artmaking from vastly different perspectives, deeply embedding their own personal experiences of place, memory, and identity into their work. Joining together through their shared experience of art school in London, their interviews attest to the diversity of experience that is possible when building a career in London and the wider art world and will hopefully be sources of solace and encouragement for those looking to a future in artmaking.
Shaqúelle Whyte is a British figurative painter from Wolverhampton who recently graduated from the Slade before completing his MFA at the Royal College of Arts . His artworks explore the human condition in all its liminality, ambiguity and abstractions.
What was your relationship to artmaking like before you went to art school?
I’ve always been interested in art; I’ve got a single mum so when I got past the age of doing summer school programmes and things she still wanted to make sure I was busy and engaged with stuff I wanted to be doing. She encouraged me to draw a lot during the summers, treating it as something that’s worth doing. So, I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember. Then my art teacher at school was really encouraging, she was always getting me to engage with stuff beyond that quite narrow GCSE and A-level scope, and it meant I started to learn to think outside the box and push the ideas I was having.
What made you decide that you wanted to follow a creative route over maybe a more academic route?
I’ve got family who are lawyers and barristers, and when I was 14 or 15 I went to my uncle’s law firm for work experience. It was great but I ended up just becoming completely bored with it. So, he sat me down and just said you know, you can go and do this, you’re able and engaged in it, but you need to go out there and do what you want to do with your own life. And at that point, art had gone from something that I was trying in class to something that was spilling out into the rest of my life; going to life drawing classes, educating myself in art galleries, you know that sort of thing. That’s when I started to take it more seriously, and it was during A Levels that I started really learning how to paint.
How did you make the leap then between knowing art was something you wanted to do toward actually knowing how you were going to pursue it?
Well, I was oil painting a lot during those two years of A-levels, but then I had a friend in the year above me who told me about the Slade summer school course, so I came down to London for a week during summer to do that course. I applied to Slade a bit naively, to be honest, not really knowing how prestigious it was, I just knew I enjoyed painting so wanted to see if I could get in. But when I got there, I didn’t actually paint for the first four or five months of being there, I was a bit over it, to be honest. I felt as if the precursor to what I was doing was just to paint about the black experience in a sort of subservient way to a community of people that expected that that was what I was supposed to do. So, I was doing a lot of photography, even back in Wolverhampton, I was always quite good with a camera and when I find something I like I get quite really nerdy about it. So, I was really trying to pull apart at that early stage how to take a proper photograph, understanding light, understanding aperture etc so I could just perfect taking really good photographs.
Did you have any major inspirations of artists that you were looking to at the point?
Whyte: Yeah there were a few, but not ones I’d really associate with anymore. I was really into people like Kehinde Wiley and Tim Okamura, but they exist more within a context of portraiture, and as much as it’s a very important tradition within painting it’s not something that I really am focused on anymore. Of course, my art is figurative but it’s definitely not within that area of portraiture. I spent the first year at the Slade learning about all the different alternatives to that and all the other artists out there painting in the postmodern period.
So, on top of all of that new information and new ways of looking at art, how was the experience of transitioning between Wolverhampton and London?
Whyte: I mean the difference between brum and being in London is like chalk and cheese. It sounds like a cliché but all of a sudden I could be whoever I wanted to be. I could wear whatever I wanted, I could figure out what I enjoyed, I didn’t have to just be the black kid that had to fit certain stereotypes that never really did fit, I could finally just be seen as me. That was the biggest difference.
In your paintings, there are a lot of themes like ambiguity, the subconscious, memory etc. Where do you think these come from?
Whyte: I think I’m just really interested in the spaces in-between, in the link between abstraction and figurative. People always talk about how figurative painting is dead, that the language is devoid of meaning because we’ve got the camera and we’ve got instantaneous images. But at the moment it’s the complete opposite. Cecily Brown’s got a show on at MOMA at the moment that really demonstrates this; how the figurative and the abstract can be linked. Paint is just a medium, you know, you can create any language you want from it. I really like the idea that you could paint an awkward silence or something like that and my work creates characters, and a landscape of its own, in the same way that abstraction does, one that you can half recognise, that you trust is real, but there’s always that surreality to it that speaks to that in-between. But divorced from all the mumbo-jumbo arty crap it is just fun, like that’s why I do it.
How has it been for you, as a recent graduate then to go from being an art student just interested in exploring all these ideas to suddenly being a working artist showing at Frieze?
Whyte: It’s been a bit mad I won’t lie. I had a holiday booked to go to New York with my girlfriend and the morning I got back I went straight to my room in Cally Road, dumped my stuff and then headed straight to Frieze and it’s just like, holy shit there’s my work being shown in the booth of a major London gallery, it’s just mad. And that’s been pretty terrifying honestly, cause we are young, and we are sort of out there on our own, and the way the art world is moving, the overall age of people entering into it just seems to be getting younger. Like loads of recent graduates from Slade, the RCA, UAL you know are doing a lot of crazy stuff. It’s all such a privilege to be involved with it. Whereas other graduates from UCL sort of feel like they have a right to enter the workforce because of where they went, it’s still a privilege whether we as artists get to become working artists. And that can be scary