We sit down with multi-disciplinary artist Shaquille-Aaron Keith to discuss his art, writing from the heart and future aspirations.
Look through the lens of Shaquille Keith’s artwork and you’ll see a tale of identity and upbringing. Born in south east London, Catford, Lewisham, the multidisciplinary creative has taken on a similar role to many of his inspirations, from Tupac Shakur to Jean-Michel Basquiat, ingenuously narrating his life through a variety of mediums. Interviewed by Notion for issue 82, Shaq’s development from fashion host to artist extraordinaire has been humbling, but it only tells half of the story.
Before painting and poetry became his main avenues of expression, Shaq opened the door to many young millennials who otherwise found the world of fashion daunting and discriminative. PAQ, which he hosted alongside Dexter Black, Danny Lomas and Elias Riadi, became a YouTube phenomenon. For its fans, it offered a weekly escape into the world of streetwear, but for its hosts, it quickly became a trap, tied up in legal issues and complicated contract scenarios. Breaking free liberated Shaq and his foray into other art forms has given him the confidence to be the man that he is today.
Continuing to blur the boundaries between fashion and art, Shaq’s natural spark has infiltrated both worlds with affable finesse. Gucci, Diesel and Hugo Boss have all caught wind of his creative endeavours and enlisted his work for various campaigns. Earlier this year, he hosted his first exhibition with the Campbell’s of London art gallery and the likes of Little Simz and Francis Bourgeois rolled through to support such a landmark moment.
With plans to park the art and focus on his poetry, we sat down with Shaq to reflect on his career thus far.
So, Notion interviewed you with the PAQ members for Notion 82, our latest issue Notion 92 goes to print at the end of the week – time flies! How do you reflect on the years that have passed since then?
I tend not to, I used to a lot but these days, those days are kind of fleeting. However I’m always grateful to those who still appreciate and watch those videos to this day. In regards to life in general, I just think it’s crazy how time flies by so quickly. I still can’t believe lockdown is going to be three years ago as of March 2023.
Apologies in advance for quoting yourself back to you – but you discussed that “I dream one day of being able to pull a Basquiat and sell pieces for more than a decent amount of money” – how’s that dream going? Is that still the dream?
It’s funny when your dreams catch up to your reality. As those days have been approaching and I’ve been living in it, I don’t find it as joyful as I had hoped. I don’t think the art world is what I thought it was and I don’t think letting art go would feel so hollow anymore. I guess, when I said that all those years ago, it looked easy, plus I hadn’t decided on what my painting subject matters were. But now, I paint from the heart, I write from the heart, so every sale is a slice of my heart. I need to adjust, but it’s taking a while. I just gotta make stories that I don’t mind departing with in the mist of also venting how I feel.
Do you feel like you’re someone who’s working towards broader goals or creating one project at a time and seeing where it takes you?
I’m personally not sure anymore. I want to front and say and act like I know what I’m doing and half the time I actually do, but right now I’m thinking to myself like what else do I want to do with these gifts. Sometimes I’m content being a traditional artist, but other times I feel like I wanna be a rockstar, like a Basquiat or a Keith Haring, even an Andy Warhol, but I think my limitations on what I want to do stem from being in London. I don’t think there’s enough creative freedom and acceptance here without unwritten terms and conditions of affiliating with the right people. Maybe I’m shooting myself in the foot, but I choose my self respect over pretending to be cool or something I’m not, because otherwise I’m not Shaquille-Aaron Keith, I’m just an idea of what he should be.
Your work is multi-disciplinary – is there somewhere you’re focussing your energy currently?
I’m turning back to poetry. I’m still going to be painting like mad, but before the painting, the poetry had a life of its own. I have so much to say, and I can’t keep waiting ’till a painting’s done to say it. The last painting I did took me eight months, can you imagine waiting for eight months to say something? I want to see where it can take me. It’d be sick to work with some music artists I love on an interlude or maybe even voice over a big movie/show – like Maya Angelou in Poetic Justice.
The store section of your website includes the quote “Buying Art is not understanding Art”, could you talk me through that?
These days, from what I’ve been exposed to at least, everyone wants to be an artist, or wants to feel like they intellectually understand art, but the truth is a lot of people don’t have the attention span to care about real art. People buy into art (especially my generation) and feel like they understand the intention of it, but really, that’s not the case. I’m not trying to preach or say I’m holier than thou when it comes to this stuff, but I’ve cared about it since I was a child; I know what’s authentic and what’s not. When you come to my store, I don’t care what your intentions are when buying a print, it’s still appreciated, but don’t buy my stuff because its ‘cool’, buy it because you feel it. Buying stuff for the hype means, one day that limited print will become a poster you put in your garage when you’re moving out or trying to create space in your home and my work deserves to be seen.
So let’s talk about finding your art, it takes many forms – did you start with a particular medium? And how did that evolve?
I started doing art at about 4 years old, I’m the youngest of three siblings, and my two brothers used to watch a lot of anime on tv, particularly Dragon Ball Z. I used to try and draw the characters. As soon as I started drawing, I told my family that I wanted to be a famous artist, but the original dream was to work at Pixar, or an animation studio in Japan. My mum saw how much I loved drawing so she always facilitated opportunities for me to draw, and when I was about 10, she introduced me to painting, and poetry. In secondary school my tutors recommend that I did GCSE art, and sent home multiple letters to my mum that I did so. But that’s only because I got a lot of letters home of me getting in trouble, getting detention and put into isolation because I was drawing in every other class that wasn’t art. Afterwards, I stepped away from fine art and got into multimedia studies, and then at university I did illustration. I started painting again at 23. Throughout this time, I was alway writing poetry in the background, just figuring out what I wanted to say.
What are some of the motivations behind your art? A desire for self-expression?
I’m motivated to tell stories for people who don’t know how to articulate themselves and also, for my own release. I feel like I can be more unapologetic with my painting and poetry because it’s all justified in the name of art. I want to contribute to culture and towards it’s thinking. I’m not trying to save the world with my work, but if I can do something that causes a ripple effect in that direction, it would be amazing.
Tell me about how you found yourself in your current career – has it always felt like something achievable?
I always wanted to achieve this, since I was a child. Even in secondary school my friends knew I wanted this. I’m enjoying the journey of where my career’s going. At first, I felt as though I had to achieve everything super quickly, but now I’m enjoying my pace; I want longevity. I want to still be painting in 30 years with my work spoken about as if it was 30 years prior. The only way to know if all this is achievable is to live my life with intention.
Do you draw on your childhood experiences during your creative process?
I go back to my childhood experiences a lot, but also my adult ones too. My childhood felt like a 90s/2000s sitcom, like My Wife and Kids or The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. There was a lot of laughs and love, but also some trauma. With these stories/experiences, I like to own them instead of them owning me and what I find is, I’m not always the only person to have gone through these things. So I find myself often trying to relate to people in my work or have them relate to me. It’s like I’m trying to build a community through honesty of emotions.
Your debut show was this year sold out three times. Why do you think it struck a chord with people in the way it did?
When lockdown first happened, I was just painting and putting out work wherever I could, on social media or magazines, etc. I think, because everyone was on social media so much during these times, my work circulated a lot and caught some eyes because of how raw it is. I think when people look at the work, they often see themselves. People don’t want to be talked at, they want to be talked to, especially if it’s about themselves.
Story telling was an integral part of the show – what stories were you telling through your work?
I’m telling my story, but I’m also telling your story, I’m also telling his story and her story and their story, whoever can relate to what I’m talking about. But naturally, it will always come from my lens. As I progress, I find myself going from person stories to wanting to hold up a mirror at this generation. The best way to put it is sometimes I want to tell stories like Kendrick’s Album Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, and other times I want my paintings to feel like a Jordan Peele movie.
Who inspires you?
My mother inspires me most of all, she’s always pushed my agenda when it comes to art, and she’s always been there. She’s amazing, but if we’re talking about fellow creators, I would have to say, currently, Nas. He’s had a career for 30+ years and is still super relevant and getting better at has craft. I want to be like that.
What do you hope people take away from your work?
I want people to take away my messages and my stories and really just feel something. What is art with no feeling? It’s just a pretty picture, no? I think there’s enough of those in the world currently. I don’t want to contribute towards that, I have deeper purpose for my work. I also want to be considered one of the best to ever do it.
What advice would you give young people who maybe feel like art or creative outlets aren’t a viable career path for them?
I would say stick with it. It seems impossible, but if being an artist is what you want to be then everything else needs to seem impossible first, instead of your dream. If you put time and energy into your work, you can do what you want, but make sure you really put in time into your craft. We live in a generation where being creative aesthetically is considered somewhat ‘cool’. Don’t join the hype of mediocre artists that just want to say they’re an artist but only care about being looked at like an artist. Those guys never last. Take your time and enjoy the journey.
What’s next for Shaq?
I really want to release a poetry book. I’ve been sitting on a compilation of poems for a long time and it’s time the world receives it. I really want to get into my acting bag, I miss being on camera a little bit and I think I’d be good at it. With art, I’m just going to keep going with the flow because you never know what opportunity the universe will serve you next. I’m hoping it’s something big though.