Interview by Jenkin Au and Alan Ng
Words by Cornelius Suen
Photography by Jenkin Au
Can you tell us a little more about yourself?
Hi, my name is Kwame Delfish. I am an artist, predominantly an oil painter and illustrator. I also cut hair. I like to refer to myself as a retired barber, since I still like to cut hair but I am painting full time now. I love music as well.
How did you get into hairstyling?
It’s funny. I got into hairstyling because I wanted to give people the latest designer hairstyles, like what was popular in the world of hip-hop and what not. I was like, “Damn, these designs are wicked!” I was in New York, bought a pair of clippers, and then I realized that I had to actually know how to cut hair. So, I learned how to cut hair and then began designing hair. I would draw designs on peoples’ heads and then cut the design using a razor and a straight blade. People do tend to move but you get used to that.
After studying at the Ontario College of Art & Design and Sheridan College’s Classical Animation program, what do you think your formal education has taught you that is fundamental to your craft?
I have a lot of respect for artists who are not formally trained. However, something that I have noticed is that people who are not formally trained tend to forget the basics of art, like composition, perspective, line weight, and different techniques and elements that are always used. It is often noticeable when an artist does not have a grasp of these fundamentals. Sure, you don’t have to go to school to learn these basics, but school certainly helps. And, going to art school, you learn as much from your fellow students as you do from your professors. You get to see what the world has to offer, what movements are out there, what trends, when you are lost in your own little world. You don’t have to follow the tide but you have to at least have some awareness of what is out there. You have a better chance of learning new techniques from others, techniques that you may use every day. I learned a lot of techniques from my buddies growing up.
Tell us more about your signature. It looks like a fish with some air bubbles above it. Tell us what it is and what is the story behind it.
Well, as you know my last name is Delfish, which is a rare name in itself. I did some research and I found that it originates from Barbados. I thought that this name was too unique to pass up and if people are to remember me off the bat, it will be because of my name. People actually began to know me as Delfish instead of Kwame. I thought that I needed to make my last name a part of my art. I love how my name is unique enough to illustrate as opposed to a name like David, which would be quite difficult to illustrate. There was this one piece where I put my signature on the bottom right hand corner. It was huge and took up a lot of space. This lady, an art buyer, came to me and told me that it’s not proper etiquette for an artist to sign their name so big. That made me tell myself, “I need to make my signature bigger,” and I did that for my next show. My dream is to one day have a show that revolves around the different illustrations of my name. I want to focus on doing gallery shows and I told myself that I won’t go into the digital world or graph. With that said, I am not the traditional gallery type of artist so I have faced scrutiny over the years with what I have brought into galleries. Nowadays, galleries realize that low brow art is what people are getting into. It wasn’t always like this. Before, you couldn’t make your signature big or do cartoony stuff and while I am classically trained and I could do realism or a traditional style like that, it’s not me. I am not going to let someone else dictate my art. I have received positive feedback over the years telling me that I am a breath of fresh air. Art is the artist, not rules or regulations. For example, black art is black art if it is drawn by a black artist, plain and simple. I tell my fellow black artists that black art is not defined by its content but by its artist. Sometimes I do cultural shows where people are expecting something political and inspiring and I give them a picture of a teddy bear. They get all confused and are like, “What is this?” I will tell them the piece’s meaning or why I drew that but at the end of the day, I drew that because I was feeling it. Everything I have been confronted with has not changed my artistic sensibilities and I want to remain true to myself. That should be the only thing limiting my art.
Your style seems dark but also reminiscent of something familiar and relatable. Can you tell me where you get the inspiration for your style and how you bring that through in your art?
My art has a lot of levels to it. I believe that everything is art, from my name to the name of the piece to the piece’s content. Take for example my piece with the koi fish. Everyone knows what “coy” means, right? Now, notice that the koi fish have my name on them. The red dots on their backs actually say “DEL,” and since it’s on a fish, it’s a “Delfish.” I was making a big statement in this piece, which is the opposite of being coy. I put this piece up and everyone was just like, “Nice koi fish,” as if that was the entire piece. I then pointed out the “DEL” on the fishes and left the room. That provided my audience with a whole new perspective on my piece and a new avenue for discussion. I like to play around with words and incorporate that into my pieces. I feel like art should have different levels. It shouldn’t end with just the picture. There was a series I had called “John Hancock” where I didn’t sign any of the pieces. The signature was in the image. I want to give the people something to talk about and make them do some of the work.
One of your more political pieces is called “Victory.” Tell us what inspired you to create this piece.
I always draw what I am feeling at the time. The piece was inspired by Obama’s 2008 Victory speech. I didn’t draw Obama because it was cool to draw Obama. I wanted to draw Obama because that speech was the first political speech that I understood. I don’t normally understand politics. The words are too big and they talk about issues that I don’t understand so I try not to get caught up in it. But listening to this speech, it was almost like listening to Ja Rule’s The Damager. It wasn’t like Lupe Fiasco I can’t understand that. But listening to Obama that night was like listening to a conversation. It was like he was just talking with people. I felt that I may never feel that way about a speech again so I decided to put that moment and all those accompanying feelings of mine onto a canvas. I started listening to the speech and I started writing the words down and I decided to put Obama’s face to it. I thought that I this was an original idea but then I discovered people had done it before me! Anyways, it became one of my biggest sellers. I think people like it because I didn’t print the words out. The words were done in my handwriting and it looked really personal and natural, just like how Obama delivered his speech, and I think that attracted a lot of buyers. Sometimes it’s a simple connection like that between the artist and the audience that can translate into a sale.
Tell us about your workflow. What is the process from the time you get your idea to conceptualizing it and then to completing it?
I am so random. I just came up with a piece for this show where I am trying to take elements of my life and put it up so people can understand where I am coming from. I am working on this one piece that is inspired by me getting into trouble at school as a kid. I am going to take a chalkboard and write “I will not draw in class” all over the chalkboard, like lines. Then, I am going to put a desk in front of the chalkboard. That’s just what I am feeling and sometimes it might seem like the oddest thing, but why not? The stupidest idea can evolve into something great. Sometimes I ask my friends and the more “no’s” I get, the more motivated I feel to do something. I find that what’s in nowadays is individuality. I was telling my students, if you are trying to be different, being yourself is the best way to do so because there is no other you out there. The quickest way to being different is right in front of you. Imagine a world where everyone is focused on acting on the first idea that came to their mind. We would have a crazy, idea filled world. I find that Toronto is really picking up in the sense that a lot of people are beginning to believe in their own ideas and realizing that it’s satisfying. I hope that I can get a lot more people to understand this with my movement. Follow yourself and go against the grain if need be.
Tell us more about the mediums that you use and your favourite medium.
I am starting to trust my talent more. I am straight oils now. I am not even drawing on canvas anymore. I go right to painting on the canvas. Why not trust myself and just paint? The beauty of paint is that you can just paint over anything that you don’t want. My buddy told me this great story about how an instructor of his had him paint “No Fear” in black paint across the whole canvas and then had him cover it up. That story made me realize that when you are dealing with paint, just go for it. Don’t sit there penciling out your piece, just go ahead and draw with paint and that spontaneity will allow you to shine through your work far better than if you restricted yourself with sketching. By penciling, you are putting yourself in a box and this is something that a lot of painters don’t realize. I am constantly trying to push myself and I hope that my approach will be totally different years down the line.
What is HYPE?
HYPE is created from a mass of people. As Jay-Z said, there is no such thing as bad publicity. Whether it’s positive or negative, there is no publicity, and that is how I feel about HYPE. There is no good or bad HYPE, it just is. If you are doing something, whether it’s good or bad, the fact that people are talking about it means something.