Shaqúelle Whyte (b. 2000, Wolverhampton, UK) is a figurative painter whose enigmatic works explore the human condition whilst exploring the material qualities of paint. Working from found images and his own photographs, drawings, and writings, he creates narratives for the characters within his tableaux. The figures in Whyte’s paintings are real people in fictional scenarios who act as a foil for his innermost thoughts. Both familiar and mysterious, the imagined worlds he creates invite viewers to bring their own interpretations to the encounter. By using a visual language of recurring motifs, he explores non-linear storytelling as the extracted details of his expansive worlds which appear across multiple works. Whyte is currently studying for a BA Hons Fine Art at Slade School of Fine Art (UCL).
Did you know from a young age that you wanted to become an artist, was it always what you wanted to be?
I did but I was unsure about how to get there. My initial role models that I was surrounded by did law, a key figure among these people was my Uncle. When he used to come to the house dressed in nice suits he was treated like the jewel of the family, by my mum and aunties; this was something that I wanted for myself. But as I grew up and the conversations about what I wanted to do became a lot more serious, I couldn’t imagine myself in that field at all, and art, something that I had continued to do from a young age, came to the forefront.
How did growing up in Wolverhampton affect your work?
Growing up in Wolverhampton put me in the heart of the Black Country and the working class, everyone is just trying to make their way. I feel extremely privileged to grow up in such an amazing place, the diversity of people that have such unique points of view. Growing up there has definitely affected the kind of work that I make, even more now that I live in London. Funnily enough it was moving to London that allowed me to reflect upon life in Wolverhampton and how my experiences there are unique within the context of being a black man growing up in the UK.
What are the major themes or questions you explore in your work?
I’ve been asking a lot of questions about the strength of relationship that I am able to have, which often stems from my own insecurities about being good enough within platonic as well as romantic relationships. From this masculinity and how it can present within a variety of scenarios; this has proven to be quite important within my work and is an element within my work that I have only just got started with. But perhaps the most important of all has been control, how it presents itself and whether one is truly in control. I have the tendency to strive for control within aspects of my life while also feeling out of control at the same time, paint allows me to explore this through the guise of characters that I can employ and use within my work to try and get to an answer. But more often than not the act of painting is more than enough space to explore these themes without actually finding an answer.
Shaqúelle Whyte, Garden of Eden, 200 x 160cm, oil and pastel on canvas
Now you have a studio space in Camden, London. What's your studio like?
It was the ingenuity on the part of the Slade that turned ex UCL halls into individual spaces which allowed artists to social distance but still have the space to make work and in turn still participate on the course. I have been here since the start of the autumn term and it has been a support that I am so grateful to have had. The space is just down the road from where I live in London, so it has proven to be super convenient and a positive during this time.
2020 was a strange year. What for you was the highlight?
Honestly the summer that I had in 2020 was amazing. I spent my first summer in London and in this time, I really got to create memories in the city that didn't directly involve the University. It was a time where I had my residency (something that I did not expect to get, and I was fortunate to have had the experience) but I also got to relax and refocus on the work that I wanted to make.
Shaqúelle Whyte, It'll be okay, 140 x 200 cm, oil and pastel on canvas
I recently read you had a residency in the Columbia Hotel near Hyde Park, what was that experience like?
The residency gave me the space to make work and start doing pieces that were more compositionally complicated. I loved my ride in the morning over to West London, get to the studio and make work. The artist that were around me were honestly incredible, artist such as Jack Laver, Tia O’Donnell and Tommy Camerno. Having conversations with artist such as these on a day today was such a positive experience, It really helped me grow. I miss it a lot and I am grateful for my time at the Columbia.
Who have been your greatest influences?
I don’t know if I actively look outward for influence, however, I do feel very inspired when I see black men and women within the arts, thriving and progressing forward. I suppose it’s because they each signify what is possible for their counter parts coming up. This however isn’t just limited to the arts, the spaces that black people are accessing and rising through make me hopeful for my own success in my career. There has been a long road that begun way before myself that has allowed for my work to been placed within the spaces that I am fortunate to be slowly but surely rising through. I only hope that I can continue so that my community can look to me as a leader within my field alongside the many other leaders that we are producing across a span of industries.
Some figures that have really proved instrumental within my work have been Kara Walker, Mark Rothko, Andrew Salgado, Paula Rego, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Kudzani- Violet Hwami, Jenny Saville, Peter Doig. I suppose that the real question is who doesn’t inspire me. I try to go a lot of shows (when we could) that display a variety of different artists. I truly believe that you can’t make art in an echo chamber of your own understanding and so I try to push my own understanding of art. Also, the artists listed are all examples of artists that really understand themselves and have work that is unwavering in what it is about, these are things that I very much admire and look to get for myself. But perhaps what makes these artists even more interesting is that they are happy to keep on pushing the work that they make and won’t be told how to make work depending on demand, another thing that I also admire.
What’s your process like from the beginning of a piece to when it's finished? How do you know when it’s finished?
I start a piece often by writing about what I want it to look like, synthesising different variations of the idea and what the painting might look like. From there I then use found imagery, my own photography and sketches and ideas from previous paintings to form a composition. It is from there that I get to painting. Often, I start the painting with a wash of colour that I then pass back and forth through the painting with the idea of really pushing the way that I make work.
Shaqúelle Whyte, 7 months later, 150 x 180cm, oil paint and pastel on canvas
Figures are prominent throughout your work? Who are they? Are they anyone specific?
The people that I use are usually friends. It is almost like I cast them for paintings. However, when I use them in my paintings it is because I can use them in place of myself. I find myself isolating characteristics that they have and then exacerbating them so that they are no longer themselves but rather a heightened piece of myself. I like to think about the way that this can twist and change as I make paintings, introducing characters, removing characters, having different characters interact within paintings and carry narrative from one painting to another.
What's next for you in 2021, what are you looking forward to?
Honestly I’m just trying to focus on things that are in my control, and one of the things that I know is in my control is making work, or at least trying to be consistent with my practice, looking for new ways that I can access my own work that I find interesting. I am looking forward to lockdown coming to an end however. Travel is such an important part of opening yourself to new things and I look forward to having access to that level of freedom again.
Finally, if you could interview someone past or present who would it be?
I would love to interview Tyler, the Creator, or maybe Kerry James Marshall or Wynton Marsalis. All three examples of exemplar black male figures whose career I look at and I am in awe of.