Oscar is a Malawian-born, Chicago-based painter, illustrator, graphic designer, and photographer. He is especially well known for his unique paintings, in which portraits of black people on vibrant geometric backgrounds are overlaid with colorful patterns and motifs. The resulting works blend traditional portraiture with very decorative and almost animated elements.
Want to know more about Oscar's work? Scroll down to read our interview.*
The bio on your website says that you were born in Malawi and moved to Indiana when you were about eight years old. Do you think that this significant cultural adjustment influenced your work?
It did and it didn’t in a way. Indiana was what I expected it to be from when I was living in Malawi. My cultural adjustment didn’t really happen until I moved to Chicago where cultures were distinct and unique.
Then after high school, you went to the American Academy of Art in Chicago and earned a BFA in Life Drawing. What made you decide to go to art school and become an artist?
I decided to go to AAA after my high school art teacher encouraged me to pursue art as a career. This teacher introduced me to the possibility that I could take my artistic abilities and turn them into a stimulating and fulfilling career.
How would you describe your art to someone who has never seen it? In other words, please give us a very basic description of your work: what does it look like, what is it made of, what subject matter will we recognize, what shapes or colors are most noticeable, etc.
My work are vivid paintings of black people surrounded with tribal-like patterns that are layered with paint and clear resin on wood. Usually my work is distinguished by putting X’s on the eyes as well as headphones covering the ears.
How has your style as an artist has evolved over the past few years?
My work is a lot more focused and consistent. When I transitioned from pastels to acrylic painting, it made rendering portraits much easier and it has helped me invoke colour a lot more. I also started incorporating patterns throughout my work to solidify my tone.
Many of your paintings center on human faces (mostly people of color) with X's over their eyes. Why do you paint them this way?
I use X's as a means of no one being able to colonize a vision, especially a black person's vision. It is also a means of heightening other senses or exploring other aspects of a painting. Eyes are usually where you are drawn to the most; so by eliminating that option, you are forced to wander through a piece.
These portraits also feature bright, cheerful colors and patterns. Some almost look like they are wearing face paint. Do your choices of color and pattern reflect specific ideas or moods that you want to convey?
Yeah, it does. In some ways I feel like I’m creating music, but visually; so I like using certain motifs like my patterns or choices of colour to create an idea of personified sound. The people who are portrayed have their own unique song that they are expressing.
Besides paintings, what other types of work do you make? How do these pieces fit into your overall practice?
I’ve been learning how to use more digital media. I already use Adobe Photoshop for digital painting as another painting medium. As of last year, I’ve been using augmented reality, or AR, to unlock a new way of viewing my work in 3D. This practice has allowed me to bring the layers in each piece to life.
What is something that you’ve learned in art school or while working as an artist that you think is useful to share with artists or prospective collectors who maybe don’t engage with the art community on a regular basis?
One thing that I really think is important is the power of networking. Networking with various people both outside and inside the art scene really lends a hand to exposing your work to a different audience or exploring something you’ve never heard before. It’s very beneficial to connect with people that share your interests so that you can hone your craft, but it’s just as (and possibly even more beneficial) to challenge yourself by opening up to a new perspective.
Has the Covid-19 physical distancing situation affected your work? Are you currently making art? If so, what are you working on?
Covid-19 has affected certain social aspects of my life like going to the gym or going out. It has made me more cautious to wear proper PPE if I do go out for groceries or buying materials for painting.
Despite how rough things are going, I’m still happily creating new work. I recently exhibited my first solo show called NYASA early this month and it was an amazing experience.
What does NYASA mean, and what made it an amazing experience?
I named the show NYASA as an homage to my home country, Malawi, which was originally called Nyasaland (or land of the lake in Chichewa). I have always considered being black as an embodiment of colour. Despite what's been going on in the world, the show went really well and I'm thankful for that. The pieces that I created for the show came out as I imagined them to be.
What other contemporary or historical artists or art movements inspire you or influence your work?
(Laughs) I have too many to even count, but I’ve really been drawn to Keith Haring, Kehinde Wiley, Jean Michel Basquiat, James Jean, David Choe, Akira Toriyama, Kara Walker, and so on.
I find these artists to have opened so many doors for me as I’ve gotten older. Some of them were my heroes when I was a kid, and some I grew to love and understand when I became an adult.
What are some of your inspirations outside of the “Fine Art World?”
I really love music and it’s been my main muse for my work since I was young. With my having chromesthesia, the correlation of sound and colour makes their way in my everyday life.
As far as musicians, JPEGMAFIA, Childish Gambino, Three Trapped Tigers, and Bjork have been some of my many sonic influences.
I’m interested in talking to more artists who are doing exciting or relevant work right now, and I think a good way to do that is to ask artists about their friends. Whose work do you love? Who else do you think we should interview, and why? [Instagram handles added.]
Jamiah Calvin [@miahthecreator], Dovie Golden [@dovie_golden], Fanni Graham [@justfanni], Delisha Love [@delisha___], and Jetti Lewis [@jettilalewis] are very exciting artists that I look up to. Each of them show their own blackness in interesting and unique ways. Those who thrive within their blackness are beyond worthy of knowing.
*All images on this page are property of the artist, unless otherwise noted.