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Keinyo White’s journey from talented student to an artist whose work has been collected by Washington D.C. judges, Fortune 500 CEOs and Hollywood celebrities has required him to constantly navigate racial roadblocks. He says that it would be difficult to find another creative field that has overlooked as many artists of color as the modern art world.
“Being a black artist for me is a very, very isolated venture. Every artist has their own struggles to acquire what they deem as their own level of success, but I think the struggle is harder for black artists. You very rarely see work that deals with the same theme as your own. You rarely see other black artists, or black people in general, at shows or
openings. There are very few books printed about black artists, and you rarely ever hear about them in any sort of art history context. I graduated with honors from the Rhode Island School of Design, one of the finest art schools in America, where I had literally dozens upon dozens of art history lectures. I did not learn a single piece of information from any of them about either Henry Ossawa Tanner or Jean-Michel Basquiat.”
Naturally many of White’s works address racial and social isolation but he stresses that although a collage like “Lost Soul” seems to emphasize how adrift and lost black culture is, a closer look reveals it to be an affirmation of his pride in the positive aspects of black history like Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance.
“I've always found that while my "black" work may end up with negative connotations on first glance, the underlying theme is always about positivity. Whether it's a positive belief in my own future, or that of my fellow African-Americans. Sometimes, it's just the pride of being able to lay claim to the positive aspects of black history and how we as black people need to reaffirm and recapture that sense of unity.”
As his painting skills evolved, it soon became clear to White that he had a special gift for portraiture, an art form often dismissed by the modern art world as irrelevant, even dead. White believes those attitudes stem more from how difficult it is to conquer.
“I don't think the majority of artists working today have the technical capacity for portraiture. A lot of factors come in to play: you have to be a good draftsman; you have to have a good sense of proportion, of light and darks. You have to be capable of establishing a good composition before you begin, and most importantly you have to have an excellent sense of color. And above all you have to bring some aspect of your subject to life in your painting. If you miss that it’s not necessarily a good portrait, it’s just a good drawing.”
“I tend to relate to it along the lines of swordsmanship in the sense that it's a craft that one can only hone through endless hours upon hours of training. The Art of War, The Book of the 5 Rings, and The Hakagure (Book of the Samurai) have all also been really influential in my painting development.”
White also pays homage to the Dutch master Rembrandt. He says although he admires other figurative painters such as Lucien Freud, Andrew Wyeth, Vermeer and Velasquez, for him personally “there is Rembrandt and then everyone else is running for second place.”
“He was phenomenal in his ability to do so much with so little, like rendering a hand, or a jewel or a dress with only a few strokes of the brush. He was also a great draughtsman who produced fantastic etchings.”
Rembrandt also appeals to White’s passion for honesty and commitment.
“He was always truthful in his self-portraits, even towards the end of his days when he had no reason to be. And maybe most importantly for me, he started out as a nobody, made a lot of money and became famous, lost his son, lost his fortune, and died impoverished, but never stopped painting.”
After years of struggling against the demons of personal isolation and racial inequality, Keinyo White has now emerged with an artistic vision that looks to the future with hope and approaches every blank canvas with a desire to produce art that has beauty, relevance and passion.
“In the early days, when I was striving to broaden peoples horizons by making art that sought to change the world or the art machine, it didn't really do anything except make me tired. That was something I never discovered about anger until I was a little older, that being angry all the time leaves you with little energy for anything else. It also made me realize that I didn't have to bear the torch for black awareness. That I could put it down whenever I wanted. If people are interested in learning about black culture, they have plenty of tools at their disposal: literature, movies, documentaries, the Internet, and art. My art will always be there as an aid in that quest for knowledge.”