From being a CSM student to becoming one of the most versatile creatives London has to offer, Ghanaian artist King Owusu has it all. Bred in Wood Green, North London, as one of 7 children, Owusu originally gained recognition from fellow Ghanaian and CSM alumnus Campbell Addy for his potential in the modelling industry, with his striking and impressionable look. Now a voice for the Black community with his unique artistic style, King’s abstract interpretations of Black beauty can be found on billboards across the city, while his face is a fixture in everybody’s local newsstand. A true multimedia creative specialist, King welcomed me to his Tottenham studio to discuss the message behind his art and the stigma surrounding Black creatives such as himself today.
HOW ARE YOU DOING? WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN UP TO?
I’m doing pretty good, feeling optimistic and increasingly inspired with work starting to come in a little more after a quiet period during the pandemic. I think last year, I went through a stage where I was feeling super uninspired, so it took me a long time to escape that and get back to work in the studio, but now, with the weather improving, I’ve been able to get back into my flow.
WHO IS KING OWUSU? HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR CRAFT?
I guess at this point I would call myself a creative. I know that’s not particularly specific but, at this stage, I am trying to do a bit of everything. Not because I want to be seen as this sort of 8-armed creative doing it all, but because I do have a lot of interests that dip into a lot of different artistic media, each of which allow me to get my ideas across. Even when I’m doing an art piece, that process will often start with me taking a series of photographs that I would then develop into drawings and then into a 3D piece, so each of those aspects help to inform one another. I’m not trying to do everything, I’m trying to do one thing that happens to have an extensive, multi-faceted process behind it.
WHAT DOES ART MEAN TO YOU?
The way I see it, we all are in search of our purpose in the world. I personally have found my reasoning for wanting to exist, through making art work, if I wasn’t making art, I’d be lost. I feel physically sad when I am unable to create things, so I guess I’d see art as my calling.
HOW DID YOU, AS AN ARTIST, FIND YOURSELF STEPPING INTO THE FASHION INDUSTRY? WAS IT AN INTEREST OF YOURS FROM A YOUNG AGE?
I sometimes ask myself if it was by chance, but I’m a firm believer that the decisions that we, as humans, make all combine to take us to a certain place. I can safely say that I wouldn’t change anything that has led me to this point today. It was my graphic design tutor that originally encouraged me to go to CSM, even though I had often been told that my style wouldn’t fit in with their programme. I applied, got in and it was there that I saw a way to exist as an artist, through a fashion lens, mainly by surrounding myself and collaborating with other young creatives in that field. I certainly gained inspiration from my CSM experience.
YOU’VE DEVELOPED SUCH A UNIQUE AND RECOGNISABLE ARTISTIC STYLE, HAVE YOU ALWAYS CREATED IN THIS WAY?
In the beginning, in secondary school, art, for me, was simply about creating an accurate representation of a pre-existing image, I was very into hyper-realism and portraiture. When I got to art school, I became far more interested in creating my own visual language, to make more personal art, informed by my culture as well as other artists that provided sources of inspiration. The obvious visual reference would be someone like Keith Haring, with an aspect of Basquiat, but through observing and appreciating those characters, I managed to take aspects that I liked and simplify them to find my own voice and perspective. The thing I liked about Basquiat was the energy of his work, for Keith Haring, it was the accessibility of his work, so I took such details and let them inform my craft.
WHAT IS THE MESSAGE THAT YOUR ART CARRIES?
For me, I feel strongly about everybody’s voices being valued. A single person’s experiences, memories and values should not be any less important than those of the next person and the ability to express such things is fundamental. My message would be ‘your voice matters’.
HOW HAVE YOUR CHILDHOOD EXPERIENCES INFLUENCED YOUR ART? WHAT WERE YOUR EARLY INSPIRATIONS?
My main inspirations, from a young age, were my three older brothers, each of whom do very different things. One’s a poet, one’s a graphic designer and the eldest is a photographer and I think just being around them and seeing them all do their thing really pushed me to work harder. I had a very strong community of family and close friends who were very protective of me and pushed me in the right direction, so I’ve always felt a strong urge to do them proud and make sure the sacrifices that they made for me were worthwhile. Whenever I’m working, I always have them in mind.
DO YOU FEEL A STRONG INCLINATION TO CHALLENGE THE STEREOTYPES THAT YOUNG BLACK MEN SUCH AS YOURSELF ARE SUBJECTED TO?
As black individuals, we all also represent our culture and our history, whether we like it or not. It’s a shame that we have to go into the world under such scrutiny, with something to prove. No one else has to prove the value of their existence, because the same preconceptions of violence or under-education doesn’t exist for others. We can’t just put our heads down and work in peace. In order to exist in these common work spaces, we do need to indulge in code-switching and change our manner of speech and behaviour, as to disprove these stereotypes that are so prominent in the workplace. I think there’s a part of me that is happy to conform but I’m also keen to do my thing and express myself. I’m not apologising, I don’t have anything to prove, I’m just being myself and that’s all I can do.
THERE IS AN EVER-GROWING GHANAIAN PRESENCE IN TODAY’S INDUSTRY THAT IS SUPER ENCOURAGING TO SEE. HOW HAS IT BEEN FOR YOU WORKING WITH YOUR TALENTED COMPATRIOTS AND REPRESENTING THE HOMELAND WITH YOUR WORK?
There was a point, early in my career, where, frequently, I would be the only black person on set and there would always be that feeling in my mind that I can’t quite fully relax and that I’ve got to be careful with what I say and how I act and with what music I play. The energy present on set back then was such a stark contrast to today, where I’m getting the chance to work with a team full of people who look like me. It’s much more comfortable when you are working with people who you can identify with, and who appreciate you for more than just how you look. When you feel represented in a room it’s a totally different dynamic. I feel like as the industry grows more accepting of people such as ourselves and black expression is more so normalised, we will see projects with largely black crews happening more and more often, from a place of authenticity, not just as a form of performative action. We’re only at the beginning of that path of integration.
THE TRAGIC DEATH OF GEORGE FLOYD LAST YEAR CATALYSED A LARGE CONVERSATION WITHIN THE INDUSTRY REGARDING INCLUSIVITY. DO YOU FEEL, AS A BLACK ARTIST, THAT YOU WERE A BENEFICIARY OF THIS RESURGENCE, IN TERMS OF OPPORTUNITY? HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THAT?
I’m always appreciative of opportunity regardless, I just hope that, in this instance, the increased consideration of black artists is not performative. This can’t just be a moment of hype that dies down in the following months and years. I must say, I don’t think that is the case now. For some brands, it may have been an opportunity to capitalise originally, but there is an inevitable backlash and scrutiny that such brands have been placed under, to the point where they can only hope to hide their true intentions for so long before people start to see clearly. In my case, there were a few people reaching out, supposedly interested in supporting me and my work, but unwilling to provide a budget, telling me ‘oh it’s a great opportunity for exposure’ etcetera. Those kinds of things are inevitable, but you have to learn to differentiate between someone who genuinely cares for the cause and wants to support us and those who are simply fulfilling quotas.
YOU’VE FOUND A SOMEWHAT FRUITFUL AVENUE IN THE MODELLING INDUSTRY. HOW DID THIS COME ABOUT AND HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE STATE OF THE INDUSTRY TODAY?
My experience of the modelling industry, as a whole, has been pretty positive and I think that comes as a product of the way I entered the industry. I didn’t come into the game having been approached by a scout who said ‘You’ve got an amazing look, let’s throw a bunch of money at you’, I came in with the honest intentions of creating some amazing work and imagery with my friends, more so as an actor/performer than a model. I guess, through doing it and exploring the ins and outs, I’ve been able to find my own creative space, within the industry, where I can thrive.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE PROJECT YOU’VE WORKED ON?
That would have to either be the first McQueen show that I did, the Pirelli calendar with Tim Walker, or last summer’s Love Magazine cover with Campbell (Addy) and Ottawa (Kwami).
WHAT HAS BEEN THE BIGGEST PINCH ME MOMENT OF YOUR CAREER?
That was quite recent actually, my project with ITV, because for years I’ve been wanting to do something like that. I was watching E4 and what they were doing and was really keen to do something similar, so to actually have the opportunity to make something like that for a TV network was unreal. That moment of realisation that I was actually on TV, with people calling me and saying ‘Yo I just saw you on TV!’, was crazy.
IT MUST BE AN AMAZING FEELING TO SEE YOUR WORK PRINTED UP IN THE AREA THAT YOU GREW UP IN! TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THAT!
The opportunity to create my own stuff and have it displayed in my area, Tottenham, is a very special way of giving back to my home community. One crazy thing for me was when the roadmen in my area started showing me love for my work. From the beginning, all the modelling work I was doing was quite different, so having those guys accepting that work and praising me for it was surprising. You wouldn’t expect those with a more hyper-masculine view on what it means to be male to be so open to something so different.
HOW HAS THE PANDEMIC AFFECTED YOUR CRAFT?
I think for me, having been at university, working with a tight-knit community, the transition into working alone was challenging. It became harder to keep in contact with people and, as a result, I came to realise that I do like to feed off the energy of the people that I’m around. The lack of contact left me feeling disconnected from society and hence it was hard to stay inspired and make work. I really learnt to appreciate collaborative opportunities.
WHEN IN NEED OF INSPIRATION, WHO/WHERE DO YOU GO TO?
I have a group of 5-10 friends and family members that are always my first point of reference. Whenever a creative opportunity comes up, I’m immediately on the phone to them and we’ll have a 2 hour conversation that will always be so valuable. They know who they are!
TRENDS ARE EVER-FLUCTUATING IN FASHION TODAY. HAVE YOU SEEN ANY TRENDS SURFACE THAT YOU REALLY DISLIKE?
I don’t really take too much notice of trends that I dislike. The great thing about fashion is that there’s room for everyone and their terrible ideas. Even if I don’t personally like something, there’s inevitably a large group of people who do, and that’s just the beauty of subjectivity.
ARE THERE ANY DESIGNERS AT THE MOMENT WHO REALLY EXCITE YOU?
I’m really into some of the more sustainable designers of the moment, with the two at the top of my list of favourites being Bethany Williams and Ahluwalia. I think what they’re doing is just fun and representative of the community and forward-thinking creativity. I went to Bethany’s studio and she showed me these lunch boxes that she’d made and they were all made out of recycled Horrid Henry magazines that would otherwise have been thrown away. Doing something like that, that is so directly connected to her childhood as well, brings a sense of playfulness and familiarity to her work that I really like!
YOU’VE DABBLED IN CLOTHING DESIGN IN THE PAST, IS THAT SOMETHING THAT YOU SEE YOURSELF DOING MORE IN THE FUTURE?
Absolutely! Potentially even this summer, there will be *something* releasing, which I’m super excited about! I’ve been trying to find an authentic way of combining my art work with clothing silhouettes and I’m definitely starting to connect the dots. Next year you ought to watch out!
WHAT’S THE DREAM COLLABORATIVE PROJECT IN THE FUTURE?
I’d love to work on a limited range of special products with a brand such as Converse, that is accessible and affordable for all types of people. Hopefully a collaboration like that arises in the future!