Shaquille-Aaron Keith’s ever-evolving career is nothing short of impressive. The South-London born, multi-disciplinary creative has navigated between fashion and art throughout his career, exploring the intersection of the two subcultures and ultimately finding them to be interlinked.
First and foremost, how are you at the moment?
I’m good, I’m good. Mentally, you know how it goes, up and down. I think staying off the internet definitely helps me thrive most from a mental standpoint, but for now I’m all good, alhamdulilah.
How would you describe yourself and your work?
For my whole life up to now, I wanted to be considered as an artist, but now that I am doing art work and poetry and videography in different mediums, I wouldn’t want to confine myself to a single term. If you know me solely as a painter, then maybe you wouldn’t consider putting me into a movie, and acting is something that I do aspire to get into one day. Fundamentally, I’d say I’m definitely artistic, but, really, I’m just Shaquille.
Delving into the past year and a half, through the COVID period, how did the pandemic come to affect your craft?
It has certainly been a positive thing for my work. The pandemic really gave me the chance to discover and do what it is that I was put on this earth to do, which is an opportunity that I don’t think I’ve had at any point in my life before. I think it gave me a lot of time to grow and reflect, especially with how fast-paced life was before COVID, doing the TV show and having to keep up with everything, I didn’t really have the chance to just stop and take a look at myself, my actions and my path in life..
Your previous ventures have been very fashion-centric. Was fashion a big part of your childhood, or did your flair for fits come later?
Fashion is something that I’ve loved since birth. There’s 3 main things I love: fashion, music and art – I know it sounds so generic but I genuinely, deeply, care about those things. The first person who introduced me to fashion was my mum, she always used to go to charity shops and she’d bring back pieces for me from the brands that I was seeing my favourite artists wear in music videos. I remember one day she came back from the British Heart Foundation with, a YSL shirt and a Gucci bucket hat, all authentic, and I couldn’t believe it. It was really her who brought me to realise that fashion was what I was into in the first place.
What were some key points of inspiration for you as you integrated into the London fashion scene?
Shortly after I discovered an interest for fashion, the whole jerkin’ era came about, with the rise of Tumblr and snapbacks and skinny jeans, and that was something I became heavily involved in. At that time, it was a very small group of people who knew about jerkin’ in London, and I’d consider that group as the origin of the London scene as it is today. Then fast forward a couple years to 2011, when A$AP Rocky dropped Goldie, the whole direction of London’s scene changed. I must’ve been watching Channel U one day and as soon as the Goldie video came on, and I saw this fly guy sitting next to his boy, who had a birthmark over his eye, driving around Paris, I was immediately influenced. It was at this point that brands like Boy London and AQ/AQ were surfacing and I got more heavily into the scene at that time. By the time I was 18, I was like “I want the world to know that I know how to dress“. I knew I had something and I wanted it to be recognised.
Then, working on PAQ, fashion became your livelihood. How was it having such a stylistic focus on a day-to-day?
When it came to the show (PAQ), the idea of going to charity shops with a low budget, buying clothes and styling them into outfits was something that I had been doing for years, so I went to the TV company and said “Let’s run that same concept.” At that time, we were the generation that had really come to care about how we looked and how we dressed, so doing that show felt right for me. I got the chance to express myself, every single week showing people my style and what I think about fashion. That has definitely stuck with me. Even still now, I feel like everything I do, even when I’m in the studio painting on my own, I still need to look wavy, just for myself. Tom Ford once said “Dressing well is a form of good manners” and I always remain repping that quote.
At what point was it that you decided that your destiny resided beyond just fashion? When did you know that art would be your means of expression?
It was always the plan to become recognised for both fashion and art simultaneously. I didn’t necessarily know how I was going to do it, but I knew I wanted that. I’ve always wanted my work, in all mediums, to speak to people, it’s not by force that those people like it, but I want it to leave an impression on people. Post PAQ, pursuing this current path felt right, because I had been, for a while, wondering about at what point I would be able to indulge and push the art part of my career. This is it now, it’s finally happening, but, in a weird way, it doesn’t even feel like it’s happening, because of how simple and peaceful it is. There’s no one telling me ‘you need to finish this piece by this time’, I just come to my studio, listen to my music and paint, freely. I feel like the stories that I am telling through my art are pure and honest.
Focusing on the narrative aspect of your work, what encouraged you to be a storyteller through your art?
I’ve always loved stories, my mum and my sister used to read me bedtime stories all the time and I used to be so enchanted by them. My first introduction into becoming conscious of my being was when I stepped away from mainstream pop music and started listening to more hiphop. I started listening to J Cole in like 2008, Come Up Vol. 1 times, and I heard that project and was like, “This guy’s cool”, then The Warm Up came out, and I was like “Okay this guy’s cold!”, bear in mind at this point, in 2009/10 no one even knows who J Cole is. 2011, Who Dat drops, Friday Night Lights comes, and I start going back even further now, because I’m realising that some of these beats I’m listening to are mad familiar. I see the comments on a video saying, “he’s spitting over Jay Z Dead Presidents” and I go back and listen to Dead Presidents and I ask myself, “Who’s the guy saying “Dead Presidents to represent me”? Oh that’s Nas” so I go and listen to The World is Yours, and delve deep into Nas now, listening to him heavily for years. Then I moved on to Tupac, listening to him even heavier. From about year 10 until uni, I was listening to Tupac everyday, taking in these stories, raw emotion, he was my guy. I’ve always said that if I wasn’t a painter, I’d do rap, though I don’t think I have the voice for it.
My stories are inspired by the lyricists that I listened to, in terms of the means by which I tell them, so, for example, I have a painting called Take it in Blood, which is named after my favourite song by Nas, and in that song he’s talking about everything he represents and lives for, and is saying that if someone wants to try and take that from him, they’d have to kill him to get it. Listening to that song I could immediately relate it to a relationship I’d had, where this girl I was going out with was just sucking my life dry. The way I represented it was by depicting a heart on a plate that this girl was eating, despite there being a whole feast that I had made on the table.
What are your artistic inspirations?
As I mentioned, I get a lot of my inspiration from hip hop. In my eyes, one lyric can set the tone for a whole painting, like Nas said in The World Is Yours “I’m in need of a new n**** for this black cloud to follow, because while it’s over me it’s too dark to see tomorrow” and hearing that line literally set the entire precedent for my most recent piece ‘The Communal Portrait’, in a similar way that Take It In Blood inspired its namesake painting. There are painters that I do look at as well. Initially, the first painter I looked at, who made me feel as if I could do this was obviously Basquiat. I never looked at him and said “I want to paint like him”, even though some people have tried to make a comparison between us stylistically. I more so admired him as Black artist in this world, walking for Comme Des Garçons, starring in Downtown 81 and being in pictures with people like Grace Jones. He showed that being a painter doesn’t have to be so one-dimensional and that you can really be out here doing other s***.
In terms of stylistic inspiration, I grew up in a very Afro-centric house, even though my family is from Trinidad, so my mum’s house is covered in African art that she’s picked up over the years. From a young age, being surrounded by all of those intricate pieces, I definitely drew from that native style. I’m also a fan of Alberto Giacometti’s sculptures, I definitely borrow the long wiry limbs from him. It’s really the artists who’s work I feel an urge to revisit that inspire me the most.
How is your racial identity communicated through your work?
Every single painting I do, the protagonist will always be a Black person, but the story may not always be a specifically Black story. I like the idea of uniting people through my experience, and though I feel like there are a lot of oppressed people, I can only speak on my experience of oppression within my minority community. If I can create a story that is not so closed off that only Jamal and Ola can get it, but is instead open enough that Susan can get it and Anwar can get it, then everyone, universally, can take value from my paintings and the art can become a means by which people unite and start kicking oppression to the side. We’re in a very interesting time in history right now. I feel like there’s another Black renaissance happening and I want to be on the right side of history when the story’s told again. The underlying aim of all my work is to help the overall fight.
How did your flair for writing surface?
I used to write in secondary school, but it was just for chicks. True say back then I listened to a lot of Trey Songz, so most of what I was writing was very soppy. I remember I’d send stuff like “I’ll lay you on the grass and I’ll gently caress your cheek with the back of my hand as we gaze up at the sky”, that sort of dumb corny s***, to girls on Facebook chat, but doing that actually did lead me to writing some more personal stuff towards the end of school. It wasn’t necessarily rhyming or structured writing, it was just feelings. I never thought I would actually start formally writing, but one day, when I was at uni, I was home alone, listening to If I Ruled the World by Nas and Lauryn Hill and I was really feeling it. I felt the urge to put pen to paper and that day I wrote my first poem, called If I Ruled the World. Having written down a bunch of things, I read it back and thought ‘Ah this sounds sick’, now I look back on it as garbage, but it was the point from which my interest in writing really stemmed.
I got to the point when I started just writing about stuff that I really care about. The first piece I wrote in any of my poetry books was about the girl I’m with right now, my partner, and I just used it to communicate my feelings for her. I started writing more affectionate stuff, deeper, darker stuff, but it has always been writing about and for my community that has fulfilled me more than anything else.
I like to provide numerous different mediums through which my story can be realised, so that, in case you don’t understand the essence of my paintings, you may get it if I write it down for you as literature.
Talk to me about Gucci Beauty. What a project that was!
So, most of my jobs, I just get emails from the clients expressing interest. For the Gucci thing, I just got an email one day, from someone at Beauty Papers Magazine, saying that they were looking for a writer for a Gucci Beauty campaign and that they felt I’d be a good fit for it. At first I couldn’t believe it was happening, even after I had jumped on a call with the team, it still didn’t feel real, it wasn’t computing in my head. They asked me to write 3 poems in 3 days for the project, little did they know I wrote all 3 in about 10 minutes as soon as I put down the phone. For some reason, I can write effortlessly, super quick, but still make it real and deep, which is an ability I am so grateful to God for, so I was able to send back the poems, each of which was named after a Gucci lipstick shade, super promptly. The names were ‘Love for Breakfast’, ‘Dream Too Much’ and ‘No More Orchid’ and they simply wanted me to write about what those names meant to me, so the ideas flowed very naturally. That was a good thing for me, because I didn’t know, at the time, whether I could write to an outside brief or not. Seeing that eventually go live was so surreal!
If not that project, what has been the biggest ‘pinch me’ moment of your career to date?I think Gucci was a major ‘pinch me’ moment, but the biggest for me was getting the chance to write a poem for Bentley. They literally gave me a Bentley car for the weekend, just to drive and then write about how it felt whizzing in that car. That to me was a crazy experience, knowing that there are millions of people out here trying to buy Bentleys, and I’m here looking at a payment from Bentley Motors on my bank statement.
What message would you tell Shaq of 5 years ago?
“You don’t know it all yet, but time will tell. Be patient, watch that temper and don’t let anyone tell you your ideas are stupid. God will never give you more than you can handle.”
What’s next for Shaquille Keith? What can we expect from you going forward?
The next big thing for me is going to be my exhibition, which is hopefully coming very soon, and also, eventually, a poetry book that I’ve been thinking about for the past 3/4 years. That’s something that I am just sitting on, waiting for the right time. When that time does come, I think that’ll be the biggest moment of my life. Further forward I definitely want to get into acting too, alongside the painting and the writing, I want to become a full 360 artist.