Sladie Shaqúelle Whyte’s vibrant, dynamic, sometimes feverish, sometimes soothing, somethings upbeat depictions of human experiences have a visceral impact. You need time to dissect what’s happening. Following his dancing lines on the canvas, you can slowly figure out what’s proceeding. Using a distinctive colour palette, he plays with art history, drawing from different kinds of artists throughout the centuries. In this conversation with Shaqúelle, we learn about how his Midlands background plays a role in his work, what his work deals with and the visual artists he is influenced by.
Can you tell us a little bit about your upbringing? And how has the experience impacted your work?
My upbringing, well I’m from a place called Wolverhampton, it is right next to Birmingham (although we are definitely not the same and we are certainly not northern!). Up until I was 18, I spent all of my life there, went to school in Wolverhampton, most of my family in the UK live between there Birmingham and Manchester. It’s a working class set up, not many people understood art however I have always been supported. That’s the thing about Wolverhampton, the people don’t always have to understand in order to support. Everyone knows everyone else and more than anything else people want to see each other do well. Over the past decade the city has fallen into disarray through lack of funding and jobs leaving the city. Still the people march forward and are lovely. That’s why despite the fact that I live in London now Wolverhampton will forever be my home.
For as long as I can remember my immediate family has been my Mum and Grandmother. My Dad has never been in the picture, which isn’t dissimilar to a lot of households that were in the area but definitely did cause me to ask questions. More than anything it was a blessing. I have been brought up by two very strong women who have taught me the difference between right and wrong and have also allowed me to dream which has been the most important thing. They have always made sure that I knew that I was loved and in times where other families might break and fall apart, we have held together as a unit. My Mum has always said ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ and luckily my Mum has made sure that I had that, so I never grew up in isolation despite being an only child.
What made you choose to study at Slade than any other art colleges in London?
I choose to study at Slade because of the way that they treat their students. From very early on it's established that you are an artist with an individual practice. Your time there is there for you to figure this out to the best of your ability. For me that is the most important aspect, the independence. When in the studio, you’re not following what someone else thinks you should be doing. The tutors are there to help guide you, not to steer your ship. This has meant that when I need help, whether it’s with work, or with things not related to art, the tutors and staff at the Slade are there when you need them. As well as that, being at the Slade has meant that I have engaged with artists from many different walks of life. You don’t always have to agree with them, but the ability to have open discussions has allowed me to double down and reanalyse my own viewpoints. It has also helped me understand a variety of opinions, not just my own.
As an art student, how is your mode of production different before and during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Well as the pandemic hit, I had to go back home to the Midlands. Initially I wasn’t making work. More than anything, I was lamenting over the fact that within a week I had packed my bags and left London, leaving behind everything that I had been working on for the past few months. Before COVID, my practice meant that I was working a lot in the studio, very much in my own head. I think that is still the case but what COVID has brought to my practice is the importance of reading and drawing. Sitting down to draw or to read has become an integral part of the work that I am now making. It’s really allowed me to switch off while actively making work. I often find that the things that I have been reading and drawing make their way into the bigger paintings. Most importantly it has brought experimentation directly into my work again (it’s always something that I did, but usually after I’ve started the work, rather than beforehand).
Can you please describe your artwork as if you were talking to someone who can’t see?
My work deals with the human condition, but more in relation to my own thoughts and feelings. This is done through depicting other people in imagined scenarios and circumstances. It is very much like they are actors and I’m a director. The worlds that I create are imagined, and are slowly becoming more surreal, with elements of abstraction. Colour and texture are massively important to my work, and vary from piece to piece. A lot of the choices I make in terms of colour are instinctive, and are dictated by the nature of each piece. Artists that inspire my work span from Michel Armitage, Goya and Rothko to Tintoretto, Monet and Andrew Salgado.
Your works mainly capture human figures that are completed with dark backgrounds, are there any underlying metaphors or messages you wish to convey in your work?
Each piece has its own underlying metaphors and messages. However, there is a canon that runs from one piece to the next. Some of my paintings do have a darker palette, but many of my other pieces use a bright colour palette. These ideas and metaphors are forever changing as the body of work expands. Each piece reflects aspects of my life, feelings that I have and situations that I have been in. I feel that to say that I’m trying to convey any particular message at any given moment would put the work in a box, and this could undermine the journey that I have been on and am currently progressing forward with. Maybe at some point the work will have a succinct line of inquiry, however at the moment it's more important that I allow my mind to wonder. As well as that, I would like the viewer to be able to delve into the work through my eyes, but more importantly their own. As you become more familiar with the body of work, you will become more familiar with me. More importantly, there is room in the work for the viewer to delve into how it relates to them specifically.
Who’s Shaqúelle when he’s painting?
Oh gosh, when I’m painting, I think that I’m a little obsessive. By that I mean that when I’m working on something, I’m very single-minded. I think this is a good thing, but it may be a bad thing, I’m not quite sure. I’m also very messy. My Mum has always said that to me, but it’s taken me until now to figure that out. More than anything I’m in my own world. When I’m painting it's very much an exploration in material and colour, just as much as it is in concept and storytelling. There are many facets to who I am when I paint, some are conscious and some aren’t, and some I’m still discovering.
Other than canvas, are there any other mediums you wish to explore?
Alongside my painting practice, my photography has always been something that I have explored and push forward with. I’m especially interested in photographers like Tish Murtha and Philip Lorca DiCorcia. My photography isn’t something that I publicise a lot because that’s mainly for me, although I would like to. More than anything the work that I have been doing in photography has made me want to do a deep dive into film, which is something that I’m currently working towards.
What’s your favourite song from the 00s?
My favourite song from the 00s is ‘Let me love you’ by Mario. It’s a classic tune and always puts me in a good mood. Or maybe it's ‘Good Morning’ by Kanye West.
What’s the weirdest thing you ever found in the streets of London?
Londoners, individually they are so lovely but at 8 in the morning on a tube they will throw themselves at tube doors just to try and get on, so you better get out of the way. So fast paced all the time no matter what the situation is. Also, for most Londoners the rest of England is the north and life begins from the Watford junction and ends in Croydon. It’s an actual phenomenon but I love it really! It did take some getting used to though.
Do you have any idea of what is next for you after graduation in a couple of years?
Well I’ve still got another two years left until I finish my degree (my course is four years and I’m just about to enter my third year). But in terms of what I’d like to do, maybe a masters; I don’t know where, but it is definitely on my mind. Or maybe I’d travel (fingers crossed we’re able to by then). I’m planning for all eventualities and will see what happens as events unfold. The most important thing will be for me to be able to continue making work and support myself while living in London. That’s the dream and I hope to be closer to that.
To follow Shaqúelle, you can visit his instagram here.
All photos courtesy of the artist.
where's the frame - ‘in conversation with’ is a weekly series featuring London-based vanguard artists. Stay tuned for more interviews, published every Friday.