View of “Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe,” 2022. From left: Everette Taylor I, 2022; Sheena Skipper Wrangler, 2022; leather jacket. Photo: Hugard & Vanoverschelde.

View of “Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe,” 2022. From left: Everette Taylor I, 2022; Sheena Skipper Wrangler, 2022; leather jacket. Photo: Hugard & Vanoverschelde.

Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe

Growing up in Accra, Ghana, Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe was an avid viewer of westerns. These formative films came to mind when, during the social-justice uprisings of 2020—which the artist witnessed firsthand, having moved from Ghana to Oregon in 2017—he read coverage of a protest by the Compton Cowboys, activists who describe themselves as “a collective of lifelong friends on a mission to uplift their community through horseback and farming lifestyle, all the while highlighting the rich legacy of African-Americans in equine and western heritage.” Quaicoe’s encounter with that folklore—anchored in reality and given fresh meaning through racial representation that reflected his own—reawakened his childhood interest.

While researching the Compton Cowboys community, Quaicoe came across the project Eight Seconds, whose founder, Ivan B. McClellan, stated: “My aim is to expand the cowboy icon to include people of color. To saturate the world with this image so my kids will draw a cowboy with brown skin.” This became Quaicoe’s aim, too. Using McClellan’s website as a resource, he modeled large-format paintings on existing photographic portraits for his “Black Cowboy” series 2019–. Later, he invited people to pose in his studio.

“Black Rodeo: Cowboys of the 21st Century” was Quaicoe’s solo debut in Europe. The subjects’ confidence is etched into their very postures, offset by austere gazes, as if they are wary of who might be studying them, of how onlookers might misinterpret what they stand for. The suspicion is reasonable. Stories of Black American cowboys and cowgirls have been overshadowed and edged out by the white prototype: a particular breed of sunbaked obdurate masculinity à la Clint Eastwood or the Marlboro Man. In the past twenty years, this interpretation has been slowly stretched: in Brokeback Mountain (2005) and more recently in The Power of the Dog (2021), as well as in Lil Nas X videos and Jordan Peele’s forthcoming film Nope. But the long-standing clichéd typology still holds a lot of sway.

Quaicoe’s paintings place Black men and women against thickly textured monochrome backgrounds. The attention to the sartorial is heightened by material interventions that show reverence for accessories: The fringe on a leather jacket (Sheena Skipper Wrangler, 2022) or badges on a vest (Rodeo Boys, 2022) are subtly integrated; a paisley shirt is dotted with appliquéd ribbon accents, while a denim one is garnished with an embroidered floral patch (Django, 2021). Additional attention is paid to the earrings (Trinity, 2021) and nails (Olivia, 2021) of the women depicted, providing a glamorous flash of glitter and gleam. The classicism of the poses mixes with the milieu’s custom craftsmanship, evident in the subjects’ boots, hats, lassos, bandanas. Quaicoe adds other twists to these: The texture of hair is rendered beautifully; the scarification visible on some faces—as in Larry Ossei-Mensah Wild Rag, 2021—alludes to Quaicoe’s tribal roots, demarcating other histories of Black identity. Some contemporary flourishes, such as a horseman’s do-rag (Benjamine Scott, 2022), or a T-shirt crying out for ELECTION REFORM! (Everette Taylor I, 2022), are conserved.

Quaicoe’s work prompts a revisionist approach to representation in the cultural imagination, rooted in American mythology but exported globally. His figures deserve to be as mainstream, as readily conjured, as the lawless fringe figure cantering through parched settings. Quaicoe’s paintings don’t just celebrate an existing but overlooked contingent: They push to reframe a cultural symbol, investing it with new undertones and fresh iconography.