Obi Agwam and Black Stories in Paint


OBI AGWAM began painting just two years ago. His canvases, though, would suggest otherwise: laden with bold — bordering mysterious — symbolism and remarkable colors, Agwam’s art feels dynamic and alive, qualities of his work that caught my eye the first time I saw a piece.

Born and raised in New York City, Agwam is currently a sophomore studying fine arts at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in Manhattan. I had the opportunity to visit him on campus in early December, and he took me to one of the studios he paints in at FIT. Sitting alongside his piece “I Fell But I’m Smiling Now” and a skateboard he had painted, our conversation was free-flowing and wide-ranging, with Agwam’s words uncovering some of his specific journey, identity, and philosophy as an artist and a person.

After the interview, reflecting on what Agwam had shared, I was left wondering about the power and potential present when we as young Black people share — amongst each other and for ourselves — our desires, fears, and concerns about our life, our work, and our purpose; as well as the nuanced, intertwined, and varying role of art within our present existence and moment. Agwam talks about all of this, and more, in our conversation.

Follow him on Instagram to support and view his art.


When did you start painting?

Last year, dawg. Last year. Literally last year or two years ago, when I came here. That was late 2017. I was drawing digitally, but I didn’t start painting digitally till, like, last year.

You’ve been drawing for a while?

On and off. I didn’t really take it seriously till like, literally, last year. So I’m still in the beginning of this.

What were you doing before that? Any art-related stuff?

I was watching anime dawg. [laughs] I was watching anime and eating cereal. If I wasn’t doing that, I prolly was doodling. I was a bad student, still am a bad student.

How did you arrive here, at FIT?

High school senior year, they were like, Pick a school. FIT was hella cheap. I didn’t know what I wanted to do as a career, cuz I looked at other shit, and I didn’t think I would be good at it. So this seemed like the only thing I’d be good at. I applied to FIT, I got rejected, and I was like, Damn. So I went to community college, Laguardia, for a year. I did liberal arts and all that shit. Then, I transferred here, and I’ve been here. I wanted to transfer again to Cooper Union downtown, but I missed the deadline, cuz I’m a bad student. So now I’m here.

Have you been enjoying learning to paint within the school context?

I think the school teaches you technicals, as an illustrator. It teaches you to work fast. Most of my paintings I work faster than a lot of other students, cuz it forces you to get things done. Because it’s so many assignments that could come at once. Even as we speak right now, I got like six projects to do, and that’s crazy. But oil painting, that’s kinda like been my own thing. I learned how to do that mostly on my own. I had a painting class, but what she taught didn’t apply to me; it was fast, but too fast. Like, this painting right here prolly took 2-3 weeks.

You consider that…

I think that’s slow. Cuz in illustration you’re supposed to get paintings done in like a week. That’s why a lot of them work small. As for fine arts, they work really big and it takes a long time.

You mentioned that this is something new. I’m interested, then, in when you realized this is what you wanted to do. Was there a defining moment or anything?

Prolly last year. I mean, I knew I wanted to do something with art. But I didn’t know if I wanted to be a painter, that probably wasn’t til last year. I got inspired by looking at other fine artists, other Black fine artists. Especially Reginald Slyvester. He’s a fine artist and I was like, Damn, if he can do this shit, why can’t I? Why can’t I make a career off art?

Was there anything specific about painting that attracted you to this medium?

I enjoy art, I’ve always enjoyed art, and painting, I don’t know how to say…it hit different. A good oil painting registered differently to me, at a level that other art mediums didn’t. So I was like damn, I want to do this. That’s how I got into oil painting. I’m still tryna figure out my style, so I’m kinda in the process of experimenting and doing as much as I can.

What does painting allow you to express, as a medium?

Most of my paintings will be simple things; memories in my head, little stories. There’s never something deeper than me. It’ll be, Yo, what if I did this? Or, I’ll remember that one time I did this, and I’ll just paint that, with characters that I’ve made up in my head.

I was going to ask about the characters too, because I think that’s one of the coolest things, because there’s a lot of common symbols and motifs in your art. What do those come from?

Studying. Prolly studying other artwork. Renaissance art, things like that. I’ll see visual motifs, and implement into mine. I don’t think about it too much, it’s kinda just like, Yo, what if I did that from that painting?

You mentioned anime, so what are some of your other influences?

Yea, anime and prolly movies. In middle school, as a kid, I watched odee anime. Too much anime. I would spend the whole day watching anime. Even now, before I paint, I watch anime. Before this painting, I was prolly watching Vinland Saga, and then I made the painting.

I just know one thing is I want to paint Black people, Black stories. I know that for a fact. And I came to that conclusion cuz if not me, if not us putting in work for other Black people, who else is going to do it? I feel like it’s important that we help each other, type shit. That’s another reason why I agreed to do this [interview]. Cuz if it’s a Black artist, I’m willing to support.

Facts. Same here. We can talk after, but [in my work] I really want to highlight young Black artists…

Yea, cuz we gotta look out for each other, real shit.

Yea. What is the role of art in your own life, then? How does that figure into who you are as a person?

I guess it’s my identity and my job. I don’t love love painting. I don’t be like, Oh boy, I can’t wait to paint for ten hours! Nah. It’s just something that I do, and something I’m gonna keep doing so I could build something in the future. That’s what it was.

What do you want to build in the future?

I definitely want to make my own way as an artist. I don’t know if it’s opening a gallery, or working with other collectives, I wanna help people with my artwork, and me myself. I want to use my artwork as a tool, that’s another way to put it. Especially now, I really want to work with kids. Like, teaching kids to get into art. So, I’m trying to figure out a way to get that done.

Building off that, what do you think – you kinda touched on it – is the role of the Black artist specifically? I know it’s a very big concept, but to you, maybe, what is your role as a Black artist?

I feel like, if you’re a Black artist or POC (I hate that word), you should be looking out for other people. You should be looking out for your niggas! You supposed to look out for other people and help them. I feel like that’s what you should do. And represent them. I mean you obviously don’t have to paint Black people, you don’t have to paint Black stories. A lot of people don’t do that cuz, I guess, it ties them down. But at the same time, you should, in one way or the other, help other people. Cuz it’s very hard to get into a creative field.

Fine art is a career of privilege, throughout history. Most of the greatest painters have been people who already had money. Even now, in the MOMA and all these big galleries, most of the artists there don’t need to make art to live. They are already good, or they got there from their rich connections. So it’s like, We don’t have that luxury, so why shouldn’t you help other people to get to your level?

What do you think, then, about the idea of profiting off Black art, within your own art and other art?

That shit is fucked up, cuz a majority of the patrons… Like, let’s say I make it into the contemporary scene, big. A majority of my patrons prolly gonna be white collectors. And that’s tough. That’s really tough. You can’t say no to them, cuz then you can’t eat. So that’s a confliction. If there’s a way for me to figure out how to make it as an artist and make most of my work for Black people, that’s the goal. There’s nothing wrong with white people or white collectors taking my work, but it’s extra. I don’t need them. I make work for Black people, so anyone else that enjoys it is fine, but it’s not really for you.

What are some of the things that got you to that point of your own understanding of your identity?

I think I’m lowkey a hotep. Not going to lie to you. [laughs] I think I watched, prolly, Malcolm X, that got me started into being all pro-Black. And, prolly seeing and talking to other Black artists.

Kerry James Marshall. I heard him talk, and seeing him talk and how he represents Black people and Black figures in his painting… He was talking about how important it was to represent people, and I think that spoke to me on another level. And I was like, I should do that, too. Cuz, before I was on this style, I was kinda painting whatever, drawing whatever.

You mentioned you started a year or two ago. What have you been most proud of about your growth?

I’d say I’m able to communicate my ideas more, and I’ve seen people are starting to enjoy it as much as I do. And that’s cool, cuz I’m not really too proud of my work. I feel like I could do better. I mean, everyone should feel that way — but I feel so especially, because I started after a lot of people, even in my major. And they wouldn’t even know that until I told them. Like, I tell people I started painting two years ago, and they’re like, Forreal? Deadass? And that’s just how it is.

But the reason I was able to progress fast, or faster than some people, is because I paint so much. Like, every day. Almost every day I paint or do something art-related. I feel like I work more than most people would. Last summer or two summers ago I’d literally have days and weeks where I would just paint. Like, not even go outside for 2-3 weeks just painting. And, covering those paintings if I don’t like it. And just keep going, back and forth – and I’m still doing that, even in school.

But you mentioned you don’t really love the act of painting, so that’s moreso out of feeling like you want to improve your work?

Like, my passion?

Yea, the dedication and passion.

Dawg, I’m not getting paid. I’m not employed, g. If I don’t sell these paintings, I’m not eating. So I gotta keep going. Right now my mom’s supporting me, so I’m lucky for that. But, before, the only way I would get money is if I would sell a painting. So I had to keep going. And then, it’s not joyous…I can’t say I don’t like it. But it’s not, like, this joyous thing. It’s work. And it’s satisfying. I get satisfaction more than anything.

Yea. How do you know, then, when you’re finished with a painting? What’s your process?

I feel like my ancestors just tell me to stop. They just touch me and tell me, stop.

Honestly, I don’t know, cuz it’s not completely abstract but it has abstract concepts. So I kinda feel it out. But sometimes my intuition will tell me to stop, but two weeks later I’ll come back to it and just keep going if I don’t like it. Like, this one, [shown below] I stopped maybe three/four times, but I just keep coming back to it. That’s prolly why it took three weeks; I’d stop for a week, then come back, and just keep going. I feel like I could still keep going with this one, but my intuition told me to stop.

With that one, where would you keep going with it?

Prolly the bricks. I’d prolly make it more fit the color. It has…I don’t know how to describe it. It doesn’t do it for me. People say I have a really good color sense, and the colors kinda threw me off. And then maybe the body. But other than that, it’s done, so I’m not touching it.

What was the story, specifically, about this one?

The name of the title was, “I Fell But I’m Smiling Now.” I usually don’t create a narrative, people kinda make it for me. They look at a painting and make their own story into it. I don’t think about it too much. But based on what a lot of people tell me, it’s about staying positive, even though you’re hurt. He looks like he’s messed up, his teeth is jacked up, mans done broke his board, shirt all messed up, but he’s still smiling. Still happy. And, I think the blues…a lot of people say that could mean sadness for them. The blues, I guess, speak to a lot of people. He’s painted on top of blue [canvas], and you can still see leaks of that through the figure. I think the colors, again, speak the most to people. Cuz I put colors as one of the highest priorities when I paint. Do the colors register what I’m feeling, or what I would want you to feel? It’s like that.

And even in the sketch book, I have a whole bunch of other paintings and ideas in the future that I’m prolly gonna paint one day, if I get the time.

Is your process mainly solo? Do you have other people working with you?

I call people. I call my homies. I have a homie, he’s a producer, I’ll talk to him. But most of the time by myself. Or I’ll watch anime, if I get tired of painting. And, I don’t paint here [at FIT] often. This is a studio, but I paint at home most of the time so yea, I’m by myself most of the time.


That moment when you finish – whenever the ancestors speak to you and you realized you might be finished – what does that moment feel like for you? Do you dwell in those moments, or it’s just on to the next one?

People say I should, highkey. But I don’t. I’m like, alright, cool, onto the next one. And, I’m learning to be more patient with it. I know I said I’m impatient but I’m trying to take more time into it, so I can get my technicals in. Cuz I have the ideas, I just need to be more technical. And, it’s kinda hard with school, cuz then I have to do my own assignments for school, and I be so busy on my own paintings that I forget to do school assignments. Like right now, I got like five things to do.

How do you navigate business and financial stuff, as someone navigating things solo?

That’s prolly my weakest point as an artist. I’m trying to ask for advice, cuz, I don’t know, this shit is so confusing. Finding collectors and entering galleries. And everytime I’ve tried to ask it’s just been bad. They’ve been hella pretentious. I don’t know if it’s the way I dress or how I talk to people, but sometimes it just feels like they looking down on you when you ask about how to get into that world. So I’m trying to figure it out. I think, after I graduate, it’s just going to be a matter of keep asking, keep asking questions. I still try to go to events when I can, to get some clue. It’s still really confusing. I think a lot of fine artists, when you ask them how they got to this point, they can’t really tell you. I think it’s a naturally thing. It’s just you keep putting work out and people gonna gravitate towards it. And, I’m starting to see that.

But it’s the same thing, not even with just art, but music and other professions. People just asking, How did you get to this point? How did you get to that? And they don’t really got a good answer, cuz it just occurs.

How interested are you in that world?

Hmm. Interested enough to where.… I want a lot of people to see my work, cuz I want to help a lot of people. So if I can find a good gallery or galleries where i could do that, that’d be fine. That’s the plan. I wouldn’t want to make my own gallery, that seems really exhausting, but if that’s what I have to do in the future, then I’ll do that.

Lastly, I want to go back to the kids, as you mentioned that something you’re kinda thinking about in the future. What have been some of the things that have made your art worthwhile, I guess? In what ways do you see that pay off? I don’t know how to word that better.

I haven’t seen that too much, but what I have seen is comments, if that counts for anything. I think it does count. When someone tells me, “your work is nice,” or “it inspires me to make art,” I think that’s what I see. But again, I don’t pay attention to it too much because I’m so preoccupied with getting to a higher level. But I’m still thankful to people who give me positive reinforcements and validation. I’m still appreciative of that, cuz if it helps you out, I did my job. So, let me work so I can help someone else out with my pictures.