This week’s interview is with Kevin Philippe. When I first spotted Kevin’s work on Instagram, I was in awe by his compelling visuals and his ability to chronicle the cultural abundance of the African diaspora. Get to know more about Kevin and his craft in our discussion.
Me: Can you speak on the significance of using art as a form of activism?
Kevin: I would say art goes hand and hand with activism. Historically, as Black people unfortunately we have a lot to portray when it comes to using art as a form of activism because we have always been targeted since we were brought to these lands as slaves. I see art as a way to express how we as a collective have suffered under these oppressive rules and micro-aggressions. I feel that we can use the art to bring awareness to the different attitudes and different systems that are being put in place to keep us down.
“I see art as a way to express how we as a collective have suffered under these oppressive rules and micro-aggressions.”
Me: Absolutely! Art gives us a platform as Black people to be able to express our truth and be able to portray who we actually are across the diaspora. It’s a great platform to unite us. Art helps us build and strengthen our togetherness overall.
Kevin: Yea. These platforms are very important and as a group we do need to use them more often to speak about the injustices that we suffer.
Me: Definitely. Just seeing your artwork on IG and your many depictions of people of the African Diaspora struck up something within my soul and made me want to reach out to you brother. One of the pieces that I was intrigued by on your IG is called Ms. Shambhala. Can you give a more thorough explanation of that one?
Kevin: I actually have a list of hundreds and hundreds of miscellaneous titles in a Google doc ranging from poems, song titles or just random stuff that I hear. Once I started working with this image it was kind of bland and I didn’t know what to add to it. So, I opened up my list of titles and thought about making one on Shambhala. Shambhala is a place where many desire to reach, but I think in Buddhism mythology it explains that it’s hidden beneath earth.
Kevin: I had initially created an image of a backpacker walking towards this circle of Mandalas. Then, I decided to add a woman and this explosion of colors related to Shambhala being in her mind. Then, I thought I needed to add more to the name Shambhala and finally put the Ms. because she’s married to the man who already reached Shambhala. I have the same process with all of my images where I have a title in mind but then as I keep progressing on the illustration, the concept changes. Sometimes I don’t publish my work even though it’s finished because it doesn’t have a title.
“I have the same process with all of my images where I have a title in mind but then as I keep progressing on the illustration, the concept changes.”
Me: Wow. That’s a dope piece! I’m just looking at the symbols within the piece can you dive deeper into what they represent?
Kevin: They’re called Mandalas and they are geometric figures that represent the universe in Hinduism and Buddhism. In this piece the woman is represented having Shambhala within her mind, it’s a utopia. We need to reach this woman’s mind in order to reach a utopian life.
Me: Excellent concept that you used, now it all clicks! It reminds me of trying to reach a state of eternal piece within your own mind.
Me: Describe your upbringing, where you’re originally from – when you started painting, family background, and education?
Kevin: I was born in Laredo, Texas which is a border town with Mexico. My father is Haitian and my mother is Mexican. We moved to Elizabeth, New Jersey shortly after I was born. I also have two younger brothers. When I was growing up in New Jersey I had the best of both worlds with my Dad being Black and my Mom being Hispanic. It’s funny because before I went to pre-K I thought all Black people were from Haiti (laughing). Also, as a kid I was interested in Geography. This was fueled after the France 1998 World Cup. I really loved flags and my Mom bought me a world globe and telescope. I will admit that I never learned how to use a telescope but the world globe became my favorite instantly. I would go on and quiz myself on world capitals, countries, rivers, oceans, lakes, etc. I used my globe so much that it wore out and some parts started to peel off (laughing). My parents thought that I was going to be a geographer when I grew up.
“When I was growing up in New Jersey I had the best of both worlds with my Dad being Black and my Mom being Hispanic.”
Kevin: My interest in art came later in life when I was in middle school. My first younger brother who is a year younger than me, would start to draw different anime characters like Dragon Ball Z in MS Paint. I eventually got hooked and started to create my own characters. My brother grew bored with it after awhile, but I still continued drawing in MS Paint until my first year at Texas A&M International University. I was majoring in Nursing but as the semester reached its end, I grew dissatisfied of the Nursing program. I really was in it due to the pressure I felt because my father is a doctor and my mother is a nurse. Even though I had good grades, I didn’t envision myself working as a nurse. So, I took a risk and majored in Art which is my passion and I focused on Illustration. I haven’t looked back since then nor repented my decision. Thankfully, I had full support from my parents who were also paying for my education.
Me: That’s awesome that you did decide to go for what you wanted to pursue and that your parents were supportive. People tend to look down upon art as a viable career.
Kevin: Yea, I was watching this documentary about soccer in India and how it’s growing. I was reading the comments and the way society is structured where many conform to society where they grow to be engineers or other professions because that’s what their parents want them to be.
Me: Definitely. I’ve also noticed that being true especially for those who are second generation Americans whose parents tend to look down upon them entering into creative fields. They either want you to be a doctor, engineer or a lawyer.
Kevin: Yea and in a way those careers can ensure your a secure future, but it comes at the expense of your happiness.
Me: Indeed. Since your father is from Haiti and your mother is from Mexico, what was that dynamic like growing up with those two distinct cultural influences?
Kevin: When I was little I didn’t really notice it that much until later on after I moved back to Laredo. We stuck out because there wasn’t a large Black population there. It’s kind of sad because we were constantly reminded that we were Black in a negative aspect. I would hear that I’m too Mexican with my Black friends and then I would hear that I’m too Black with my Mexican friends. Also, being on the border, there’s this dynamic within the culture when it comes to language where people switch up between English and Spanish.
“I would hear that I’m too Mexican with my Black friends and then I would hear that I’m too Black with my Mexican friends.”
Kevin: Also, that dynamic is similar where my grandmother only speaks Haitian Creole. I see that when she speaks with my aunts and uncles she only speaks Haitian Creole, but with my cousins who were born in the U.S. they don’t speak Haitian Creole but they understand it. Sometimes when they talk to her and their parents, they mix English with one or two words in Haitian Creole. My Dad on the other hand speaks Haitian Creole and French so that’s a new dynamic for us. One of my brothers is learning French and I’m learning Haitian Creole. Sometimes we talk to my father in those languages. My Mom who only speaks Spanish, also understands English, Haitian Creole, and French. So, it’s pretty awesome how we can switch back and forth with these languages.
Me: Yea, that is awesome for real (laughing)! That’s pretty ironic too that you were considered too Black in certain spaces since I’ve learned that Mexico had a heavy African influence from reading They Came Before Columbus by Ivan Van Sertima. He was talking about how Africans did establish these incredible civilizations throughout Mexico. Now, the African influence has been greatly diminished.
Kevin: Yea and the Africans that were brought to Mexico as slaves were in more quantity than those of the US. But, when you hear someone talk about Mexico, a certain phenotype appears to the mind from the media or some pre-conceived notion. Actually, according to a census done in 2015 or 2016, there were 1.3 million Mexicans who refer to themselves as Afro-Mexicans. What happened to all of those Africans in relation to the Mestizo population? The Africans who were here started mixing with the Spanish. Sadly when this was done, many Africans began to deny their heritage and became invisible to the rest of the population. These Europeans who brought African slaves here wanted to strip them of their humanity in order to successfully conquer them.
“These Europeans who brought African slaves here wanted to strip them of their humanity in order to successfully conquer them.”
Me: Wow, everything that you said brought a lot into perspective for me especially being a Black person living in the United States. Sometimes you get jaded and just focus on the racism going on here and you don’t realize how heavy the effects of white supremacy are globally.
Kevin: I’ve also read documentaries about all of this anti-blackness that has been propagated throughout this whole continent that we call America. I would go on to say that racism is strongly held more in Latin American countries than in the US. In Latin American countries it’s extremely rare to see a Black politician and that alone says a lot. Then you have the media that’s always downplaying certain aspects of Black people.
“In Latin American countries it’s extremely rare to see a Black politician and that alone says a lot.”
Me: Yea and it’s a shame that these psychological effects of slavery have led some of us to downplay our African-ness.
Kevin: As a collective living in this wilderness called America we do have to be careful what we listen to and how our seeds are being educated because it all affects the subconscious. It affects how we should behave and they’re destructive to our culture.
Me: Definitely. Describe how you approach your creative process, what’s your ideal environment to bring out your full range creativity?
Kevin: I start out my day doodling on paper just to get some of my creative juices running. Obviously this is done after I eat some breakfast in order to get some energy for the day and after spending some time in my backyard. Then, I go back to my room and I go to my YouTube playlist which mostly consists of Hip-Hop, Jazz, Reggae, Blues, Lo-Fi, and Dance Hall. Some artists I listen to are – MidNite, Kali Scientific, K’naan, Sa-Roc, and Tego Calderon. While I’m listening to these artists, I’ll go to Instagram pages like @darskinbaddiesdaily, @islandnaturals, @darkskin.blackgirls or simply browse through Facebook, looking for that melanin that I need for a muse. It usually takes me an hour or two searching for a reference to use. I like transforming images I find into something totally different. The references I find, I’ll merge them together using my sketchbook – I’ll get a facial expression from one photo, a body pose from another model and so forth. After I merge them, I upload it into a software program called Inkscape. I create lines and strokes and different color shapes. I also like to read articles, poems, or watch YouTube videos in order to grasp concepts I can draw or find some titles I can snatch up for some future illustrations.
“I like transforming images I find into something totally different.”
Me: Nice and I got to look up those artists too, you put me on bro (laughing)!
Kevin: No problem! What I like about some of these artists is that they’re not too known but they be dropping knowledge on different issues and the political landscapes of where they are. When it comes to illustrating I feel more comfortable with listening to conscious lyrics, it gives me a good vibe.
Me: I feel you. It’s definitely a certain vibe you got to have in order to express your full self when you create. You mentioned that you use a software called Inkscape, I never heard of it.
Kevin: I downloaded it back in 2011 because it was free. It’s like the poor man’s Illustrator. I remember when I started my graphic design career back then, I was always watching tutorials from YouTube and blogs and I thought I had mastered everything. I remember when I had my first commission, I didn’t even know how to use one of the main tools which was the pen. So, it was kind of a disaster (laughing). The first time I actually used Illustrator was in 2013 in one of my university courses and I was lost because I was so used to Inkscape. So, what I did for my whole semester was use Inkscape and I could comfortably do all the assignments that instructor gave out. Then, I would produce everything in better quality with Inkscape then my classmates would with Illustrator. The tools don’t make the artist, but what you can do with those tools determines how great of an artist you are.
Me: Great point! That’s where the heavy practice comes into play, that’s why it’s called a discipline because you have to devote your whole being in order to excel. What are some of the lessons you’ve learned from being a professional artist?
Kevin: One of the major lessons I learned is discipline. Right now I do have other jobs but what I earn from those jobs I use to fund my art career. So, it does take discipline in order to be able to not spend money on things that you don’t necessarily need. Also, the time factor where you need to divide your time so you can actually get the work done. I learned that I need to have a plan to follow. For example, if I’m going to do freelance, which I do illustration and translation then I need to devote certain time to writing proposals, creating, and writing emails. Sometimes, when I don’t do something I needed to do in that day, I kind of regret it because I’m not getting that time back. That time could’ve been invested in promoting my work, practicing, watching tutorials, doing a newsletter and also establishing a relationships with other artists. You constantly have to be working on something. I’ll admit that when you’re majoring in Art, the aspect of business is not discussed that much. It’s something I wish that we would of discussed more. That’s something I had to learn through trial and error.
“I’ll admit that when you’re majoring in Art, the aspect of business is not discussed that much.”
Me: Those are excellent points that you’ve mentioned there, especially looking at art from a business perspective. That’s what I’m learning as well from interviewing you phenomenal artists. It’s more than just creating a nice piece, you also have to think critically about the business side and be able to handle a variety of other tasks in addition to creating art. If you could collaborate with any artist on an upcoming piece who would it be and why?
Kevin: I’ve always been inspired by this artist named Geneva B. (IG: @gdbee). It would be a big honor for me if I could collaborate with her. Her work is so vivid and full of life. Her illustrations are like eye candy, full of positive vibes and very energetic. I can picture myself going to the vending machine, purchasing her work, and eating it as if it were chocolate (laughing)! She’s awesome!
Me: (Laughing) That’s what’s up! In your opinion what do you think young Black visual artists can do to create more opportunities for themselves?
Kevin: Keep on going and do what you love to do. Keep on pushing yourself to improve at your craft whether you’re drawing, painting, photographing, sculpting, or illustrating. Many times I’ve heard the narrative that Black people aren’t as good compared to other people when it comes to art. The same thing has been said in many disciplines and look how wrong they were, when we get in we tend to dominate. Also, we need to support our own. Why not spread the word about other artists work, or support their Go Fund Me or Kickstarter pages? We need to communicate with each other, set up blogs, post in Facebook groups, have an online presence – create portfolios, and e-newsletters about your on-going and future projects or discounts in your shops. This is really important because when I haven’t had a sale in my shops, I would do a newsletter and after sending that newsletter I would get old clients buying my new work. We need to remind them that we’re here and we need their support.
“We need to communicate with each other, set up blogs, post in Facebook groups, have an online presence – create portfolios, and e-newsletters about your on-going and future projects or discounts in your shops.”
Me: Excellent advice, we have to utilize this technology that we have to our advantage.
Kevin: Exactly. We need to use these to create healthy relationships with our clients. For example, I was posting in this one Black artist group on Facebook and a person noticed my artwork and purchased it because it had the same title as the name of her mother which is Flora. So, she could relate to that piece because of the title. When I was doing that drawing back in 2013, I was going to throw away that sketch but I ended up using it and creating the final product from it. It definitely works to create relationships with people when it comes to the art world.
Me: Wow. It’s essential like you were saying to bond with your customers and build that loyalty because they’re ultimately going to refer you to other people. Word of mouth is still the strongest marketing tactic out there even with this technology we have available. If you develop those good relationships then you’re going to grow. Plus, that unification factor between other black creatives is critical for us to thrive.
Kevin: We have this huge spending power that if we redirected towards our own community, then it would have significant impact. We could employ people that look like us so it’s a merit and not based on race. Then we wouldn’t have to be worried about having a name that sounds too ethnic or the way we wear our natural hair. Unfortunately, thriving Black communities have been destroyed due to jealousy but if we pulled our resources together, we could recreate Black wall streets. I remember when I started my We Buy Black account back in 2016. Once I started uploading my art, I immediately started selling it. My people were supporting me so I have to support them also. I actually done some art exchanges with other artists through that platform.
“We have this huge spending power that if we redirected towards our own community, then it would have significant impact.”
Me: You unloaded some gems right there! What’s your favorite piece you created?
Kevin: My favorite piece I created is Inner Queenly inspired by reggae Artist Midnite’s song by the same title. It is a turning point in the style I was looking to achieve. I dared to play with the levels of opacity as I have never before, contrasting said levels with brightness (crystal and lioness). I consider Black women to be queens. The Black women is the most disrespected group on the Earth, but without the Black women there would be no civilization, no family, and no humanity.
Kevin: The role of the Black woman is crucial for the community. As this proverb I heard says, “when you raise a boy you have raised a man, but when you raise a girl, you have raised an entire village.” I think that Black women have been psychologically attacked and have suffered more often than Black men. You had all of these queens all over Africa throughout history who have stood up to the face of oppression. You had Yaa Asantewaa, and Queen Nzinga. You had this Queen, Candace who fought Alexander The Great and expelled the Greeks. You had many matrilineal tribes that have fought off imperialism. I created this piece with all of this in mind as the Black woman with God-like properties.
“You had all of these queens all over Africa throughout history who have stood up to the face of oppression.”
Me: Mannn…drop the Mic! That was some phenomenal words right there. We do have to uphold our women in the highest regard. That’s what attracted me to your work as well, that you do portray Black women as what they were originally depicted as in history – GODS. Are there any other artists in your family?
Kevin: Unfortunately, I don’t know anyone in my family that are artists. I might be the first one in a long time, but who knows. Maybe some of my ancestors back in Haiti or all the way to the coast of Senegambia, Guinea, Congo, Benin, Togo, etc. were artists.
Me: Yea, It’s got to be somebody within your roots that was a dope artist like you!
Me: What was the most challenging piece you’ve done?
Kevin: The most challenging piece I have done is Glimpse into Timelessness. I remember this illustration sitting in my folder of works in progress for months. I would stare at it every day trying to figure out what should I do with it in terms of color, composition, opacity, is it going to look good, ok, I don’t know. I felt like I never was going to actually finish it, so when I worked on it I would assume that it was in vain. I’ve felt that every time I observed the unfinished drawing it will laugh at me for my incompetence of finishing it. So one day I decided to stop being a bitch and tackled the illustration. I changed the colors, the poses, the meaning, and the subject matter so many times. It was crazy how much time I actually dedicated to this piece. I was so proud of myself after I finished it, I’m glad it’s over with (laughing)!
Me: Well, it looks fantastic bro!
Kevin: Thank you! Actually when I started the drawing I already had the title in mind. It’s kind of funny because it took me so long to finish it and I felt like I didn’t have the time to finish it. Sometimes I get the title without changing the concept which in itself is difficult and you get stuck with it.
Me: I definitely feel you on that. It’s tough especially as a creative and you already have this elaborate concept in your mind but then you have to switch to something else. Describe a time when you experienced a creative block and how did you overcome it?
Kevin: I had a creative block back in 2012 when I had to work to pay for my university courses so I had a job at McDonald’s where the schedule was kind of heavy. I would enter at 5pm and get out at 2am. Then I would sleep all day until 10am wake up at 5pm and do it all over again. So, I didn’t have much time to draw or sketch out something. To be deprived of something that you’re passionate about is sad. The outlook of your world changes. Being stressed and the time constraints had an effect on my creativity. I actually ended up quitting the job and saw an increase in my artwork and the quality of it. Hopefully I never have to revert back to those times, I just want to keep on drawing. The time strain is what gives me more of these creative blocks.
“Being stressed and the time constraints had an effect on my creativity.”
Me: I understand where you’re coming from, McDonald’s was actually my first job so I can definitely relate to that struggle. Time is our most valuable asset and when you’re deprived of it, it definitely affects your creative vibe. How has your artwork shaped you as a person?
Kevin: It has been ingrained into my cosmovision. It consists of three questions: Who I am? Where do I come from? Where I am going? It has helped me to observe the world around me very differently. I see everything in terms of relationships, just like in my artwork. When I create a line, it is just a single line with no relationship to something, devoid of a complete or complex meaning, not letting know the viewer what is it supposed to represent. But then you draw another line or a sequence of lines, a shape or two and add some color to it, some shading and other elements. The group of lines and shapes and color and shadows now start to relate to each other, thus forming the structure/foundation of what you want to portray. As a complex being we still need relationships with other complex beings in order to thrive. We need to relate to other perspectives, to the struggles of other people. We need empathy, to walk in shoes of others. We need to connect to other people in order to give and display a different meaning to our lives. We need not to be a single line, devoid from humanity, we need to connect to others to create impact and a more meaningful life.
“We need not to be a single line, devoid from humanity, we need to connect to others to create impact and a more meaningful life.”
Me: That was profound brother. What is your most proud achievement so far as an artist?
Kevin: It is the relationships that I have created with my artwork that I would consider my most proud achievements. I’m telling you this as the most shyest person ever (laughing)! But, once I get to communicate with others then I can go on and on. I love to communicate with my clients to know what they think about my artwork. Sometimes they add me on Facebook where we chat for awhile. They also provide me feedback, marketing tips, and alert others about my work. I had a client tell me that she was giving me tips because she wanted me to do better in my art career. I also love hearing about the stories of how people discovered my artwork. My art can break the ice and create initial talking points.
Me: That’s phenomenal especially being able to connect with someone else on an emotional level through your art. Much respect! Would you like to share any upcoming projects/exhibitions?
Kevin: I’m part of an international art and design collective called Cosmosys. This organization has partnered with Luminarium which is another art collective featuring some of most insanely talented artists all over the world in order to release a badass collective in the next month or two, so stay tuned. I’m also planning to update my shop on We Buy Black with 24×36 inch thick digital poster prints.
Me: That’s cool man, much respect to you and your craft! What’s your vision for the future in terms of your artistry?
Kevin: My vision is to have more meaningful and impactful work. I’ve had people tell me when they look at my art, they feel happy. To hear that motivates me to keep doing it. Also, my vision is to be part of establishing a new Black wall street. Whether it’s being next to a laundry shop ran by these brothers in New Orleans or a French lessons school ran by some Haitian sisters, I’d love to be part of us coming together as a collective. It would be one that would last more than a lifetime.
Me: Phenomenal! I love that. Well, Kevin I really appreciate you for taking the time to do the interview with me.
Kevin: Thank you my brother, it was a pleasure.