Staring Down Oregon Through Paint

Written by Bruce Poinsette; Photographed by Christine Dong

Being a Black Oregonian means navigating simultaneous hypervisibility and invisibility. Trying to shrink yourself or blend into rooms makes you vulnerable. Responding with confidence makes you a threat. It influences not just how we move in general, but how we see and, far too often, don’t see each other.

It’s impossible to divorce this dynamic from Oregon’s legacy as the only state to pass anti-Black exclusion laws. The legacy continues to manifest in local policies to this day: according to, Portland has the fifth highest Black arrest disparity in the country; Portland police kill Black people nearly four times more often than white; and Black Portlanders continue to disproportionately face displacement by gentrification and city initiatives. This makes the need for Black Oregonians to be seen and command dignity that much more visceral and urgent.

It also calls upon Black artists to make work that stares down Oregon directly. Few works do so quite like the paintings of Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe.

Quaicoe’s portraits utilize bold, often bright colors and clothing, as well as a focus on the gaze of his subjects—friends, colleagues, and strangers alike—to convey empowerment. Quaicoe often dresses subjects to fit specific themes, such as his interest in cowboys and Westerns. The shading of subjects’ skin contrasts with vibrant attire to capture the viewers’ gaze, while conveying complex Black stories simply through the eyes staring back at them.

“You pick particular clothes for a reason, because you know that when you wear those clothes, it’ll make you feel important or it’ll make you feel powerful or it’ll make you feel happy,” says Quaicoe. “When you look at my subjects in my paintings–the side of the stare, the clothes–it’s about everything.”

Quaicoe shoots photographs of his subjects that he converts to black and white sketches in order to locate the true color source.

“You can capture all that in one shot–the person’s character, their emotions, who the person really is, their stare and everything,” says Quaicoe. “You spend more time getting to know the person than just painting and looking at them getting tired.”

Intisar Abioto—a fellow Portland creative and curator of the Portland Art Museum’s Black Artists of Oregon exhibit, which features Quaicoe’s paintings—calls Quaicoe’s work “epic.”

“I feel like the energy of the folks truly comes through and emanates,” says Abioto. “I think his works are dynamic and alluring.”

Before moving to Portland with his wife Jessica in 2017, Quaicoe grew up and developed his craft in Accra, Ghana. His love for painting began with the hand-painted movie posters he would see on the walls in theaters as a child. He especially enjoyed Westerns, which they called “TNT” movies in Ghana. After finding out those posters were commissioned, he sought out the artists and some gave him lessons.

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