You’re right. Nigrescence isn’t a real word. But, it defines Kenish Magwood—it’s her definition of self as a young African-American woman. Magwood has been exposed to both PWIs and HBCUs over the course of her scholastic career. She also happens to be a gifted artist—so you know she has a story to tell. However, she strives to have her stories to be more than just pretty pictures.
How did you get your start in art?
I got sketchbooks ever since I was three—I also went to a magnet school from middle school to high school. However, starting out art was always something I just enjoyed. But, I had family that cultivated my art. But, I’ve had friends who are also artists that have had their parents say, “Oh, that nice—but go study to be a doctor or something.”
Who were your art influences?
I would say when I was younger—Roy Lichtenstein for his comic book art. But, now—I know the art community will kill me for this—but his comics to me now are just pretty pictures. I definitely grew out of him. I would also say Kehinde Wiley, whose work has been featured on Empire. He typically likes to paint men in royal, regal settings. I also like Kara Walker and Betye Saar. Her work is known for stirring the pot—but at a tamer level than Kara Walker. Finally, I like Aaron McGruder—the creator of The Boondocks. I like his satire and the fact he started out as a comic book artist.
How has art played a major part in your life?
In high school, it was definitely a competition among my peers—but it was friendly. But, in undergrad [at Claflin University], I didn’t grow as much as an artist. This might seem narcissistic but I was the best—it was because I didn’t have competition. I didn’t grow a lot as a person and my artistic voice didn’t grow as well. But, I’m glad I went to Claflin because if I went to a more prestigious school, I would have learned more technically—and I would have been stuck painting pretty pictures. That would have been like being “book smart”—I would have known everything but would have known nothing. But, when I went to Howard, the drive was higher. Typically, those who go for their master’s are motivated. But those who go for their master’s in art are the crème of the crop. For most of my life, I really liked comics and it kind of came full circle in my grad school career. For my thesis, I wanted to make a comic painting series focusing on black identity theory. I focused on nigrescence—which is my idea of black identity. I highlighted the events of the Black Lives Matter movement. But it seemed like I was always in the middle of a piece and something else happened—it was sad.
What is your favorite subject matter? Favorite pieces?
Anything sociological—something that brings some kind of ethnic awareness. I had the opportunity to go to both predominantly white schools and HBCUs. So, I wanted to highlight those cultures—even internationally. I would have to say my top two pieces are: “Intensity,” which I did at 16 and “The HBCU Experience.” The random specks on the “Intensity” pieces are actually from spilled coffee—but it worked out. I also don’t remember sitting in one spot when I did that piece. But, I did “The HBCU Experience” solely in a studio space. I like both settings because I can carry a sketchbook everywhere—my pencil is like my artistic EpiPen. But, the studio is like my home away from home.
As a Christian, what are some of the conflicts you have faced?
I would say I’m a walking contradiction. I am really artsy and I tend to be more carefree and weird. But, I am also a child of God and have a reserved nature. But, it’s hard sometimes for my artistic and Christian community to understand what I do. For example, body paintings in the art community are normal but some of my Christian family thinks that its people selling their bodies. Also, at every artist event there is wine and liquor. But, I don’t drink—other artists don’t understand that.
What legacy do you want to leave behind as an artist?
I want to be remembered for a turning point in history. In particular, the Black Lives Matter movement. I know for sure in the future, the movement should be featured in history books—I want to be one of the featured artists in that section. I want to push along the conversation for the movement.