Interview with Kaili Smith for ‘A Utopia Where the Problems Are Not Fixed’

Thinkspace is proud to debut ‘A Utopia Where the Problems Are Not Fixed‘ from the Netherlands born and Melbourne, Australia raised artist Kaili Smith.

Smith’s work deals with inner-city youth culture, displaying mundane scenarios of friendships & connectivity. The works also examine the social construct around “youth criminality” and young people growing up in environments where they often face elements of criminality around them, offering alternative perspectives through paintings and film. The work is influenced by his upbringing and experiences as a child, but also an ongoing growing understanding through teaching art and research into psychology. 

In anticipation of ‘A Utopia Where the Problems Are Not Fixed‘, our interview with Kaili Smith discusses this show’s inspiration, the art of kickboxing, and a dinner in Morroco that helped to form who he is today.

What is the inspiration behind this latest body of work and ‘A Utopia Where the Problems Are Not Fixed’?

After reflecting on my last body of work from my show with Thinkspace in 2018, I had several points of changes I wanted for this show. The first was to move away from the “Le Petit Prince” reference in my paintings. Secondly, to include backgrounds that placed the context and environment of the figures, and lastly, work more on narrative in my paintings. I spent a long time working on a mind map drawn on to my studio wall. The mind map was made out of keywords that branched into sentences, rough painting sketches, photos from my childhood etc. This ended up with three themes that the works would center around: Violence/Vulnerability, Crime/Prize, and Companionship/Lotgenoot. The title of the show came up through the mind mapping process and is the perfect contradiction that in so many ways captures the world I’m trying to create in the paintings, as well as the environment and memories the works are inspired by.

Do you have a pre-studio ritual that helps you tap into a creative flow?

Can’t say I do, I generally like things organized and neat. Also, I really grew to respect the importance of sleep. I would say that a full 8 hours of sleep is a successful pre-work ritual for me.

What was the most challenging piece in the show, and why?

The painting’s photoshoots are a big part of the process for me. The photoshoot of “Tell you my biggest fears don’t you ever go expose them” was the last of four shoots done in a day with a total of about 8 models, it was a cold and windy February night, getting all 5 kids to pose as needed and in harmony was not easy at all, but managed to get exactly what I was looking for.

What’s funny about that work is that the painting process might often be the easiest out of them all. Everything from the background, the clothing to the faces just flowed out.

In a previous interview, you expressed that you’d identified the disadvantage of creatively spreading yourself too thin. With that awareness, what is your process for structuring time to ensure you accomplish all that it is you set out to achieve?

Part of it is the harsh reality of long work days with very little days off. But more importantly, is being focused and present when doing one certain thing, this is easier said than done, what helps the most is looking at everything you do like a research project. Screenwriting and directing is my second practice after painting, when I watch any film or tv show even if it’s to relax, I will write down things I liked and didn’t. If I think of anything or see anyone that might inspire a scene or a line, I write it down. The same goes for my MMA training, whenever I’m watching a fight I analyze what is happening and write it down. Doing this once a month is better than watching without focus every week.

When its training time I try to not just show up to go through the motions, if it’s a sparing day I will set some combos in my head I want to work on, if its a lesson day I will record myself after the class going through the steps and explaining them out loud to myself. This practice completely changes the way you remember things. Truthfully sometimes things can go wrong and I set out too much and it leads to mistakes. It’s a process that constantly needs adjusting and learning.

What is a comedian or comedy special that has made you laugh recently, and a good thought-provoking podcast you’d recommend?

Tim Dillons podcast and his dark nihilistic humor has definitely gotten me through the last 6 months.

How long have you been kickboxing, and what inspired that journey?

Coming up to two years now, I always wanted to do it as a kid, but never properly got into it. In 2018 I wanted to prioritize my health as the past years of overworking had taken its tolls. Like almost all things I enjoy, I become obsessive with them. Whether it’s kickboxing or Jujitsu, to me there is such an art to it, it’s like chess. As Mike Tyson said “Everybody thinks this is a tough man’s sport. This is not a tough man’s sport. This is a thinking man’s sport.”

I was set to have my first amateur Muay Thai fight in March and then Covid came and shut it all down a week before. Who knows what the future holds, either way it has taught me a lot of lessons. You can’t avoid issues in MMA like you can with painting or other things in life, if you keep making the same mistakes on paintings you have time to fix it. If your positioning is bad or your chin’s out you get hit in the face. Naturally, you learn to address issues faster and stop allowing yourself to be lazy.

What is the most memorable meal you’ve had in a different country than the one you called home at that time? It could be memorable because of the food or the company you were with while enjoying said meal.

When I was 19 and studying in Rotterdam, during a break I went up to Morocco alone and with no real aim. Long story short I met several migrants who were trying to get into Europe via the Spain Moroccan border, these guys had a lot to tell and I had been interested in making documentary-type work. I had gone up to the forest where the migrant camps were several times to document things and interview the people. One evening I had missed the last bus that would bring me back to my hostel. I ended up staying the night and joined for dinner in what was the local butchers’ leftovers (intestines). As this was a self-made camp sight the meat was cooked on a small ground fire and had been slow cooking all day, I think we ended up eating at around 1 am. There was a lot of reason this was memorable. The insane reality these people were living in goes without saying.

But to me this meal was also most memorable as it holds a warm memory, there were around five of us talking about life, discussing different countries cuisines, listening to French west African music (which was the common language between all of us). It’s fair to say at 19 I knew very very little about the world, I didn’t pay much attention at school and generally did not have a real understanding of globalization and the politics to it, those several days spent getting to know this group of guys formed me a lot. I think they thought I was quite a funny kid who clearly didn’t have any real big aim or secret political angle. They had plenty of questions for me in exchange about Europe and what areas or cities that may be best for them.

You’ve just completed Parsons Fine Arts master program; what is one of the biggest takeaways from that experience?

So many different things, I think what was the most specific to the program itself was having access to really high-level professionals in a wide range of fields. Wether it was painting or film, it was the first time in my life I could regularly talk to someone who really knew the ins and out and technical steps to a practice.

What would be your ultimate festival line up of five musical artists, dead or alive? What kind of food truck would be onsite?

Let me do my Vantage Point podcast interview playlist (out November 1st) Mac Miller, Sampha, Slowthia, Skepta, J hus….Food truck mhmm this is out of my field, I’m not the music festival type, but I mean can’t go wrong with Mexican food I guess.

If your body of work inspired a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor, what would be the ingredients and name of your pint?

I’m having a mental block, and all I can think about is how I miss Haagen Daz cookies & cream, which they don’t seem to sell anywhere in Amsterdam.

Super Optional: Can you elaborate on how you were caught by the police (multiple times) for graffiti art while growing up, and share with us in what ways that experience may have shaped you?

So I spent the 2-3 years of art school trying my hardest to act like that stuff never happened, which with anything in life I would not recommend. Towards the end of my bachelor’s and throughout my master’s program I really tried to go back and get an understanding of my time in Melbourne (where I grew up) and what lead to everything. As I do with everything I looked at it as a research project. It’s difficult to explain just how strange the criminalization of young people and its links to graffiti were at the time of the early ’00s. I went back and found countless TV news reports and police press conferences where they would claim things like “Today’s graffiti offender could be tomorrow’s burglar or domestic violence perpetrator.” It’s funny to break down the meaning and effect of all these things. The police evident claim was that there’s a link to graffiti and more serious crime. I’m not going to sit here and say these things never intertwined, but it becomes a chicken and egg situation. What happens when you put a 14-year-old kid on a crime-stoppers wanted board next to an armed robber, and offer the same reward amount. Or another campaign I had to think back on is when the government went around to all public schools hung up posters in the entrance and handed flyers explaining how we could go to jail for two years for vandalism. Putting the connection to crime aside, what seems clear is that they didn’t have any understanding of child psychology. If you keep telling a child they are a criminal they will end up believing they are one. Going to extremely run-down schools, just to remind children how they can end up in jail doesn’t actually make children flourish. I definitely don’t blame anyone for the decisions I made or situations I was in, but what seems clearer the more I see of the world is that whether positive or negative we are a product of our environment, especially when we are young. Obviously, the way things are going for me I have zero complaints and feel extremely lucky. But I think it’s important to examine and challenge these things as many people I grew up with did not stumble across the same chances.

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