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.

New to the Family: Interview with Kaili Smith

New to the Thinkspace Family is Netherland born and Australia raised artist Kaili Smith. We’ve shown pieces from Smith in group exhibitions at SCOPE Art Fair during Miami Art Basel and the Honolulu Museum of Art in Hawaii, and are excited to be hosting Smith’s solo exhibition World Meets Petit Prince in London at Moniker next week, October 4th through 7th.

Kaili Smith graduated with a bachelors in Fine Arts at WDKA in Rotterdam in 2018, finished with a sold-out graduation show. Smith is now pursuing a master’s degree in New York after receiving a full scholarship at Parsons School of Design.

Kaili’s work focuses on the topics of globalization, normalization of behavior & criminality, a reflection on the increasingly integrated society of today, its beauty and its struggles.

His current series of works Le Petit Prince reflect on the bizarre conflicting reality of children growing up in an environment of crime, while at the same time showing the strength that children often find through this lifestyle, an ongoing cycle of criminality that many western countries still struggle to understand or deal with in a progressive manner.

Get to know more about Kaili Smith in anticipation for his show at Moniker.

SH: Your artistic voice spans a wide range of mediums including but not limited to video, painting, poetry etc. Does one medium inspire the development of work in another and so on and so forth, or are the concepts developed more independently of each other? What is your creative process?

KS: So I didn’t touch a paintbrush till I was at least 18 (in elementary school my teacher let me play outside during art classes because I was too distracting and never did the work). I started art school at 19 with nothing but a background in spray paint and a few months of brushwork. The turning point was when I found myself in a poetry class in the second year. Long story short I had the most amazing teacher, he wasn’t some crazy motivational speaker, he was just fun and took time to see how each student’s own life experiences could be translated into poetry, I ended up making some short pieces that to my surprise got great feedback. I something switched then and for around 2 years I wanted to try every possible form of art.

The different fields absolutely inspire each other. “The petit prince” idea first formed from a fashion installation piece which never got finished. I, however, started to see the disadvantage in spreading out too much. So for the past year and upcoming future, I’m focussing on paintings & short film work.

SH: What is your favorite and least favorite part of the creative process?

KS: For paintings, in this series, I have found a style in which I truly enjoy the process from start to finish. For a while, I would jump back and forward between hyper-realism and figurative abstract. In this style, I just take both and let them go against one another. It’s made the entire process fun as-well as unexpected as I let myself choose between applying detail & precession or working extremely expressively all in the same piece.

For short films, the script writing is the most magical part, when you start to create this world and bring life to characters and have full creative control on where it goes. About everything else after that is a complete organizational hell. Once you look back at the process of filming it becomes worth it, but the stress of having everything come together from casting, costume, scheduling, film-crew and more is extremely stress full. I just hope with the more experience as well as growing resources the process of making the film can become more fun.

SH: What inspired the !Le Petit Prince! series?

KS: Growing up with a French mother “Le petit prince” was a book often read to me. In the original novel, Le petit prince is about a young boy learning about the adult world. On a core level, my paintings are taking that same premise but with a reflection of the environment of my teenage/early adult years. Exploring small snapshot stories of children mixed into a world of “criminality” through the lens of fairytales & the royal golden age aesthetic.

My main objective is for the work to create an ongoing conversation about how we view youth criminality. A topic often misunderstand. My paintings always try to capture the control, power, and self-identity that children find in this lifestyle. Society often either victimize or in contrast demonize youth criminality. The problem is that it doesn’t give the perspective of the child. A child rarely thinks they are a victim and see themselves as taking control over their situation and surroundings. The issue with the victimization of children involved in youth criminality is that if they are given any form of a way out whether it is punishment or placement in a different area, we then expect that to be the solution, as we frame it is as getting the “victim” away from their oppressor. However when proven unsuccessful this is then used as a way to label any young repeat offenders as simply genetically “bad” children. To sum it up, if we pay more attention from the perspective of children for their decisions and also see the strength needed to survive & strive in this environment, we can then reach constructive solutions to deal with the problem.

SH: Your artwork addresses the worlds varying perspectives, how do you personally approach understanding a perspective that differs from your own?

KS: This is a tricky one to answer. I think I am just lucky that due to my extremely diverse family and different places I have lived, different perspectives was simply all I ever knew. Even before I was old enough to articulate it, I simply never questioned different peoples way of living and often would find myself adapting to it. different was just the norm I suppose. If anything, becoming an artist and an adult I have had to think hard about what my own personal Identity and perspectives are. In terms of my work, my latest series is very personal. In the past when making works about other peoples perspective I have simply tried to listen to what they are ultimately saying and not what I would want them to say.

SH: Who is an artist; musician, director, any art form – who would be a dream collaboration for you and what would you create?

KS: I love collaborating with musicians. If I have to dream… I would say getting Kanye or Kendrick to collaborate on a musical short-film and have Rei Kawakubo (Comme des garçons) & Viktor & Rolf design all the costumes. I would name some amazing filmmakers to join the process, but then I would have nothing to contribute…

SH: Has there been someone or some event that has made a significant impact on you that lead you to where you are now? An artistic catalyst of sorts?

KS: There was a very specific turn of events in my life which I think shifted my focus a lot. When I was 18 I worked shortly at a cafe and met this French abstract artist who owned his own gallery and sold a ton of work. I had showed him some of my graffiti murals and he wanted to do a collaboration with me for one of his works. He offered $500 + material costs and 50/50 split when the work was sold. I honestly didn’t know what to make of him, but figured I didn’t have much to lose and that even if just the spray cans were covered I would have some leftovers to go towards trains. On the day I was supposed to meet him my house got raided at 6 am and I had to spend the day in jail. It was the 5th time since 14 I had been raided for graffiti. The next day I told him I’d lost my phone, luckily enough he told me to come by his gallery and that we’d go ahead with the plans. When I walked in he was still talking to some clients so I sat down and waited when they started talking about which paintings they wanted to buy and how one of the paintings was $60,000, I released all the sudden that this whole thing wasn’t a joke. We then drove to the studio in the nicest car I’d ever been in and spend the day working on our canvas. I never did admit to him what had actually happened the day before. But it was as if he could tell I was bit lost. Being in such a rich environment definitely was impactful within itself, but the time he took and lessons he taught me about self-value and the importance of putting good thoughts and energy into the world, were truly priceless. I don’t think they could have come at a more crucial time. and due to the circumstances had an extremely powerful impact that still influences me to this day. The universe works in funny ways…

SH: What plays in the background while you are painting, podcasts, music, tv shows?

KS: Music is a must. it was not asked for but here is top 5 albums playing while I’m painting.

1.My Beautifull Dark Twisted Fantasy(Kanye West)

2. 4 Your Eyes Only (J.cole)

3. Process (Sampha)

4. To Pimp A Butterfly (Kendrick Lamar)

5. Coloring Book (Chance the rapper)

Also on the podcast wave, I’m very interested in psychology and human behavior, try to balance it out with some comedy though, being too “woke” will only lead to sleep deprivation…

SH: What is an aspect of other’s artwork that really excites you, what are you drawn too?

KS: My head went into error when trying to answer this. I see value in all forms of creativity. For me, storytelling in an objective manner is powerful.

SH: You have a time machine, and you could do anything / go anywhere for 24 hours, and would not interfere with the space-time continuum. What would you do?

KS: I feel like I can grasp the idea of the past. Let me go 500 years into the future and see what’s going on. However, I would highly argue it is impossible to go into the future and not interfere with the space-time continuum. Even if I was never allowed to talk about what I saw, that in itself would interfere with the space-time continuum. (stay woke)

SH: Favorite way to celebrate the completion of a project/body of work.

KS: I’m a simple man…a tub of cookies & cream ice cream, my bed, Netflix and I’m happy.

With that being said a trip to a new place in the world every year or two, is good to recharge the creative juices and keep things in perspective.