- 20 years on, Kevin Barnes is as much an enigma to those close to him as he is to his fans.
- Long before selfies, commissioned portraits provided a way to shape one’s public image.
- Designer Walé Oyéjidé is on a mission to help all men unleash their inner fashionisto.
- Art & Design
- Art & Design
Coming up, Kevin Barnes is the founder and leader of the Indie rock band, Of Montreal. After 20 years and 14 albums, he still is much an enigma to those close to him as he is to his fans.
Kevin Barnes: What I discovered through the creative process was that I could get this sort of fulfillment through working, that maybe other people would get through just hanging out, and having close relationships.
Long before selfies, portraits were a way, for those who could afford it, to help shape their public image.
Kim Sajet: Portraiture, I like to quote Picasso, is a lie that illustrates the truth.
And recognized as one of America’s best dressed man, designer, attorney, and Afrobeat musician, Walé Oyéjidé, is on a mission to help all men unleash their inner fashionista.
Walé Oyéjidé: I try not to let people convince themselves that something is not for them. If it’s something that you appreciate, wear it and people will believe what you believe about yourself.
That’s all ahead, on Articulate.
It’s easy to misconstrue Kevin Barnes as a mass of contradictions. He’s the leader of the band of Montreal, though he’s not from nor has he ever spent much time in Montreal. His gender identity is fluid, but he’s steadily heterosexual. His shows are fabulously flamboyant, though he himself is shy and reserved.
Kevin Barnes: I was sort of a really lonely teenager, and what I discovered through the creative process was that I could get this sort of fulfillment through working, that maybe other people would get through just hanging out and having close relationships. And, I tend to, you know, not really try to cultivate deep relationships with people. I do appreciate people, and I don’t think, you know, I’m a sociopath or anything, but I definitely am more focused on the creative process and making things. And hopefully, as a side effect you know, sort of bringing other people in to what I do. And through that I’m able to interact with people and have relationships with people. But everybody pretty much is within the circle of Of Montreal, everybody in my life is pretty much, on some level, involved in the touring circus. So, I just want to put everyone to work basically.
And of Montreal on tour is indeed quite a circus. A myriad of costume changes and outrageous props are how Barnes explores the limit of what is possible on stage. He even once played a gig completely naked, but for a garter belt. All this to try to reduce the exposure he feels by the emotional vulnerability of his lyrics.
Barnes: You can say whatever you want if you’re covered in glitter and you’re wearing like women’s lingerie. Whatever you could be singing, a song about a girlfriend who’s sending you photographs of her cutting herself, or whatever, it’s like. Then it doesn’t seem quite as criminal. I mean, I have done solo shows where it feels more raw and more connected, but when I’m doing something like that at a solo show, it’s painful actually, it’s really uncomfortable.
AJC: Who’s the music for primarily, is it for you or for the audience?
Barnes: Oh, definitely for me. Yeah, I mean, ’cause an audience, it’s like, how could you even know what the audience is and it’s always changing. So I never think about that, like as far as wanting to accommodate or please anybody else, because, they might not even be paying attention anymore. Like they were paying attention three albums ago, and they had stopped paying attention. Or like, so what is an audience member? It’s whoever’s listening in the moment, so you can’t really even think about them.
It’s different for girls
They don’t spit on the street
They don’t piss on the seat
They don’t have to size up
Every person they meet
Or create an elite
Or poison the game
So no one else can compete
They are chaos
AJC: Let’s talk about “It’s Different For Girls,” then. What have been the responses to that song, from, I don’t know, women who’ve read the lyrics, and have listened to it carefully.
Barnes: Through writing the song and through talking to people about gender inequality I learned a lot. And I don’t know why I wrote the song in the first place, you know it’s just like the mysterious thing, when people write songs. It wasn’t something I’d been thinking about for years and like finally I have the courage to write it, you know. Like, it just sort of happened out of the blue. It’s like, hey I’m writing this song. And I spent some time on the lyrics, but I didn’t obsess over it, and I didn’t like do a lot of research. Wasn’t in the library like, “But how is it really different? You know, historically speaking.” It just sort of happened, and then after it was done, you know weeks later, months later, thinking about it and putting it into more contemporary context, and you know just talking to other people about it, and like realizing how deep the issue really is.
Barnes: I’ve always definitely felt very connected to my femininity. In high school especially, I started realizing, like okay well I’m still attracted to women, but I’m not like those dudes at all, and I don’t want to be like those dudes, I don’t even want to hang out with those guys. Those like macho, sporty dudes are just a drag. So it’s an interesting place to be when you are very feminine but also not gay.
Talk to me talk
talk talk to me
Amalgam I think
that you’re great
I already like you
I like that you like you
I think that you’re great
I want to let’s relate
Readings of scorpion collage
In my Menilmontant atelier
AJC: You’re incredibly prolific. I think we’re around album 14 now, in less than 20 years. I have a suspicion you don’t ever suffer from writer’s block.
Barnes: I don’t really think 14 albums in 20 years is that impressive. I mean, there’s something to say about quality over quantity. I mean—
AJC: You haven’t put out a bad record yet.
Barnes: I haven’t put out a great one either, so.
AJC: Really, you think that?
Barnes: Oh yeah, definitely.
AJC: And what will it take?
Barnes: I don’t think I ever will. I think I’m too old. You have to do that when you’re like 22 or something. I mean, I’m still gonna try, and I’m so excited to make it, I don’t feel discouraged, but great albums are just really magical.
I just watched my hero fail
Now I’m in a dark
and violent funk
Every leader is
a cellophane punk
If you hear me say yeah
Yeah yeah yeah
yeah yeah yeah yeah
AJC: What happens when you listen back to the old records? Are you able to, or can you remember who made those records, or do you want to know ’em anymore?
Barnes: No, I still remember. I mean, there’s a bit of nostalgia, but I try to avoid nostalgia as much as possible, ’cause I’m not ready for it yet. Like maybe when I’m like 70 or something, then I’ll tear up about The Gay Parade or something, or tear up about one of the earlier records. But, right now I just want to move really fast. I want to like stay engaged and stay excited and motivated and not reminisce. It’s not time to reminisce yet.
How do you identify
How do you ID
Are you something fashion wild
Talk to me talk
talk talk to me
We humans, it would seem, are pre-programmed to recognize faces in everything. And with good reason: faces communicate. Being able to tell the difference between a friend and a stranger, and the difference between an angry friend and a happy friend, is vital information. And unless you’re a poker player, there’s a good chance your face will give you away. But a painting of your face, a portrait, can hide a multitude of sins. Kim Sajet is the director of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC, where the accomplishments of America’s best and brightest are immortalized in paint, on video, and sculpture. Kim Sajet says that a portrait is about more than its subject, it’s actually more like a three-legged stool.
Kim Sajet: So you have on one leg, you have the sitter. Which, if you’re a president or a celebrity or a certain person, you want to try and manipulate that situation and make yourself look as good as possible, right? The other is the artist. And as we know there’s been battle royals with artists who would like to have their own identity also come through, they have their own opinion about the person that they’re painting, and their own way of creating that image.
AJC: Well the other argument, is that every portrait’s a self portrait.
Sajet: Exactly. And then of course then, in fact, if we were gonna bring psychology into it, we could also make the argument that every portrait is as current as it is at the moment. Because the third leg of the stool is the person who’s watching it, the audience. And depending on how they feel about George Washington, or how they feel about the artist, or how they feel about abstraction or collage, that will determine how they feel about that person.
Though the paintings in the National Portrait Gallery celebrate individual achievement, historically the purpose of the private commissioning or portraits was a fairly straightforward show of wealth and influence.
Sajet: A portrait is an economic drain.
AJC: It’s a folly.
Sajet: It’s a folly, right. It’s not gonna help me. But what it is saying is “I can afford to get a portrait of my children or my wife.” It is very much used as a sort of an entree, and to say not only that, “I can get John Singer Sargent to do my portrait, or Copley.”
Or maybe Maria Teicher, an artist who’s both adding to and co-opting from the legacy of the form, with her style as well as her choice of subjects.
Maria Teicher: Portraiture elevates people. So it’s like wanting to elevate me as an underdog and my friends and family. And also like forever capture them in this very like historically traditional medium, what was only for kings and queens, and you know royalty and great mythological stories. It’s like, “No my friends and family are important too.” It’s like almost like I have to inject my own little rebellion into this history that I’m a part of. That, “No, I belong here, I’m trying to get at something a little bit different.”
AJC: But are you being self-consciously rebellious or is it just “I have to do this?”
Teicher: I think it’s about what we were talking about earlier, it’s honesty. I think it’s like I can’t lie to myself. I chose to be a painter, right. Nobody shoved the paintbrush in my hand. So, if I’m gonna do that I should do it with my whole being.
Alexandra Tyng is one of an elite group of living portraitists whose work hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. Her depiction of her father, the noted 20th century architect, Louis I. Kahn, entered the collection in 2010.
Alexandra Tyng: I think that sometimes knowing the person well makes it harder to grasp that essence in one portrait. And I find myself painting them over and over again, trying to get their essence. And I’m never satisfied.
But even as getting the essence of someone close may be difficult, for Maria Teicher it was a necessary exercise.
Teicher: I painted my one best friend so many times, that people recognize her at all my openings now. And I think that’s what helped it. She trusted me immediately, so I just painted her over and over again until other people began to trust me that way. And now my work makes people trust me.
But no matter how close an artist may come to capturing their subject’s essence, Kim Sajet believes that a portrait should never be taken literally.
Sajet: Portraiture, I like to quote Picasso, “is a lie that illustrates the truth.” This idea, that no portrait is actually going to tell you about the person in the portrait and indeed, this is one of the reasons we have 1600 portraits of the American presidents. For example, you have five Clintons, because each moment when a portrait is taken it changes.
But as subjects themselves change, they may not want every detail documented, often hoping for a better version of themselves.
Tyng: People do come in, and they say, “You know, can you take off a few pounds, or can you put on a little more hair.” And those things I can do. You can soften wrinkles, and actually I do, because I think for me it’s not the amount of detail I put in, it’s the essence, you know, that I’m trying to capture. And all those little extra wrinkles are not really part of the essence of the person.
Teicher: It’s really important to me to include laugh lines, and crow’s feet, and things that are developing on our skin, and to get the anatomy of a person right. Because that shows who they really are, that shows what their parents look like, maybe their grandparents look like. The only thing I don’t like to put in there is people’s pimples and people’s pores. I feel like when you look at somebody you don’t see their pores, and that pimple will be gone in a day or two, so those things I completely eliminate. Everything else kinda stays there.
Tyng: If someone else is painting your portrait, you’re kind of leaving yourself a little bit in their hands. I mean, you can say you like it or not, but you’re choosing to have somebody else interpret you. So you have to trust them a little bit.
Teicher: The subject-artist relationship I think is it can be, or it should be, a really special one. I want that person to be able to open up to me. If they’re rigid then I paint something that’s rigid, and that’s not who they really are.
But surely, we ourselves are most qualified to show who we really are. But is a selfie a self portrait?
Sajet: I don’t think a selfie is a portrait.
Sajet: I think it can be. But I think in the whole it isn’t.
Teicher: Is a portrait just a picture of a face, or is there so much more to it?
AJC: You’re the artist, you tell me.
Teicher: Yeah, for me there’s a lot more to it. For me, there’s a very big difference between a selfie and self portrait. There’s a difference between a—”I look good today, and I want to document that”, versus something that’s fully set up and fully realized, and takes months to paint, or even it takes the knowledge of a camera to be able to take that with a remote control.
Sajet: I think of selfies as souvenirs, I think of them as extremely narcissistic in many ways. I think at the point where you then really start playing around, particularly with filters, you start taking multiple shots, you might go back home and you know there’s all this software to make yourself look better. Then I do think you’re starting to get into that artistic sphere where you are creating a portrait. So, I’m not saying all selfies are not portraits, I’m just saying only a few of them are.
But lest we forget, photography is itself a fine art. And Maria Teicher believes it’s an equally valuable mode of expression.
Teicher: It’s about bringing your experiences before you pick up the camera into it. I think it’s about learning the people that you’re photographing, whether you’re intent is to keep it as a photograph or turn it into a painting. I think those are really important. It’s about the artist’s personal history before they pick up their tool.
Though Teicher is confident enough with a camera to paint from her own photographs, Alexandra Tyng is more faithful to tradition.
Tyng: The color in a portrait, if you’re doing it from life, is so much better than a photograph. And the three dimensionality is there. You know, you feel around the edges when you’re painting something from a person from life. You’re not just painting a flat thing. Even though I’m looking for momentary fleeting expressions and gestures, there’s gotta be something in that portrait that is timeless.
So whether honoring those who have contributed to our national identity, or simply those who have touched us personally, portraits are a powerful attempt to capture the human spirit.
The former Afrobeat and hip-hop producer, Walé Oyéjidé, believes his life as a high powered attorney was leaning towards spiritual destitution.
Walé Oyéjidé: There are things you can do, and there are things you’re made to do. So, the idea that I can work really, really hard and be a successful lawyer is great, but when you look at the other side of it you look at people who are maybe financially wealthy, but pretty much destitute in every other sense.
But the corporate world did come with some unexpected benefits.
Oyéjidé: I had to wear suits to work, and I ended up becoming, being selected by Esquire Magazine as one of the five best dressed people in the nation. And so I basically became this walking billboard for a well dressed man, wearing clothes made by companies who had no investment in me as a person. So there’s this joint trajectory of like, notoriety for clothing, dissatisfaction with job, no creativity. “How can I make myself feel more fulfilled, while maintaining this passion for clothing?” And it just became well, “I’m from this place that isn’t really represented in this society. So why don’t I, if I’m going to do anything, it has to be unique and new because why do anything at all. Why not fuse my heritage with my love for clothing?”
And so he abandoned the law to found the menswear line, Ikire Jones.
Oyéjidé: It’s really just a method of storytelling through clothing. It exists because there’s a void. Kind of a love letter to my past. Clothes, they’re inspired by Africa but shaped by European tailoring. I use the phrase often “A love letter to my past,” in the sense that I think we’re all trying to figure out who we are. As much as things I make kind of extol my background, a lot of really is just me trying to find out where I’m from.
And the stories that thrive Oyéjidé’s wearable art, are both from his own cultural heritage and as a response to the world around him. For instance, 2016’s collection, called And Other Stories By Our Stolen Children.
Oyéjidé: Which is a direct reference to children who were kidnapped by Boko Haram and other terrorists in Nigeria. And children of the migration crisis that’s currently occurring between the Mediterranean and Europe. And just the idea that they’re kids all over the world, not just African kids, but just kids who are kind of disappearing or going through these exigent circumstances. And these are things that faces aren’t really put on these stories. We kind of hear about them in an abstract sense. So for me, I happen to be somebody whose medium is clothing and textiles and fashion, but I’m more interested in talking about these things than I am in saying here’s a cool sport coat.
AJC: Besides Nigerian influences, you’re a big fan of European art.
Oyéjidé: Yep, absolutely.
AJC: Where does that, how does that manifest?
Oyéjidé: So, I think the idea of that is just we all go into museums. You walk into the Louvre, or the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and you see these wonderful works by masters. And for the most part, there’s very little representation of people of color, or black people, Africans, at least in these paintings. So for me, it’s the idea of, you know, it would be nice if kids who looked like me, or if the younger version of me could walk into a museum and say, oh Michelangelo painted me in there. It’s also, I think, an influence from my kind of hip-hop production background, where you take previously existing works, and you create something, hopefully, new and interesting.
But it took some time before Oyéjidé refined his unique style. Before embracing the bold colorful jackets that have become his signature, he took a stealthier, more cautious approach.
Oyéjidé: It was more conventional exteriors with bolder interiors. And the whole idea was just kind of like, it’s a secret to the wearer. Which I think, it’s an idea that has merit, and we still make things like that. But then it occurred to me that a lining is not gonna make the sale. It might, but it’s kind of like eh, it’s nice, it’s cute, but it’s not gonna, you know, be the difference. Whereas if you see this versus a Tom Ford jacket, it becomes which one do I want.
But wanting one of Oyéjidé’s more flamboyant creations, doesn’t automatically instill in the wearer the swagger needed to pull it off.
Oyéjidé: Perhaps people who are drawn to my work tend to be confident enough. But I try not to let people convince themselves that something is not for them, just because they may have some perceptions about who they are. You know, I would just say that if it’s something that you appreciate, wear it and people will believe what you believe about yourself.
AJC: A lot of designers have the runway version, and the couture version.
AJC: And are there different levels of what you’re doing, and how much of it is as bright and colorful as this?
Oyéjidé: I never understood couture. I appreciate that it’s art, but I don’t really appreciate the idea of making things that people can’t wear. Because for me, it’s beautiful to look at this, but it’s a jacket. I hope and expect that people will wear them and walk down the street and beat them up a little bit. So they’re still functional items, even though they’re very much story and artistically driven.
And for Oyéjidé, ambition is not measured by the values of the corporate world he walked away from.
Oyéjidé: For me success is not a certain dollar figure, it’s not a certain amount of stores that carry my product necessarily. Those are things that I want, but for me, it’s kind of basically being true to who I hope to be, and also giving my two year old daughter the idea that you can step into this world and make it as you want it to be.