Colin Quashie burns down the Plan-ta-shun at the African American Museum in Philadelphia

[I had the pleasure of talking with artist Colin Quashie about his incendiary show, Plan-ta-shun, at the AAMP. The artist, who is a very funny, congenial guy, told me he had been a comedy sketch writer for the show MadTV, and is now a registered nurse! He’s always had a day job, he said.

Our phone interview on June 19 was two days after the mass shootings in the Emanuel African American Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, and the artist, who lives in Charleston, was in Philadelphia for the opening of his show at the African American Museum.  It was a sad note to begin our talk.  Quashie told me he lost a very dear friend in the shooting.]


Colin Quashie, Auntie Jemima (Oprah)57” x 69”Acrylic on Canvas2004; Uncle Ben (Colin)57” x 69”Acrylic on Canvas2004
Colin Quashie, Auntie Jemima (Oprah) 57” x 69” Acrylic on Canvas 2004 ; Uncle Ben (Colin) 57” x 69” Acrylic on Canvas 2004

Roberta: Do you get different responses to your works from white and black audiences?

Colin: Yes, more positive from white than black.

I’m not sure the brand of humor is too abstract? Example, the Oprah (Aunt Jemima) piece. They say “Oh you hate Oprah.” And no, it’s not like that.

Whites understand maybe it’s not about them.

People (black) think maybe I should portray blacks in more positive way.

altered sardine cans
Colin Quashie, SlaveShip Brand Sardines, 3” x 4”, Actual Can of Sardines , 2011

R: Been in Philly before?
C: First time in Philly. I’m doing the tourist things. We set up the show/titles. Now I’m doing the Duck Boat; trying to find the best cheesesteaks.

R: How many have you tried?
C: I’ve tried 4…DiNics in Reading Terminal was great….We’re doing the Big Bus tomorrow. I love history. My work is about history.

Colin Quashie, Plantation Digest, 40” x 12’, Acrylic and gel transfer on panels board - 8 total panels, 2011 -installation shot
Colin Quashie, Plantation Digest, 40” x 12’, Acrylic and gel transfer on panels board – 8 total panels , 2011 -installation shot

R: How did you get the show here?
C: I don’t know! Leslie Guy (curator at AAMP) called me up out of the blue. She saw my work. Did I want to have a show?

brochure, words and images
Colin Quashie, Plantation Brochure, 80” x 90” , Acrylic and gel transfer on panels board , Tri-fold panels, 2011

R: Where do you get your sense of humor?
C: My college roommate Orlando Jones.
He’s an actor, was in 7 up commercials, now he’s in Sleepy Hollow. He was a struggling comic; I was a struggling artist. While I was waiting for the paint to dry we’d write jokes together. He got a break in MadTV and I started writing sketches for him. The first year, 6 of my ideas got on air. I didn’t want to get paid….

Colin Quashie, FledX, poster, part of Plantation Digest, 40” x 12’, Acrylic and gel transfer on panels board - 8 total panels, 2011
Colin Quashie, FledX, poster, part of Plantation Digest, 40” x 12’, Acrylic and gel transfer on panels board – 8 total panels, 2011

But in 1996, I got censored and pissed off and quit art. At the same time they (MadTV) were looking for writers and called me. “Do you want to get paid?” It’s less me wanting to be a writer than wanting to get away from art.

poster, words and pictures
Colin Quashie, poster, Blaccessorize, from Plantation Digest , 40” x 12’ , Acrylic and gel transfer on panels board – 8 total panels , 2011

I went to LA and wrote for MadTV. I’m sitting in a room with 15 writers; it’s got to go through (a process). I say it was the best art school I went to – sketch comedy school.

In comedy you assume the audience brings something with them. You make your point, get in, get out. Get the joke in and leave.

It’s the same with an art exhibit. If you can’t hook someone in the first 30 seconds, they’re moving on.

alternative Monopoly game
Colin Quashie, Plantation Monopoly , Actual Game board (installation with floor pillows and desk) 2013

I’ve written 6 different comedy shows. The last one in 2005.

I would go there to LA, make a bunch of money, come back and spend it on my art.

I’ve always had a job. I never have to sell work.

If I have an idea I run it through the sketch comedy process.

My art is in phases, pre-Hollywood and post-Hollywood. Pre-Hollywood, pre-1995, it was really raw. I took no prisoners. I had four art shows censored, in Charleston, Columbia, LA…

After Hollywood I learned you can be angry but make it funny. Comics are dark people; they get their material from dark places. They say make it funny.

chalkboard and student desk
Colin Quashie, installation,Blackbored 40” x 60” , Installation comes with classroom desk – garbage can, 2013

R.  Let’s talk about your background
C.  I was born in London. My dad is West Indian, mom is Bahamian. Dad was in the British Army, mom was studying. We were there three years, then they immigrated to the US. They sent me and my sister to the West Indies and Bahamas while they made some money. When I was 6 or 7 we came to the US.

R. When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
C. I didn’t study art in college. I went to be a doctor.

Art was always very very very easy for me. Why I took it was Easy A’s in high school. I had a scholarship to art college. A teacher applied for me. I didn’t know what the teacher did. I had high SATs, scholarships. (I turned down art school).

I spent three semesters in med school (and found it wasn’t for me). Three years later I joined the Navy and volunteered for submarines. Four hundred feet under the water, art came back. Three years later I’m coming out of the navy (and go to art school).

R. What happened 400 ft. under to make you want to be an artist?
C. I discovered Patrick Nagle – Playboy Mag. illustrator. I loved his clean lines. His work was visual sountrack for the 80s. I was enamored by how clean his lines were. I decided I wanted to be an illustrator associated with a magazine.

Colin Quashie, Plantation Monopoly (details) 2013
Colin Quashie, Plantation Monopoly (details) 2013

What I’m doing today led back to Ebony Mag. I re-typeset a column with illustrations and sent it to the editor, John Johnson. He called me up. He ended up cursing me out. “I had no right to alter his magazine…I deal with issues relevant to African Americans, etc. and he hung up on me.

magazine cover, pictures and words
Cover of Ebony magazine

I’m looking at a cover of Ebony and see Prince and his women (and get angry). I created my first anger piece – a spoof cover of Ebony Magazine. I photo’ed it and sent it to John Johnson with a FU (note).

R. Have you actually worked for a magazine?
C. I’ve done covers for magazines. I just had to turn one down because I’m in Philly. I no longer aspire to magazines.

R. When you going to LA to make some more money for your art?
C. (Laughs) I’m too old for that.

R. How old are you?
C. I’m 51 years old. I’m a Registered Nurse. I started that 2 years ago.

R. What?!
C. I rarely sell my art work. I’ve always had a full time job to support the art. I went to school, graduated May 1, took the test and I’m a Registered Nurse.

I work 3 days a week at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.