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In the Studio With Kaili Smith

Deeply rooted in his upbringing, visual artist Kaili Smith creates work that provides alternative perspectives to the conflicting problems he witnessed growing up. From paintings and film to photography and graffiti, Kaili makes space for the autonomy and agency that the youth that combats a political environment that may sabotage them. While he is currently pursuing an MFA at Parsons, we asked about his projects, exhibitions, and artistic process.  

Tell us a little bit about yourself!

Born in the Netherlands, grew up in Melbourne, Australia, now living in New York. My work examines the social construct around “youth criminality” and offers alternative perspectives through paintings and film.

Why did you move to New York?

While studying Fine Arts in Rotterdam I got to spend a semester at the School of Visual Art in New York due to my school’s exchange program. I instantly fell in love with the city, but at the time, for both economic and visa status wise I couldn’t see how I was going to live in NYC long term. I had planned to move back to Melbourne after graduating in Rotterdam but told myself to give one shot at the Parsons full Scholarships. I somehow managed to be chosen for that, and fast forward am now halfway through an MFA study in Fine Arts.  

Were you always making art as a child?

No actually. I remember in elementary school I was so bad at art assignments that my art teacher told me I didn’t have to follow the class as long as I didn’t distract other students. As a teenager, I got into graffiti just like every other kid in my highschool. However, it was never thought of as art. I would say around 17 I slowly started to allow or accept that I may be doing something “creative.”

Can you explain about your current project?

I am working on a painting series called “Le Petit Prince.” The series reflects 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. The work offers a different perspective on an ongoing cycle that many western countries still struggle to understand or deal with in a progressive manner.

When you’re talking about the presence of criminality as a word or thing in your childhood, where did you find yourself in that between those two opinions as a child? 

I seem to have grown up in a time where the Australian Police were trying out a lot of experimental policing methods on young people. Rather than taking more progressive European approaches to deal with youth criminality, they seemed to try to find results by doubling down on methods that hadn’t worked previously. I think it is fair to say that my peers and I were the test subjects to these policing methods.

How did you make the transition from graffiti to painting and other mediums? 

It was quite a sudden transition, I think I realized I would become stuck with graffiti as a form of communication and did not want to fall into the cliches many other graffiti artists find themselves in. For me, I realized the stories and perspectives I wanted to communicate were the priority of my work and decided I would adapt my art to best do that.

How have the places you’ve lived and traveled to inspired you and your work?

My travel experience has a big influence on my work. At times it seems like everywhere you go it is the same for better and worse. New York & America as a whole has somewhat been an example of that. Having to communicate my work here has been challenging but also very rewarding.

I see that you have some film works too. How did you get into it?

That was more gradual. Photography and film documentation were always present when painting graffiti. When beginning to study fine arts I started to adapt some of that into art installations. Slowly but steadily this has led to writing and directing short films where I am in charge of a crew of 20 people in one day. I’m still really figuring it out though. I am hoping to make a 30-40 minute short film for my MFA graduation project, which will hopefully be a milestone in my video work. The script is over a year in the making currently.

What was the most memorable exhibition you’ve had and why?

My solo exhibition Booth with Thinkspace Gallery at Moniker Art Fair in London. The show sold out in 24 hours. We also released my first ever print edition on the 3rd day which managed to sell out hours before the final 5th day of the fair. It was a crazy and intense experience. Also, London has always been a city where I had hoped to have a show.

You talk a lot about “thriving in a conflicting environment.” How do you convey this central theme in your works?

I think the costumes play a big role. But most importantly the expression and composure of the children I paint. Children are often used in art as a way to communicate innocence and vulnerability. The images I make mostly avoid this. I look at the sense of awareness, control, and power these children are finding in their environment.

What’s next? What do you aspire to do in the coming years?

I really see big growth for this Petit Prince series. I feel there is a lot more to explore both in the visual & conceptual aspects of the work. I want the work to communicate to the people that it is about as well as those on the outside. With my film work, I want to keep giving myself space to grow and create projects I am passionate about without constriction. There is certainly a business plan on how to make all of these things sustainable – exhibitions and art fairs set for the coming years – but for me, it is important that growth in creativity comes first.

Stay tuned to Milk for more studio visits.

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