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Changing the Vibe: Kah Yangni’s art brings joy to the streets

Kah Yangni, photo credit: Asaad Miller for QTZ Fest

Kah Yangni’s art is vital in both senses of the word—lively, full of energy, and dazzling, and also essential and compelling. They are based in Philadelphia, but lived and worked for a decade in Providence, and they recently returned to create a piece for Dirt Palace’s Storefront Window Gallery. I had the pleasure of talking with Kah about public art, how they center and celebrate resilience in their work, and what they miss about Providence. 

Davis Alianiello (Motif): You returned to Providence this summer to do a project with Dirt Palace. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Kah Yangni: It was so great! They asked me to come back and do a project in their window a long time ago, maybe January of that year, and I knew I wanted to do a mural, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do it on. Then all of the craziness of that summer happened, and I was so glad that I hadn’t
settled on an idea yet, because it was cool to do something that could just respond to what was happening.

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I lived in that neighborhood, and I passed that spot all the time, and I thought it would be cool to make something that people who lived there could see, and have their spirits lifted during literally the worst month of, definitely my adult life, and kind of everybody’s. It was horrible and
such a dark time and I was like, I can make something light, that feels good, and I’ll put it here, and it’ll be up for a month, and people will feel light.

I’ve also seen other people do cool stuff with that window, so I’ve always wanted to do something there, and when they were like, “You can do something,” I was like, “Oh my god, I’ll get to go see my friends!”

It was also a perfect moment to come home and be around people who I knew, and who I knew cared about me and who I cared about, because it was so intense that summer.

DA: So much of your work is public art: both your murals and illustrations you’ve done. I was wondering what you think the role of public art should be.

KY: My first experience of public art was being a part of Pronk!, which is so special and makes people proud to live in Providence, and there’s this magic moment where it just changes the vibe in a spot.

Then I began to get interested in murals around 2016, so I went away to a mural painting internship here in Philly and learned how to do it.

The art I make tends to be sort of small naturally, and I’ve been really interested in pushing myself to make really big stuff that will go in places and change the energy. A mural can bring people a certain joy and make them feel like life is not just boring and plain; it’s fun and higher than your day-to-day.

DA: Your work is so vibrant and alive, and really grabs the viewer’s attention. I used to live across from your mural at Lore and I remember it becoming a part of my everyday life.

KY: Oh yeah! That one. I was in and out of that area, and it’s fun but can also be like, “New England fussy.”

DA: It is.

KY: It is! Which is mostly cute, but sometimes, like, not as cute. But I have this really strong memory from 2013 of me and my friend going to The Coffee Exchange, and we ran into Pronk! like, busting down Wickenden Street, and I was like, “This is frickin’ awesome, like, this is the opposite
of New England fussy.” [With that piece] it was really cool to do something that’s really bright: not just that same light blue color of a bunch of the houses around there, but something more fun and alive.

DA: Are there things you miss about Providence?

KY: I miss walking into, like White Electric and seeing 10 people I know. I really like Philly, it’s super fun, but I think that because Providence is small, there’s more room to be weird and be freaky.

DA: What’s a recent project that you’re most excited about?

KY: So, there’s Trans Day of Remembrance, when people remember all the trans people who have died that year, but on the same day there’s also this thing called Trans Day of Resilience. So for the last two years I’ve been working with this non-profit Forward Together, which hires trans artists to make graphics that can be shared on that day about the resilience of trans people.

I was really proud of the one I made in 2020. My poster says “Trans People Exist in the Future,” and it got shared by people I really look up to in the gay world, like Indya Moore from “Pose,” and Alok Vaid-Menon, and Sara Ramirez from “Grey’s Anatomy,” and it was going everywhere. That was really, really dope.

DA: What was having that visibility like?

KY: It was awesome! Instagram has this thing where you can see who’s sharing your post, and people were sharing it in all these languages — people shared it out of Ghana, they were writing under it in Russian and Japanese, it was all over the place.

You know, like, I watch “Pose!” It really has defined for me what it is to be trans, and to be black and queer, and it really has influenced me. It has been really cool to make something that connects with people I really admire. I was like, “I’m out here, I’m serving my community, this is
awesome! I’m really doing what I set out to do.”

DA: There’s something in there that connects to what you were saying earlier about the mural work. Both the community aspect, and the way that when art is shared like that, and people encounter it organically, it maybe changes the trajectory of their day, or makes them feel a certain way.

KY: Yeah! I hadn’t made that exact connection but I like it.

I definitely have thought before about how being trans is so often associated with either being a weirdo or death. I think I liked the idea of a project that focused on resilience, because I was tired with having being trans associated with being sad. I actually think it’s really awesome to be
trans, and really awesome to be gay, and I want to make stuff that looks happy, and looks like my experience. It’s cool to be able to make art that feels more like a pep rally.

I have been thinking about what direction I want to go in, like, if I really want to change my focus to be public art in the sense of like, “I only do murals.” But I think that stuff like that, where they really put a lot of effort into making sure it spreads, and is seen by the entire queer community,
it feels really similar to how I feel when I do a mural.

DA: I was going to ask whether a certain genre was speaking to you lately, you work in so many!

KY: I think murals are really hard, but I really like them. I like the idea of changing a landscape. That’s what’s fun for me right now. That’s what I’m the most excited about. But I’m trying a couple new things that could be cool: I’m doing the title card lettering for a film, and I’m supposed to start a children’s book pretty soon, that should be really awesome. Murals are the thing I’ve been working on the longest, but I’m also trying other stuff right now.

DA: What’s the project that you’re most looking forward to?

KY: I’m going to do a big mural in downtown Philly in collaboration with this group home here that’s only for trans people. That’s coming out during Pride Month, that’s going to be awesome, I’m really excited, that’s going to be super dope. It’s a dream project.

For more information, go to kahyangni.com or follow Kah Yangni on Instagram @kahyangni

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