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‘It’s Scary to be Outside the Lines’

Artist Esteban Raheem in Studio

Do you really live three lives by the time you turn 30? Artist Esteban Raheem Abdul Raheem Samayoa thinks so. WIP magazine visits him on the eve of his latest solo show.


Words: Adam Wray

Images: Daniel Derro Regan

Assistant: Jack Shelton

Production: Brian Barbaruolo


I met Esteban Raheem Abdul Raheem Samayoa at Oakland’s Pt 2 Gallery on a Saturday afternoon in late July, the week before his largest solo show to date, “Ain’t No Dogs in Heaven.” When I stepped into the space, he had assumed the role of a guide, leading a group around the bright, airy gallery and providing context for the works that were on display. This turned out to be typical of Raheem’s generous spirit. Later in the day, a young painter visiting from Baltimore told me how Raheem would take time out of his afternoons in his studio – one of ten right above Pt 2’s gallery space – to teach him how to stretch canvases. “Pt 2 is an amazing space that does a lot for local artists,” Raheem told me. “I really feel like it’s family. All the artists up here, we work really close and we learn a lot from each other, we help each other.”


Born Esteban Samayoa and raised in Sacramento, Raheem moved to the Bay in 2018 along with his older cousins, who he’d grown up with. They worked together in restaurants – Raheem still loves cooking – until the Covid-19 pandemic put a pause on hospitality. “When everyone got laid off, I just started doing hella art,” he says. “It was the perfect time, you know?” Raheem used the time and space to devote himself to his artwork, and was soon showing at galleries like Oakland’s Good Mother and San Francisco’s SWIM. Before long, he’d moved into a studio at Pt 2. 


Raheem’s communitarian ethos reveals itself in his artwork, too. “Ain’t No Dogs in Heaven” is almost a self-contained trilogy, three bodies of work inspired by distinct stages of his life. The first is a love letter to the people, places, and symbolically-loaded things that shaped him; the second is an exploration of his Mexican-Guatemalan heritage; and the third captures the first steps into a new life that began with his conversion to Islam one year ago. Raheem has range to match his ambition: the first is all rich, deep black and white, rendered in charcoal and airbrush; the second finds him experimenting for the first time with lush colors; and the third sees him transition to plaster-cast sculpture.

Artist Esteban Raheem

Adam Wray: How old are you, by the way?


Esteban Raheem: 29, so, I haven’t had too much life, but, you know…


AW: No, but you’re certainly three people before you’re 29.


ER: Especially now being a convert to Islam, there’s a lot of reflection going on. The first room is by Pops, which was my nickname growing up. Being little, they called me Papi, and I just shortened it — short and sweet, you know, so, Pops. That’s the coming of age, what people of color go through in their communities. It’s not just my story, it’s things that I’ve witnessed: my friends’ stories, my family’s stories, references to music and movies, and a lot of jewelry. In communities like mine, we tend to present ourselves in a flashy manner. We want to look beautiful, and I always try to accentuate that, whether it’s the grills, or the rings, or the leather, or just a shiny, moisturized face or something. 


AW: Did your style and the medium and materials you chose evolve to try to represent that quality of light reflecting?


ER: Yeah. I love to emphasize the shimmer, and working with airbrush and charcoal helps me do that. Playing with black and white – a very dark black right next to a shiny-ass bright white really does it for me.


AW: It reminds me of the scene in Belly when they go to DMX’s house.


ER: Exactly. That’s what I mean – I grew up on all those movies, the culture, the music, all that. All that’s tied in with my artwork.


AW: The stuff from the Pops period is kind of muralistic, as well. I actually walked by one of your murals on the way here from the train, the one of Radio Raheem from Do the Right Thing


ER: Yeah, that’s me. That was actually the first mural I did.


AW: It makes so much sense as part of your practice, putting it out there where everyone can see it.


ER: The Pops work is very much community-oriented. I really want my pieces to be seen by people like me, because I think it’s important for people to relate, to have the feeling that they could do that, too. When I look back at my life, like 10 years ago, I would have never thought I’d be here, living off of painting, you know?


AW: Your ideas around making art that reaches out to people, putting it in spaces where it’ll reach people – did you have spaces like that when you were growing up? 


ER: Hell no. All throughout my life, I’ve always had to figure things out for myself. No one really pushed me to do any art. It was just something that came to me naturally. It was something that I always had in my pocket but couldn’t really take seriously due to circumstances; just having to work and survive. So, when I got the opportunity to create bodies of work, I just went with it.

Artist Esteban Raheem paintings

Artist Esteban Raheem painting against wall

AW: You started out using charcoal. What inspired you to pick up the airbrush?


ER: Airbrush resembles charcoal a lot. They’re both really soft to the eye. It was nice getting the same effects but in reverse – with the airbrush I work on a black canvas, and with charcoal it’s a raw white or tan canvas. I love black and white work because I grew up watching a lot of cartoons. I used to love all the dog cartoons. Tex Avery characters like Slick Wolf – he’d pull up to the club in the big, stretch old-school car and be barking at the singer on stage, his eyes popping out. 


AW: Is there any specific significance to the Cadillac symbol? I’ve noticed it pops up in a few of your pieces.  


ER: My grandfather and my dad both had Cadillacs. I remember sitting on the leather seats, picking at the armrest and stuff. I have a 1991 Deville and as many times as it’s broken down on me, I’m still gonna keep it. 


AW: Are the subjects in your paintings all based on real people in your life? 


ER: It’s a mix of a lot of different things. Like, in this one [“All in the Family”], you’ll see me and my wife and us as kids. Signs that pop up in Mexico. 


Music, like Eazy E is right here in front of his Benz. Gold teeth – my father and his brothers had gold around their teeth and I thought that was so cool. And honestly, with this show, I reference The Autobiography of Malcolm X a lot. Especially rereading it now being Muslim, as he talks about his different stages and his different names. At one point, he was Detroit Red, and then another chapter is called Harlemite, then Minister Malcolm X, Malik El-Shabazz. Reading about his experience, I was like, I was just up in the club, acting a fool, and now I’m here with a totally different head on my shoulders. Even back then I had a sense of self, of who I was, but it’s weird – I feel the same but kind of different, you know? 


AW: I get that, it’s like looking at the same thing from a different angle. Most people are born with a name and think that’s the only one they’ll ever have, but I think art helps you realize that you can live any kind of life you want, you’ve just gotta choose it.


ER: That’s what a lot of people are afraid of. It’s scary to be outside of the lines. You really have to bet on yourself at all costs. When I was broke as hell, I had to really hold my head up and say that I’m working towards something, and even though it’s not paying off right now, it’s going to.

Artist Esteban Raheem side profile 1Artist Esteban Raheem side profile 2

AW: So, what comes after Pops?


ER: After Pops comes Esteban, which is my birth name. That’s centered around my Mexican and Guatemalan heritage, all of the color pieces. Growing up, I never really felt Mexican or Guatemalan enough, mostly because I was raised within my neighborhood by neighbors from different cultures. I was even going to a mosque when I was a kid, hanging out with a friend’s family who really took me in and happened to be Muslim. Looking back at it, I think it’s beautiful that it all kind of connects now. I just never felt connected to my heritage like that, never really learned about my cultures. 


So, this aesthetic is me exploring that for myself, seeing a newfound beauty within my culture because I’m experiencing it and learning about it on my own terms. I’ve been reading lots of different books, trying to learn more Spanish, listening to more Mexican music, trying to learn from Mexican artists, planning a trip to Guatemala sometime next year to gain more context. My style is really loose in this room, not focusing on the form of the figure but how the figure interacts with the colors and textures. 


AW: Could you tell me about this sculpture? 


ER: The last room of the show is going to be by Raheem, which is the name I currently go by. It’s about my journey converting to Islam. With these sculptures, you’ll see three different pairs of hands imitating the hand gestures you make when you pray.


AW: How did you come to sculpting as a medium?


ER: These are actually my first plaster cast ever. My friend Ricky, he came in and we figured it out together. I think that’s the next journey for me, to do a lot of sculptures or installation pieces. 


AW: How long has it been since you converted to Islam?


ER: It’s been a year now.


AW: I’m sure it’s had a huge impact on your life, but how about on your artwork? Is that even something you can separate from the rest of your life? 


ER: Yeah, I mean, it’s for sure had an amazing impact. The discipline of the lifestyle is good. I’m just more present within myself and how positive I am. Showing a lot of gratitude for a lot of things. Mind, body, spirit is all really healthy at this point, but honestly, I haven’t really had time to incorporate too much of the Islamic journey within my art. I think this is the first time I’m doing that with the small installation with this show. Over the last year I’ve been having to put more emphasis on who Pops is and who Esteban is because I’ve been them for so long. Raheem is so new and I’m still figuring that out. The last room is the smallest one, but that just means more room for growth later.

Artist Esteban Raheem working in studio


This editorial was taken from WIP magazine issue 09, available from Carhartt WIP stores and our online shop.