Hebru Brantley: Interview
We talk to the CIW artist-in-residence about Afrofuturism, superheroes and issues facing Chicago youth.
You can’t miss Hebru Brantley even if you tried. At six-foot-seven, the 32-year-old artist from Chicago’s South Side is leaving a permanent mark on the contemporary art world, not to mention local brick facades. His playfully sophisticated urban paintings and sculptures, crafted in a sprawling loft that formerly housed a macaroni manufacturer, evoke the spirits of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. Though he counts Jay Z among his fans, Brantley isn’t about exclusivity. As the artist-in-residence for Chicago Ideas Week 2013 (Oct 14–20), his cartoon-like figures and creative mind are on full display.
Congratulations on serving as this year’s artist-in-residence for Chicago Ideas Week. How did that happen?
It was a little unbeknownst to me. They were throwing around names, from what I understand, and mine was in the hat. Some of the people involved in Chicago Ideas Week [who] sit on the board are collectors of mine, so they sort of pushed and wanted me to be the artist they put out there.
Your sculptures of child superheroes, The Watch, at Pioneer Court Plaza are intended to spark dialogue about obstacles facing today’s youth in the neighborhoods they call home. What are some of those obstacles?
I think the biggest obstacle is growth—being allowed to grow beyond a four-block radius, and to [gain] not even necessarily a worldly view, but a city view. These kids, their journeys from day-to-day, are very localized and so is their way of thinking. That stems from a lack of education or willingness for change within your life and society. But if you’re never taught change, it’s hard for you to learn. And then violence—it plays a huge factor in what’s going on in Chicago with the youth and gangs. It’s out of control. Part of it’s very reminiscent of the Wild West.
Do you have any ideas for overcoming those challenges? As adults we can plan but is there something kids can do?
Honestly, if I had the solution, I would be a very wealthy man. But I feel like there isn’t necessarily one right solution. There are so many, many variables, and these problems have perplexed everyone. In a lot of instances, you have people who are very vocal about change and that something needs to happen…[but] a lot of people’s actions fall short. Now, I don’t pretend to be a crusader for any one cause. It’s that my heart gets heavy for a lot of these kids, and a lot of these people, who are trapped in their microcosm of violence and turmoil.
I do believe truly that the arts is one way to evoke change. Being allowed to get into some of these neighborhoods and expose these kids to art would definitely help because art gives them [a form of expression] they have never seen before. Look at a neighborhood like Pilsen that, 15 years ago, was desolate with lots of gang violence. Then you have this sort of boom when the arts move in. And it’s becoming this diverse community. It doesn’t happen overnight, but I think it always starts with the arts.
When you sought studio space, did you intentionally look for a neighborhood with a hip art scene like Pilsen or did you just happen to land there?
I lived in Pilsen when it was a small thriving arts community. I ended up moving around the city as far as my studio space is concerned, and I kind of fell back into Pilsen. The opportunity presented itself and I’ve always loved the area so, why not?
You grew up in Bronzeville. Where did you go to school?
I went to De La Salle.
What were you like as a student?
I did what I had to do to get by. I wasn’t a very focused student academically. For me, I think I got in a lot of trouble with parents early on because my mind would drift a lot. I drew on tests. Everything I had was marked up with art in some shape, form or fashion. But, yeah, I wasn’t the most gifted student.
Except in art class.
Yeah, but even in art class it got to the point where there wasn’t a challenge. At the time, I had a very lax and great art teacher who just allowed me to explore creatively. The curriculum that was expected for a majority of the students wasn’t necessarily expected of me, which is rare, but it worked out.
You’ve identified your style as Afrofuturist. What does that mean?
With futurism, it’s looking toward the future to anticipate what [is] next. With Afrofuturism, it’s the melding of cultures, the borrowing from different cultures, and putting them in an African-American context. The start of Afrofuturism goes way back to Sun Ra, a prolific jazz musician that was far beyond his time. He used to remark that he was from Mars. He wasn’t of this world. For me, I’m a huge sci-fi buff and I appreciate it and love it, but I think that saying I’m an Afrofuturist limits a little bit of what I do. A lot of the conversations I have with the work are very pop art–infused with a twinge of Afrofuturism.
Speaking of pop art, images from the '80s recur in your work. Do you take credit for the resurgence of neon?
Absolutely not. [Laughs]
What's the story behind your paintings of floating heads? They’re fantastic.
My mother was heavily into and influenced by Japanese art. There was a time—I think the late ‘70s and early ‘80s—that those motifs found their way into people’s homes [as decor], like the ceramic kabuki masks. I also grew up [surrounded by] different African masks my parents had that they cherished and adored. I wanted to do my own take on and create characters that mirror both.
Your pal Lupe Fiasco dubbed you a muse and recently debuted his own collection of photography. When you two get together, do you talk art or music?
It’s a boundless conversation, a heavy discussion. You know, Lupe is a genius and I firmly believe that. He’s too damn smart, and I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves as a rapper. He shared a lot of his artwork with me as well, and I think it’s phenomenal. His theories on art, his conceptual art projects are unmeasured. I want him to stay a rapper just so he can stay out of my lane. [Laughs]
Who was your favorite superhero growing up?
My favorite superhero growing up and still is to this day is the Incredible Hulk. He’s the best. [Laughs] I didn’t know when I was a kid that I would grow up to be the size of the Hulk minus the muscles, but it just turned out that way.
Did you like the last two Hulk movies?
Get out of here.
I’ve always been disappointed with iterations of the Hulk until The Avengers’ Hulk. That was spot on.
So Avengers over the Justice League?
Avengers, definitely. I’ve always been more of a Marvel guy than a DC [Comics] guy. Next to the Hulk, Batman is one of my favorite mythological characters.
Is it safe to say you’re still a kid at heart?
Oh yes, definitely. You have to keep some of that youthful energy around—it’s important. A lot of what I do creatively obviously stems from a place of being youthful and sort of childlike. I also get a really big kick out of going to a show and having younger people in the audience and seeing the work really strike a chord with them. They might realize this pursuit of high art isn’t completely preposterous or so far-fetched. I think it’s hard for young people to connect and identify with certain artists, but the fact that they connect directly with the aesthetics of the work is great.
Brantley participates in the Chicago Ideas Week talk "Creative Process: A Method to the Madness" at the Museum of Contemporary Art, October 20, at noon. CIW kicked off Monday and continues through Sunday.