THE CHICAGO-BASED CREATOR’S NARRATIVE-DRIVEN ART EMBRACES HOPE AND NOSTALGIA IN EQUAL MEASURE
By Christina Rees
Right now, in unusual balance, people are as interested in the past as they are the unknowable future, and it’s reflected in our determination to hold on to what shaped us as the world becomes less recognizable. The key words here are “nostalgia” and “hope.”
When collectors are lucky, an artist comes along who deftly combines our youthful obsessions with an eye on the next era, and in that artist’s work we see ourselves. Through agile narratives and memorable characters, an artwork can remind us of the sparks that shaped us, and in turn we reconsider the future we’d dreamed about.
Chicago-based artist Hebru Brantley epitomizes the deftness necessary to pull off such a trick. Brantley’s main characters, two kids named Fly Boy and Lil Mama, often reenact and reimagine the heroics of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African American military pilots who fought in World War II. Fly Boy and Lil Mama turn to an older narrative to explore their own new one: The history of the war fighters grounds their actions in a real and collective Black experience, while their limitless imaginations open up prospects for an empowered hereafter.
There’s a nod to so much we love in these pictures – the easy companionship of Calvin and Hobbes, Saturday morning cartoons, the Muppets, and certainly superhero comics and science fiction. Brantley’s work wears its relationship with Afrofuturism with good-natured respect; these kids have their lives ahead of them, and they recognize no boundaries between their sticky earthly reality and the celestial expanse of possibility.
Art lovers have responded. In recent years, Brantley has zoomed past “rising star” to bona fide art star – his collectors include Jay-Z, LeBron James, George Lucas, Rahm Emanuel, Beyoncé and Lenny Kravitz. He has collabed with Adidas, Nike and Hublot, and he has branched into filmmaking.
On July 25, Heritage Auctions will offer four works by Brantley, including two paintings, in its Urban Art Signature® event. Brantley hits that sweet spot street-art collectors yearn for: He is a fine artist who, like Fly Boy and Lil Mama, can’t be bothered with categories. In the past he has explained that he likes the egalitarian aspects of street art, that “you have to put something out in the public… you have a conversation as you’re creating it. You see people in the neighborhood respond to the work, and, through those responses, you know what worked.”
The acrylic on canvas Scarlet Letter to the Rescue, from 2010, is quintessential Brantley and a significant work by the artist. A kid in a Captain America hood gazes out at you from the canvas with a matter-of-fact gimlet eye, the “A” on his forehead carrying the weight of so much: the history of Marvel Comics (if not Marvel’s own commentary on the 20th century), the history of the United States, the history of Hawthorne’s treatise on shaming and punishment. This is the way of the world: Adults create the problems, then the solutions, and then more problems that future generations are left to deal with. This kid knows what’s up.
CHRISTINA REES is a staff writer at Intelligent Collector.