Invested in Culture

This year, America’s black history month added Southern African history to its lexicon as power couple Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz showcase the boldest and biggest art pieces from their private collection at the Brooklyn Art Museum.

By Petra Mason

Just recently on the West Coast of America, South African comedian Trevor Noah hosted the Grammy Awards where South African singer Tyla won Best African Music Performance. The Cape Town-founded Southern Guild Gallery opened a Los Angeles space exhibiting a solo show by South African artist Zizipho Poswa, and South-African-American painter Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi installed a lobby mural depicting the plight of black gymnasts at California’s Hammer Museum. Meanwhile, on the East Coast at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, Giants: Art from the Dean Collection of Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys opened on the  museum’s spacious ground floor level. “The show is an excerpt from their [much larger] collection. Here, the focus is on large-scale works. While the emphasis may be on the bold works displayed, I think the title Giants speaks more to the impact the show will have on the international community and the massive visibility that the sharing of this significant Black art collection in the heart of Brooklyn will make,” says Stevenson gallery director Lerato Bereng.

In 1976, Two Centuries of Black American Art, an exhibition showcasing manifestations of African American art over two centuries, made its debut at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Museum of Fine Arts Dallas and at the Brooklyn Museum. Nearly half a century later, on a wonderfully wintry invite-only opening night, celebrities and the art world arrived in Brooklyn for a preview of Giants, with some visitors waiting in line for up to 40 minutes. The museum’s exterior walls were lit up with the words ‘Collect, Protect, Respect’, while inside, a cosy living-room style set up provided refuge from the chill for guests as they were serenaded by a playlist curated by Swizz Beatz himself.

Showcasing artworks from close to 40 artists – including some commissioned pieces – the art on display is colossal in both stature and size, with some pieces being up to around 10 metres tall. The couple’s ‘by the artist, for the artist, with the people’ ethos reflects their passion for cultivating and sustaining relationships with global artists and galleries to develop their mutual taste in art. Since Alicia and Swizz Beatz began collecting art more than 20 years ago, they’ve focused on supporting living artists. Art has always been a central part of the couple’s love language. “We collect from the heart; buying art for us is not transactional, it’s like a welcome to the family,” says Swizz Beatz, who once told Cultured magazine: “The collection started not just because we’re art lovers, but also because there are not enough people of colour collecting artists of colour.”

“We need to be our most giant selves, to think our most giant thoughts, express ourselves in the biggest way possible, and to give ourselves permission to be giants. We want people to see themselves. We want people to be inspired. We want people to feel connected and to see the giants on whose shoulders we stand,” says Alicia. “That’s why the title of the show is Giants – the artists are giants, the people are giants. We want people to see that you are also a giant, you are special, incredible, and unique.” Signalling how the contemporary art world has changed radically and permanently from a mostly White, high-culture enterprise to something “The importance and POWER of Black collectors showing their collections in PUBLIC museums and not just in private homes cannot be downplayed” far more diverse and unpredictable, the importance and power of Black collectors showing their collections in public museums and not just in private homes cannot be downplayed. Artist Kehinde Wiley, the first African American artist to paint a presidential portrait – of Barack Obama – notes that the famous couple is “normalising a love affair with art” for everyone.

Kehinde Wiley (born Los Angeles, California, 1977). Femme piquée par un serpent, 2008. Oil on canvas, 102 × 300 in. (259 × 762 cm). The Dean Collection, courtesy of Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys. © Kehinde Wiley. (Photo_ Glenn Steigelman)

Put together by the remarkable Brooklyn Museum curator Kimberli Gant, the exhibition is separated into segments. One of them, ‘Giant Conversations’, celebrates (shades of) Blackness through pictures by street photographer Jamel Shabazz, who depicts New York City from the ’80s to the present day, female henna artists by Moroccan artist Hassan Hajjaj, mixed media depicting Black youth by Deborah Roberts, and paintings by British artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. For ‘Giant Conversations: Critiquing Society’, multimedia artist Lorna Simpson offers a photographic triptych, Nick Cave’s textured sculptures investigate how Black men assume costumes to conceal and protect, while French painter Jerome Lagarrigue imagines collective futures and solutions, and Henry Taylor protests lack of visibility for unhoused communities.

Brooklyn Art Museum / GIANTS Curator Kimberli Gant

In ‘Giant: Presence’, there is no limit to the scale of artworks seen in the paintings by Nina Chanel Abney in various animated settings, Amy Sherald’s glimpse at Baltimore’s dirt-bike culture, and paintings by Titus Kaphar and Botswana’s Meleko Mokgosi who uses full room wraparound scale to depict different themes throughout history. ‘On the Shoulders of Giants’ showcases works by South African Esther Mahlangu, the originator of the ‘Black is Beautiful’ movement Kwame Brathwaite, Gordon Parks (Beatz owns the largest private collection of Parks photography), Malian photographer Malick Sidibe, and Burkinabe Sanle Sory, who showcases everyday life in Africa. No collection of this stature would be complete without iconic work by the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat, contemporary painter Barkley L. Hendricks or Ernie Barnes. Kimberli describes the sharp-suited A-list couple as “Hip-Hop medicis., YourLuxury Africa’s culture contributor Petra Mason caught some downtime with the show’s curator Kimberli Gant.

Tell us about your fresh approach with GIANTS?
I think you’ll see the power of art through the art works and how the Deans are incredible advocates for artists. They truly are the giants of the exhibition.

Is there a section that you consider a personal favourite?
I don’t have a specific section I love more than the others. I really want visitors to learn about artists they haven’t heard about to make them household names as those who are the major art historical texts. And perhaps to expand their knowledge on artists’ practices they already know.

How did you go about translating and curating the bi-coastal Dean Collection into a museum setting?
We used the theme of “giants” as a concept, a concept which was incredibly important to the Deans and tried to explore that topic in several ways. I also just looked at the work and used those objects to lead the way for me. We had to be selective which works to include as their collection was much bigger than our space.

What role do you think Brooklyn Art Museum plays in the art ecosystem?
We are actively trying to expand the canon of art history, to show how relevant it is, but also that it should and is accessible to anyone who is interested. You don’t have to have an advanced degree to appreciate creativity.

Gants ethos manifested in Alicia Keys statement about GIANTS: ‘We want people to see themselves. We want people to be inspired. We want people to feel inspired. We want people to feel connected and to really see the giants on whose shoulders we stand’.‘ We want people to see that you are also a giant, you are special, incredible, and unique.’ ‘That’s why the title is ‘GIANTS’ because the artists are giants, the people are giants.’

Giants: Art from the Dean Collection of Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys is on until 7 July 2024.


Photography: courtesy of Brooklyn Art Museum
Installation photography: Danny Perez and Paula Abreu Pita

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