By Michell C. Clark
Hebru Brantley creates alternate universes with his art, but his work speaks to the reality of the world that shaped him.
The 39-year-old artist from Chicago’s Southside doesn’t confine his creative self-expression to one medium — he’s worked with oil, acrylic, watercolor, spray paint, video, sculpture, fiberglass, and photography throughout his career. Two hallmarks of his work are the characters Flyboy and Lil Mama, two aviator goggle-wearing figures inspired by the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African-American fighter and bomber pilots who overcame racial prejudice to become one of the most revered fighter groups during World War II. (Perhaps you’ve seen the characters on murals around Chicago, or in the music video for Chance The Rapper’s “Angels,” which features Chance flying over major landmarks in the city.)
Brantley’s work has also been collected by the likes of Jay-Z, George Lucas, Kevin Durant, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and the artist has exhibited in London, San Francisco, Atlanta, Miami, Seattle, Los Angeles, and New York, and has collaborated with Nike, Hublot, and Adidas. But no matter the medium or the location, most Hebru Brantley projects are driven by narrative, and rooted in nostalgia, power, and hope.
His newest project is a little closer to home: Nevermore Park, an immersive pop-up art experience located in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood and open through December 29. Created in partnership with MWM Universe and Angry Hero, the 6,000 square-foot, immersive installation presents visitors with a neo-futuristic take on Chicago that prioritizes Black culture and Black heroes. Guests enter a traditional art gallery, and move through a total of 19 different experiences: A newspaper explores stories of Black history from the 1950s to today; a crashed rocket plays President John F. Kennedy’s famed moon speech; and a “Sign Graveyard” references formerly-thriving areas of Chicago that have been divested of resources or abandoned.
“This project is about reclaiming history — both in the United States and the city of Chicago — through a lens that speaks to empowerment and giving agency to a historically disenfranchised community,” Brantley said in a press release ahead of the project’s opening. He wants Nevermore Park to help people who are learning to understand and celebrate their creativity, and to show through art that Black peoples’ stories hold power.
MTV News spoke with Brantley about why he chose to step away from the traditional gallery experience with Nevermore Park, how he believes social media impacts the way people now engage with art, and the legacy he seeks to leave with his work.
MTV News: When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
Hebru Brantley: A number of little moments pushed me to choose art. Happiness has always been my bottom line. I'm only happy when I’m creating. I’ve always been that way. I've had every kind of job under the sun. I've never gotten any sense of fulfillment from any of those jobs. The only thing that I really have found fulfillment with is creating — whether that's illustration, painting, or sculpting. I didn't always know how art would support my life, but I had a natural inclination to do the work and figure out the details as I went along.
MTV News: What inspired you to create Nevermore Park? What does the project mean to you?
Brantley: Nevermore Park is an interactive, immersive pop-up experience. It’s a combination of exhibition art and theater. It's a cross-section of the work that I've been doing for the past eight to ten years and the fantastical, and is based around Flyboy and Lil Mama.
I include references to something such as the history of the Tuskegee Airmen, and what they meant — not only in regards to the things they did, but the ramifications they had towards all of our futures. I'm using these moments to explain certain narrative points in my story. I'm fitting my characters into stories that already exist, but tweaking the stories a bit to make them a little more imaginative.
Ultimately, I want this to become an institution in Chicago that continues to evolve. There's a lot of historic relevance to it as it relates to African-American culture. There’s also a revisionist history component that speaks directly to the history of Chicago. Chicago was founded by a Black Haitian man named Jean Baptiste du Sable. There are a lot of historic gaps in his legacy and his lineage. I like to explore and embellish that part of history, and make it a bit more imaginative.
MTV News: What inspired you to choose this medium for Nevermore Park?
Brantley: This experience is a more accessible extension of the gallery work that I’ve been doing for years. Galleries are traditionally governed by a “look but don’t touch” rule. That world feels stuffy, to me. Only a certain demographic of people is able to participate in those events.
I want to broaden the demographic of people who are able to experience my work. We live in the age of the experience. I want to lend my creations to more accessible spaces while further exploring notions or concepts that I’ve dealt with in the past. I want to make people more comfortable with engaging with my work. I think that my art has brought people into spaces they otherwise would not be drawn to. This is a natural progression of that.
MTV News: What do you want visitors to take from the physical experience?
Brantley: I want people to understand that things like this can exist. I want this to evoke a sense of emotion, and to inspire people. It's important that kids, young adults, and adults — especially people of color — see these things and recognize that our stories and imaginations have weight and power to them. I want to bring forth our story, our history, and our culture and share it in this new medium.
Whether you love Nevermore Park or hate it, I want you to walk away feeling something. If you don't love it, but you think you could do it better, maybe it'll give you a jumping-off point. There was never a "me" growing up, so I didn't have a point of reference. My my reference points were Andy Warhol and George Lucas. They didn't look like me and damn sure didn't come from where I came from. I do this for other people who are coming into this space of gaining understanding and celebrating their creativity. I want to encourage people to celebrate the fact that they have a different take than the norm.
MTV News: A major way people experience art now is through social media — and both you and your work have a significant following. How do you think social media has changed how people engage with art? For better or for worse?
Brantley: Social media is what made art cool. When I was growing up, artists weren't accepted outside of niche audiences. When certain artists and rappers started proclaiming that they collect art, it put more of a spotlight on art. I think it’s great that so many kids are expressing themselves visually on Instagram today. It’s opening up new lanes. It used to be extremely rare to see artists celebrated on a mainstream level. The ones that were celebrated to that extent were already dead. That’s no longer the case — today, you see visual artists who are pop stars with millions of followers.
MTV News: Who encouraged you to understand and celebrate your creativity when you were growing up?
Brantley: I was fortunate to have a mother who was as understanding as she possibly could have been. She was a creative in her own right, but didn't have the means to nurture her creativity growing up. She would worry that I wouldn't make any money as a creative, but she always tried to support what I was into. As much as she moaned about all my comic books lying all over the floor, she gave me access to as much as she could so that I could continue to pursue my passions.
Hebru Brantley by Rocky Russel
MTV News: How do you pay that forward to other artists?
Brantley: In this era, support can come in many forms — including an encouraging “like” or a comment on someone else’s Instagram page. A lot of young creatives have yet to define their own style. I take a second to look at their work, or engage with large groups of students, or do workshops. I’ll also do Q&As. I’m always trying to engage with artists who are younger than me.
This world is built by artists and creatives — people who can see beyond what already exists. I believe that one of the reasons I’m here is to support and champion those people.I know that I’m not the end-all, be-all. Someone is coming after me. I want to do whatever I can to cultivate that and push those people forward.
MTV News: Has there ever been a time when you began working on a piece and you realized it just wasn’t happening? How did you handle that, and what did you learn from that?
Brantley: It happens all the time. I always dream big, but I don't always get the results that I had envisioned. I have to always adapt to the present. My expectations are always high, but I'm also realistic. I know everything is not going to turn out the way that I want it to. I am also happy with my creations being out and simply existing. It might not be perfect, but it exists. I can talk about it and dissect it. I take what I learned from that experience, good, bad or otherwise, into the next thing. I can't get discouraged. I have to keep creating.
MTV News: You earned a B.A. in Film from Clark Atlanta University, and recently signed a script deal with Sony Pictures — what do you seek to accomplish as a filmmaker?
Brantley: Filmmaking is another form of storytelling that I appreciate. I have a lot of stories to tell, and we only have but so much time to spend on this plane. I want some of the things that I've worked on over the years to have their first or second life in television, film, and animation. I'm in love with making shit. That's just what I like to do. If I'm not doing that, I'm grumpy and difficult to be around. As a filmmaker, I want to make quality films that are representative of what I want to see. You have to be selfish as a creative, because you can’t worry about pleasing the masses. My creations have to move my needle first — I can worry about everybody else later.
I want to amass a body of work as a filmmaker that exists in the zeitgeist. When someone says the name “Spielberg,” we know what kind of production to expect. The same thing applies to Lynch, Lucas, or Abrams. Some of my favorite filmmakers have very specific voices and make very specific choices that define their crafts. That's what's very intriguing to me, and that's where I want to land.
MTV News: What legacy do you seek to leave with your art?
Brantley: I want my name to be called when it's dinner time. I don't pretend to know what lasting effect my work will have after I'm gone, but I know what it means to me while I'm here. I want to be mentioned in conversation as one that did it, and did it well, and did it thoughtfully.