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In the Studio with Khaleb Brooks

Multi-disciplinary artist and researcher, Khaleb Brooks creates work exploring African diasporic and queer narratives, constantly pushing the boundaries through his paintings, performances and videos. His works investigate liminal spaces and collective memory through a surrealist lens in order to re-imagine and ritualise Black/PoC queer people as simultaneously futuristic beings and figures suggestive of the past. We met with Khaleb to tell us a little more about what being an artist means to him.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?

The word “artist” has always been a scary one, something grandiose, inaccessible and indulgent. Growing up it wasn’t something you could become, it didn’t earn a living and it certainly didn’t earn respect. So while making is something I’ve always done, associating that process with my identity is something that has only happened in the last few years. Prior to being an artist full time, I was working in international development with NGO’s and the UN throughout Latin America, Asia and Africa. Only when I got my ‘dream job’ in 2016, did I come to realise that development work was quite Neo-colonial and it wasn’t the way I wanted to confront social justice issues. Soon after I became interested in understanding my work as a tool to interrogate my world view and personal experiences. How could creating something that didn’t exist before speak to African diasporic memory? How could painting and performance be methods to engage with the limitations of citizenship, the state, capitalism and it’s implications on blackness and gender? It’s an ongoing relationship with a word that may forever see me as an imposter.

Where are you from and what was your upbringing like? How has this impacted your work?

I’m from the South Side of Chicago and my upbringing was quite a mixed bag. I come from an aspirational black working class family. My mom had me as a teenager and raised my sister and I with the help of my grandparents. My mom is a cop and a born again Christian and my dad is a hustling entrepreneur from the hood. I grew up hunting and fishing with my grandfather but also quite early was galavanting around Chicago taking in everything the city had to offer. I received a scholarship to go to private school for high school and began chasing scholarships from then on out. When I was 16 I traveled for the first time to Cambodia where I began doing social justice work. I then did similar work the next year in Bolivia in the Andes and then on to university, most of which I studied abroad with my first year in Costa Rica, my Sophomore year in India and my Junior year in Cuba and Chile.

I spent a few years on the East Coast before heading to London in 2014 which is where I found poetry and was drowning happily in queer youth culture.

My work in many ways is a reflection of my family and the perseverance of black families in overcoming poverty, addiction, abuse and gang violence. Taking those early experiences and being exposed to indigenous, feminist and African diaspora movements, literally globally, pushed me to interrogate how history is told and in a way offer a re-telling.

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. Have you gone through the traditional route of art school and what was your experience?

My artistic journey has been anything but traditional. It began with my grandmother. She was an artist in her own right and constantly encouraged my creativity. She took me to craft fairs and had an endless amount of arts projects for me to work on. Her entire home was basically an arts store and DIY space where she designed shirts, made intricate miniature scenes and life size monster like characters. From ages 13-17 I managed to get selected by Gallery 37, an artistic apprenticeship programme in Chicago for young artists with potential. The programme offered professional feedback where I had access to live models, screen printing studios and television production equipment. Never underestimate the power of arts programmes for youth, looking back it was crucial to my comfort in my practice. Then there’s poetry which has laid the foundation for my performance practice. I was a part of the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement for two years where I learned the ins and outs of competitive slamming. I coached, led workshops and performed all over Philly. Then fast forward to London 2015, I began working at 50 Golborne, a gallery representing African artists. It was the first time I was exposed to the art world. I realise before that I didn’t even know the art world existed. I thought artists only sold their work in cafes and on the side of the road. After working there it planted the seed, I could really do this. Not only can I do this but there are other people doing it who are having cerebral/intellectual discourse about blackness, history and gender while doing it! After I realised that, I never looked back.

What’s the message of your work? Are there themes/narratives/purpose?

My work attempts to offer the forgotten, the uncomfortable, the mess of memory. Unlike history memory is malleable, ever-changing, sensory. It can offer a multitude of perspectives at once, it’s qualitative. History on the other hand is usually told from one perspective at a time, usually Eurocentric and often removed of human experiences and emotion. I like to expose history for what it is and use that to piece together the memories of the African diaspora. An example of this are my paintings of therianthropic figures that re-imagine the Atlantic Slave Trade. Half human, half creatures of the sea, these figures embody not only African diasporic historical connections to water but re-centers black queer people as both futuristic beings and something of the deep past (ie. Orishas Olookun and Yemaya or the legend of the flying Africans). 

I have been creating works around slavery for several years. My research has often led me to tales of tragedy, torture and a legacy of lost agency over the self that can still be felt today.  I have begun my own attempt to retell, reshape and offer strength to the past with images of resilience. One work features a dear friend Llewellyen, who is a black queer ballerina. I have made him half octopus, linking him to the geniuses of the sea, a symbol of creativity and expansion. Juxtaposed with a scroll from colonial times, the text embodies the intention of the work. The work, Trying to make a way out of no way features my friend Yrsa as a mermaid. This time our figure is in the modern world holding a horn instrument. Based on a real object, the horn belonged to the African-American private, Prince Simbo who fought for the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. This imagery means to encompass sexuality and independence (siren), the continued effort of emancipation (horn), and the connections between the past and present, emphasising the blurring of time in collective memory. 

Where do they come from? How would you describe your aesthetic?

I would describe my aesthetic as surreal, afro futuristic and queer.

Who and what are your greatest influences?

My greatest influences are my friends. My friends continue to inspire me, they are all so incredibly talented and I’m so grateful to have them in my life. Writers, actors, filmmakers, illustrators, curators, painters, performers, creative directors. I couldn’t ask for a better network of people in my life. And of course the greats, Kara Walker, Kerry James Marshall, Barkley Hendricks, Wangechi Mutu, Ai Wei Wei, Lorna Simpson, Ellen Gallagher, Sun Rah, John and Alice Coltrane, Frank Ocean, Kendrick, Tyler, Syd, Mos, Talib, Lauren Hill, Punk, Funk, Jazz, Hip Hop… to name a few.

Kara Walker, Grub for Sharks: A Concession to the Negro Populace, 2004

Are your works planned? What do you want people to take from your work when they view it? Do you have the audience consciously in mind when you are creating?

You know what! They used to be! I used to do these detailed, almost mathematical research projects to identify what I would paint. But lately I’ve just been going with how I’m feeling and have ended up really happy with the results. I think I felt this pressure from not going to art school that for my figurative work to be valid it needed to be hyper realistic and have a book long explanation of symbolism to match. Now I’m leaning more into myself, what I already know, what I feel. Part of that is coming to accept my own experiences as valid in a world that doesn’t prioritise black transgender lives and experiences. When people view my work, I want them to ask questions; to the work, to themselves, to their friends, of society. I want it to push people to reflect and push them to create in their own way.

What events in your life have mobilised change in your practise/aesthetic? How has your art evolved? Do you stick to one medium? Do you experiment? Do you see any parameters to your work?

The biggest impact on my work has been access and stability. I was kicked out of my home quite early for being queer and have squatted throughout my life since then. At the beginning, my practice was largely based on what I could find, old doors, windows, slabs of wood, old free paints. Now that I’m a bit more stable and can purchase larger canvases and higher quality paints I feel a lot freer in scale and experimentation. When painting I initially was only working with oils, though now I am beginning to work more with acrylics as the drying time allows for more versatility and generally more fun. So depending if I’m in a more meditative mood or a more anything goes mood will decide the medium. I also grew up tagging and bombing, so spray paint and stencilling are beginning to re-enter my practice as well. Everyday I feel I am breaking free of the parameters I unknowingly set for myself of what “good art” is supposed to look like. It’s a journey. 

What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a good piece of work?

My ideal condition is a brightly lit studio, a solid playlist, surrounded by my favourite books to reference and being in a headspace where I’m not completely worried about finances or my next gig. I’ll usually work into the night and get most inspired around dinner time. 

What are your goals for the future? (Projects, collaborations)

I’ve just finished an artist in residence programme at the Tate Modern and now I’m looking to new horizons. I’m in the process of applying to more residencies, and in light of the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Movement, I’m considering deeply how I can contribute to structural change. At the moment a friend and I are establishing a Black decolonial institution. There are very few black owned spaces specifically for black people to create, host events/workshops and share ideas about progress in the community. It’s the beginning stages but I’m really excited about what a space like this could facilitate. In regards to my personal practice, I’m challenging myself to produce more paintings than ever before, perform as often as possible and finish and release some projects I have started. One of those is a project called ‘Black Sweat’, a visual analysis of race, labour, movement, performativity and the commodification of identity. In the late 80’s and early 90’s singer/songwriter and producer Martha Wash, Disco legend Loleatta Holloway, and dance hit vocalist Jocelyn Brown had their vocals stolen by primarily European producers. The songs would become international hits, such as “Everybody, Everybody”, “Ride on Time” and “The Power”. They were never credited and only settled disputes a decade later. The video works incorporate dance, ritual and archival footage. 

How have you been staying creative during the pandemic?

During the pandemic I’ve been allowing myself to go with a flow in a way I haven’t done since I was a teenager. Staring at the ceiling listening to music, making music, writing, sketching. I even released a comedic music video about Corona. It’s been a terribly difficult time for the world, for my friends and for my community. I really tried to take the time to reflect, nourish my body and stop the rushing. A few weeks ago I did a performance over zoom. For the first time I had to consider how to connect with an audience through a digital space. So much of performance requires feeding from the audiences energy and my work generally involves a call and response. This time it was just me and a friend assisting me. In away it was really powerful. I commanded the room, it was intimate and free. I had to completely let go of what was expected and actually zone into what I wanted to deliver. I had to be experimental in delivery as I wanted the audience to still have a visceral connection. This consideration of how to connect at a distance is something that has stuck with me and is now informing my creativity.

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