In the heart of New York, the global R&B sensation Alicia Keys and her partner Swizz Beatz, a renowned hip hop producer, express their passion for art. Their collection primarily comprises pieces from Afro-American or African-American artists, often referred to as the
black diaspora. This impressive collection is now on display at the Brooklyn Museum in New York beginning today.
The exhibition is aptly titled Giants, a name that represents not just the size of some of the works, but also the influential figures who have inspired the couple. As Alicia Keys, a 16-time Grammy Award-winning pianist and singer, notes in a video during the presentation visit,
we want you to see the giants on whose shoulders we stand.
giants in this exhibition feature a range of artists. The works of New York painter Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), Malian photographer Malick Sidibé (1936-2016) and American photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks (1912-2006), who notably documented racial segregation and the civil rights movement in the US, are among the pieces on display.
The exhibition doesn’t just focus on past artists; it also showcases the works of contemporary artists. Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, known for their stunning portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama housed in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, have their works featured in the exhibition. Their art is often characterized by the portrayal of black personalities.
Also on display is the work of Meleko Mokgosi, a painter from Botswana now based in the United States. His monumental fresco, (Bread, Butter and Power or Bread, butter and power), explores themes of power and gender relations within southern African societies.
The collection extends to include Kwame Brathwaite (1938-2023), the photographer of the Black is Beautiful movement, and Jamel Shabazz, known for his photographs capturing the vibe of the hip hop scene in New York.
Kasseem Daoud Dean, better known as Swizz Beatz, hails from the Bronx. As a god and producer, he made his first successful mark before he even turned 20, when he launched the career of rapper DMX.
It was around this time that he began collecting art. Today, he is considered a trailblazer for displaying art by black artists, some of whom have seen the value of their work skyrocket in recent years.
Swizz Beatz, a member of the board of trustees at the Brooklyn Museum, maintains a close relationship with the institution.
The exhibition also features works by Ernie Barnes (1938-2009), a former American football player turned painter. His acrylic on canvas piece titled Sugar Shack, which was showcased on the album cover I Want You, by the late Prince of Soul Marvin Gaye, garnered $15.2 million at a 2022 auction, a staggering 10 times more than the estimated value.
As Swizz Beatz explains in a video,
We collect artists from all over the world. The reason we focus on the colored ones (…) is because not even our community collected these giants.
A more complex world
The exhibition is not just a tribute to these artists; it also signifies an attempt by cultural institutions to engage a younger, more diverse audience.
Kimberli Gant, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Brooklyn Museum, explains, “In art history, stories always tend to focus on ‘Eurocentric’ narratives. “Most museums are faced with the fact that these stories have permeated their collections for generations, even centuries.”
Through the exhibitions they present and the works of art they acquire, they (museums) try to show that the world is much more complex, much less ordered, much more nuanced than perhaps the collections they have preserved for a long time have shown.
On the day of the public opening of the Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz collection, the Brooklyn Museum will also be closing an exhibition on another icon of hip hop culture in New York, filmmaker Spike Lee.
This comes at a time when the Whitney Museum in Manhattan is paying tribute to the painter Henry Taylor, who is known for his depictions of African American life and is also adored by music stars such as Rihanna and Jay-Z.