By Yolanda Perdomo, CBS Digital Producer
CHICAGO (CBS) — According to Chicago artist Hebru Brantley, history is not the past, but a current connection to his art and influences as a creative.
“As a part of the greater story that I wanted to tell and continue to tell, this is, to me, the start or the prequel or the precursor to the bigger story,” Brantley said.
Brantley gets the chance to tell several stories in what’s being called an “immersive art experience” in the giant “Nevermore Park” housed in Pilsen, opening on Thursday.
It’s part art exhibit, part interactive history lesson and all Hebru Brantley, whose iconic images of “Flyboy” and “Lil Mama” let viewers examine his work up close, without the boundaries that exist in museums, where you can look, but cannot touch.
“This whole thing is meant to engage. Run through, touch, climb; the purpose of this is to put you in a world that has some familiarity to our own but picks and pulls from different eras throughout history, particularly Chicago history,” Brantley said. “It’s up to you to in terms of your level of engagement and how you want to navigate through the space.”
The space is a blue building at 949 W. 16th St. in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. The rooms have Brantley’s art, but visitors will walk under a ceiling covered with dangling lights, a huge blackboard with Flyboy images, a wall of television sets, a hallway covered from floor to ceiling with newspaper stories and what could have been part of a decade’s old newsstand, with copies of Ebony and Jet magazine along with candies on the counter.
“I think it’s important to sort of tee up and give relevance to Chicago history and history at-large for people of color to sort of help frame the context and help get a better sense of narrative moving forward,” Brantley said.
Hebru Brantley’s narrative begins in Chicago, where he grew up on the South Side. He said he was moved by the AfroCobra movement from the 1960s and 1970s, but Brantley noted his influences come from all directions.
“I’m a kid from Chicago, so I can’t not mention Chicago athletics and not say Michael Jordan. Frank Thomas, Barack Obama,” Brantley said. “From visual artists, from Theaster Gates to Nick Cave to Kerry James Marshall and beyond.”
He’s also drawn to contemporary and pop culture offerings consumed by everyone.
“I’m sort of a stepchild of (Steven) Spielberg and George Lucas. And a lot of these men and women that were visionaries in their respective fields. Comic book artists from Jack Kirby to Todd McFarlane to Jim Lee. Inspiration is kind of shooting from everywhere,” Brantley said.
The little boy wearing a T-shirt, shorts, sneakers with aviator goggles, known as “Flyboy,” looks cute and tough at the same time. But he’s actually inspired by the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the African-American pilots who flew in World War II. The ‘Lil Mama’ character, according to Brantley, is more of a composite of the women he grew up with. She also wears goggles.
“I sort of grew up and was raised by an army of women. I had seven aunts, several older female cousins, In the neighborhood I grew up in, Bronzeville, it’s primarily all young females and a lot of them were just brash, extremely smart, streetwise rough girls in the best sense of the word,” noted Brantley. “They could do everything, if not more than most of the males in the neighborhood.”
And that part of Brantley’s history is the theme of the “Nevermore” experience.
“Empowerment Over Power. It’s about community at-large, I feel. There’s sort of a bigger story that I’m hinting at. It’s about community. It’s about what they can do to ultimately affect change,” Brantley said. “It’s definitely speaking to culture. To African American culture. To Chicago culture.”
Brantley’s work has been showcased in galleries and museums throughout Chicago, Illinois, the United States and abroad. His fine art is owned by the likes of the Pritzker family to Beyoncé and Jay-Z and his commercial efforts include collaborations with luxury watchmaker Hublot, Nike and Addidas. Along with Nevermore, Brantley has exhibitions planned in the U.S. and Asia in 2020, so he’s not stopping as a creative any time soon.
— CBS Chicago (@cbschicago) October 24, 2019
So how would the little Hebru Brantley react to going into a huge interactive museum dedicated to the pop culture and history of his youth?
The grown Hebru Brantley said his younger self would be overwhelmed, but in a good way. The way all kids are inspired by their surroundings.
“I would experience quite a few emotions. One extreme excitement and two inspiration and three jealousy, that I didn’t do it first. I think inspired truly,” Brantley said with a laugh. “I think wanting to leave from there to right back to my home and get in the sketch book and grab the paintbrush and just kind of go to town.”
Nevermore Park opens on Thursday October 24 and runs through December 1. Click here for more information on location, hours and prices.