Nine years ago, the artist Hebru Brantley submitted his work to the Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series competition. Presented in Miami during Art Week each December, the exhibition features work by artists of all disciplines to be scored by guest judges. As a finalist, he presented at SCOPE Miami Beach with the gin brand the following year. Brantley’s career has sky-rocketed since then; his name now synonymous with his instantly recognizable superhero characters like Flyboy and Lil Mama.
Recently, Bombay Sapphire announced that Brantley was creating the first-ever artist-designed bottle in North America. Through the crystal blue hue of the bottle, Afro-Futuristic motifs are visible alongside Brantley’s famed masked protagonists and characters in profile. Sales from the bottle benefit the Chicago chapter of Black Lives Matter.
“We are honored that our first artist edition is with Hebru Brantley, whose work we have admired and supported for a long time,” said Tom Spaven, North America Brand Director for Bombay Sapphire. “Bombay Sapphire has always been a champion for equal representation in the arts, and it was absolutely essential to us that we make this donation to support the Black community. Art has the power to create change, but this is just a small step. We recognize that we can and will implement more long-term initiatives to champion marginalized voices in the creative arts—a mission that has never been more critical than it is now.”
Whitewall spoke with Brantley to hear more about his latest partnership, how he’s responding to the protests and the pandemic today, and what he’s gearing up for later this year.
WHITEWALL: How did the collaboration with Bombay Sapphire and the fundraising component come about?
HEBRU BRANTLEY: It all started with me being a part of the Artisan Series back in the day. I had a very successful Miami Art Week experience as a result, which helped me jumpstart my career. Since then, the brand has been a big supporter of my various creative ventures, like sponsoring the opening night of “Nevermore Park,” an immersive pop-up art experience and one of my most ambitious projects to date.
Meanwhile, Bombay Sapphire approached me about doing a very special project, which was designing their first ever artist-designed limited-edition bottle. In everything that I create I want it to inspire hope for a better future and shine a light on the courage and resilience of Black people in America. It felt only right that Bombay Sapphire and I were able to do this together to benefit Black Lives Matter Chicago, to support the critical work they do in fighting for racial justice in my hometown.
WW: What was your inspiration for the design of the bottle?
HB: The work that I submitted for the bottle design was a piece that mirrored the aesthetic of the bottle. From their logo and their crest, Bombay exudes this sense of royalty and within the design, I wanted to incorporate a narrative that speaks to that sense of royalty.
WW: The sales of this product will benefit the Chicago chapter of Black Lives Matter. How does this further your overall creative message?
HB: This is not a new aspect of my creative message; it is my mission and my message as a Black artist. I create work for people who are not accustomed to seeing themselves represented in arts and entertainment. I seek to change the conversation around what it means to be a person of color in American through my art.
I’m grateful that I can use my platform and this opportunity working with Bombay to help push change as it pertains to systemic racism and police brutality affecting Black Americans. It’s a very personal take away for me.
WW: Are there any other organizations in particular you support?
WW: The world is experiencing a lot right now—from the pandemic to the racial justice movement. How are you feeling?
HB: It’s not an easy time for anyone but as a Black man raising Black children, it’s been a mixed bag of emotions and very challenging. As a parent, it’s my job to guide and to protect them. Right now, it’s not about having one conversation with my two children. It’s multiple conversations and it can be tough, but I’m trying to figure it out while navigating the balance.
WW: In your work, you typically tell stories and feature a protagonist. Are there any new protagonists emerging in your work?
HB: There are very few examples of Black prominence in fantasy, science fiction, adventure, and hero-type stories. That’s one of the reasons I created and continue to highlight Flyboy and Lil Mama. We hardly ever see ourselves as protagonists and I just want to continue seeing something cool in the world that resembles our community.
WW: Can you tell us about “Nevermore Park” in Chicago?
HB: “Nevermore Park” seemed to take on a life of its own over the past year. We converted my 6,000-square-foot studio in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago into an immersive sensory experience, and a fictional universe, the hometown of my characters, Lil Mama and Flyboy.
People are used to experiencing my work two-dimensionally, on a canvas, I wanted to give them the chance to step into the world of Flyboy and Lil Mama and touch, listen and immerse themselves into this world. Even during these uncertain and crazy times, I’m constantly thinking of different ways to create the things and spaces I wished existed.
WW: What are you working on now?
HB: In addition to launching the new limited-edition bottle with Bombay, Soho House and Bombay Sapphire have recently announced Soho House Art Prize, which will give unrecognized emerging talent a pretty cool opportunity to gain recognition and present a solo showcase at Soho Beach House during Miami Art Week this year.
I’ve been chosen to serve as a judge alongside some pretty impressive folks in the art word, so I’m excited. I’m also working towards a few exhibitions in 2021, brand collaborations, etc. We have some exciting things coming up, so stay tuned.