How Artist Adrian Brandon’s Life Has Changed Since Viola Davis Posted His Work

Meg Zukin

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Adrian Brandon has always been an artist—even if he hasn’t felt comfortable claiming that title. Growing up, he hand-painted bunk beds with his mom and dished out Sharpie tattoos in exchange for chocolate milk. It wasn’t until college, however, that he used his art as a tool to spark conversation and highlight injustices in the community.

In February 2019, he started his “Stolen” series for Black History Month—a portrait series dedicated to Black people who have been killed by the police. He uses time as a medium to define how long each portrait is colored in; one year of life equals one minute of color. In November of last year, the series was on view at his first public show in Brooklyn and recently, Viola Davis shared his art on her page. Now, he has nearly 200,000 Instagram followers.

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In an interview with Variety, Brandon discusses being a Black creator right now, finding and highlighting Black joy, and what it’s like counting Viola Davis as a fan of his work.

Two weeks ago you had under 10,000 Instagram followers and now you have nearly 200,000. What caused all this and what has it been like dealing with this newfound attention?

It’s hard to say what really made that jump. I think Viola Davis and then Complex were the two biggest accounts. Other than that, there was just a girl on Twitter with only 500 followers. Her tweet took off to have over 100,000 RTs and 400,000 likes and then everyone gravitated towards my Instagram. It’s funny because I’ve been doing this series for over a year and it’s not like I’m just trying to hop on the scene and  just caught a wave. It definitely feels great to have this recognition and I really hope that it leads to people really looking inwards and it isn’t just like a quick fad that glazes the internet.

As a Black artist, can you speak to what it’s like creating right now, emotionally?

It’s a really interesting range of emotions, honestly. It feels good to give time and honor these stories and to research and dive into each name because we tend to forget these names. There are so many that we lose count. We obviously can’t do that and we have to be more intentional with landing each story. With time going down as I’m creating a piece, I feel a wide range of panic and fear that I’m going to run out of time. Those feelings, of course, are ones that black people feel today in the U.S., especially when engaging with the police. When that timer does go off, it’s almost like, symbolizing the gunshot that took these people’s lives. It’s a very abrupt finish where I’m hit with this wave of, ‘I have so much left of this piece to finish. This is unfinished art, these are unfinished stories.’ And so, it does take a huge toll. It’s nice right now that I have a bigger community with how it’s taken off on the internet.

Have you heard from any of the victims’ families?

Family members from the victims that I’ve illustrated have been reaching out and saying, thank you. A couple of them came to my show in New York in November. Being able to have those conversations really boosts me and gives me a lot more energy in saying, okay, this is actually creating some real conversation. Obviously, it’s really tough to create, but we’re at a breaking point in this country and we need to be having these hard conversations with ourselves and with our close family and friends.

Your art is a visual representation of a life lived and a life lost—What goes through your mind when you’re drawing victims who are younger than you are?

When I drew Aiyana Jones, who was seven years old, I’m thinking back to what I was doing at seven and how I was doing the same thing she was doing. How much that could have been me is such an active conversation I’m having with this. It’s weird because seeing victims so close to my age is absolutely terrifying, but we’re also so desensitized by seeing so many Black bodies literally being murdered. It’s scary to think about how I’ve seen terrible things now and now I’m drawing this here. It’s a reminder, a really dark reminder, of course, that time is fragile. In high school, I used to think my parents were overreacting when they said I couldn’t get my ears pierced or wear certain things or play music too loud. I was like, ‘Oh, they’re just paranoid parents.’ But now I’m like, ‘Oh, this is obviously such an ongoing issue that they witnessed.’

We’re seeing a lot of people consuming content about Black trauma and pain, can you speak to the importance of creating and consuming content that depicts Black joy?

I do try to really cover the full spectrum because I think you can’t think of one without the other. I think what makes Black joy and love so beautiful is that we’re also facing so many injustices and we’re still shining through all of that with such vibrancy and flavor. And so I  have these two sides of my art as well, where, you know, “Stolen” is the more serious, you know, let’s raise awareness on these stories and this, these issues. But I also have a durag series, which is where the durag is a super long Cape. It’s this idea that you have magical powers and this imagination that you can be anything you want if you have this swagger of having a durag on. It really embraces Black beauty and Black fashion and style. There is this weird pressure as a black artist to address all the things going on, but like we also, you know, fall in love and are attracted to everything else. We want to focus on other things that put our energy towards other things we don’t want to always have to be talking about Black pain.

How do you think that we can make this conversation stay in the mainstream?

I think that what’s been great is people are really holding each other accountable for more than before. Large corporations being viewed. This is going to take a lot of people being very vocal, aggressive and not being afraid to just call someone out. I think it’s funny that we’re so worried about our image when we’re talking about black lives being killed. It’s a very simple issue that we’re addressing. Obviously, it’s complex regarding how it got to this point, but we’re not asking for anything drastic. We’re just asking for equality when we’re on the street. So I think people just need to really just keep that in mind and think of every different type of way they can continue pushing this narrative. I think obviously Black people are very exhausted by having to drive this conversation. I’m hoping it happens on a more institutional level on that legislative actually gets passed, but it’s, it’s definitely a long haul and we’re going to have to learn that. And I’m also worried that people are just going to think it’s a hot two weeks and then, but we obviously cannot let that happen. So calling each other out and holding each other accountable is necessary, in this time. For sure.

What else can people be doing right now to raise awareness for Black Lives Matter?

A lot of people are kind of timid to speak up right now. It’s okay to be uncomfortable and it’s okay to mess up. If you’re an artist, then you try to find a way to use your art to connect people in another way. If you’re a dancer, try to find ways to connect with the Black community in ways to highlight their experience. And I think that just use your strengths as a starting point, whatever it is, and then go from there. And that’s how I view my role in this conversation with my art. I’m no politician. I’m not going to be able to tell you all the answers to what needs to be done. But what I can do is  highlight these stories and say, this is my experience. Let’s talk about it. And let’s find a way to just better the situation.

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