Their musical accomplishments need no introduction: singer-actor Alicia Keys and producer-rapper Swizz Beatz (née Kaseem Dean) have been cultural icons for some two decades now, with massive hit records, multiple Grammy awards and starring roles in both film and theatre to their credit. Less well known, however, is the couple’s passion for art, which over their many years of marriage has resulted in an astonishing collection of important works from Black artists, including newer commissioned works.
Starting this Saturday at the Brooklyn Museum, a hefty chunk of the Dean collection will be on display in the sprawling ground floor galleries at the Brooklyn Museum, 98 pieces from such legends as Gordon Parks, Nina Chanel Abney, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kehinde Wiley, Lorna Simpson and Nick Cave. The show is called “Giants,” a tribute to both the artists’ stature as well as the sheer size of many of the works.
Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz by Kehinde Wiley (Photo by Scott Lynch)
It’s an absolute stunner.
“The Deans now collect almost exclusively living artists,” Kimberli Gant, the exhibition’s curator, tells Brooklyn Magazine, describing the couple as something like hip-hop de Medicis. “They have these ongoing, familiar relationships with them, which is very important. They become friends, or even like family. And they purposely buy or commission large works, which often allows artists to go beyond what they even thought was possible. It adds a new level to what they want to say.”
The exhibition opens with a bit of personal history — Swizz’s BMX bikes; Keys’s “We Are Here” piano — and two enormous portraits of the couple by Wiley. The museum’s Great Hall atrium highlights another gigantic Wiley work, as well as a huge, cartoony Abney that explores sex as a financial transaction. Amy Sherald’s dirt-bike diptych exhilarates. And then the showstopper from Arthur Jafa, the nearly eight-foot-tall “Big Wheel I,” which references both Mississippi’s monster truck culture and its history of anti-Black violence.
Arthur Jafa’s ‘Big Wheel I’ dominates the Great Hall (Photo by Scott Lynch)
Other highlights include nearly two dozen Parks prints (the Deans own the largest private collection of the photographer’s works) and — nostalgia alert — a bunch of great Jamel Shabazz photos of Brooklyn in the early 1980s.
Various works by Jamel Shabazz (Photo by Scott Lynch)
Meleko Mokgosi gets a tremendous amount of space, taking over an entire gallery with more than 20 painted panels, mostly intimate portrayals of everyday life in his native Botswana.
Curator Kimberli Gant in front of a small part of Meleko Mokgosi’s massive ‘Bread, Butter and Power’ (Photo by Scott Lynch)
And the “Critiquing Society” gallery features a number of potent paintings — Jerome Lagarrigue’s portrait of a protestor throwing a tear gas canister back at the cops, called “Battle for Area X,” is a standout — as well as Hank Willis Thomas’s sculpture Strike, of one arm holding back another, the latter of which wields a police baton.
From left: ‘Battle For Area X,’ by Jerome Lagarrigue; ‘Strike’ by Hank Willis Thomas; ‘Fallou’ by Jordan Casteel (Photo by Scott Lynch)
In addition to the visual art, Swizz has created three separate playlists for the show, which play in three separate galleries through state-of-the-art (and very cool looking) Bang & Olufsen speakers. There are also three shockingly comfy living room setups where you can sit and chill and soak up the vibe generated by being around so much great art. Almost as if you, like the Deans, had all this stuff hanging in your home.
“We want our exhibitions to be accessible to people,” said Gant. “We want you to feel comfortable, we want you to feel excited, we want you to feel curious, to hang out, and have a good time here. Because art isn’t exclusive. Art is for everyone.”
A small portion of Meleko Mokgosi’s massive, 21-panel Bread, Butter and Power’ (Photo by Scott Lynch)