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Brianna “Bri” Rose Brooks is enamored with the mundane. The Providence, Rhode Island, artist’s second-ever solo show, The way things go, debuted in November at Nino Mier Gallery (presented by Deli Gallery, New York) and showcased the uneventful, quotidian details of life. The works—oil paintings and colored pencil and graphite drawings—generally depict Black domesticity. Scenes include a neighborhood skunk puckered for a malodorous attack, a figure crouching down to play dominos, and figures in various states of repose. Canvas and paper are filled with cozy, interior colors: hazy browns, blues, pinks, and greens. The subjects appear lost in thought or in the midst of a household activity. The settings are impressionistic and elicit placid dreamscapes—evocative of the contemporary tradition of art that portrays interior life as a means for reflecting on exterior happenings.
Brooks’ work has always made a case for daydreaming and self-reflection, but this show arrived during a period when the whole world suddenly had time to reflect, whether it wanted to or not. The personal confinement stemming from the pandemic and the recent cultural confrontation with racism have ushered in jarring ruminations, both collective and individual. Brooks relies on these pensive moments as valuable opportunities for growth. Their steady relationship to daydreaming is what gave them the space to commit to being an artist in the first place, and it is in these revelatory instances that serious introspection feels worthwhile. The space of visionary daydreaming can be particularly encouraging now, with so many of our imagined futures placed on hold. Hopeful reveries are Brooks’ port in the storm.
Over the winter holidays, I spoke with Brooks, who is currently pursuing an MFA in Painting from the Yale School of Art in New Haven, Connecticut, about the mundane musings that inspired The way things go.
Neyat Yohannes: A lot of the subjects in your work appear to be caught in a moment of reflection or stillness. How does idle time or introspection fit into your own life?
Brianna Rose Brooks: I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, especially during the holidays. It really ends up being an introspective time. But I’ve always engaged art as a way to move through emotion and process my relationship to the world—and trauma, too. I think those moments of reflection in the work point to a way of working through emotions that we don’t have a language to articulate yet [since we’re still very much experiencing them].
NY: Daydreaming feels like a recurring theme in your work. I’m personally excited by it because it’s so rare to see imagery of Black people—particularly, Black femmes—in a state of ease. What inspired this subject matter?
BRB: I’m a really spacey person. I’m always thinking about my daily life and my daydreaminess. [Mundane is a] word I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Mundane moments, where nothing’s happening, [except for] feeling, maybe. Those moments seem important to put somewhere. I’ve always been interested in these private and candid spaces. Diary spaces. I think daydreams operate in the same way—sort of like a train of thought floating by.
NY: Oh! “Diary spaces”—that phrase perfectly describes the private time we spend with ourselves. How does the moment we’re in—our collective reckoning with racism—complicate the act of daydreaming? Or do you think daydreaming can work as an essential component within this movement?
BRB: It’s tough because objectively, this whole time period just sucks for a lot of people. But to try and find a silver lining, I feel—at least for myself—I’ve had a lot of downtime to reflect. Everything takes two to three business days now, so I’ve just slowed down, and it’s pushed me to be more introspective and to even deal with a lot of emotional material within my own life that I’ve just been way too distracted to interpret. I think the slowing down of things and, hopefully, this time people have to be at home offers that sort of introspection. Also, I’ve been hearing a lot about manifesting and how now is a really good time for it. I feel like daydreaming is a good place to start thinking about what you want and what you’re looking forward to. That’s a good tool to have right now.
NY: Do you think of daydreaming as a form of escapism or as a process that can help us imagine futures? Both? Is daydreaming political?
BRB: I think that Black people deserve some downtime, and I think that it’s valid to want to escape. Especially now, when there’s this focus on productivity, the downtime is so important.
NY: I think daydreaming is productive. We need that time to process stuff and take stock, but it can also inspire.
BRB: Exactly. I think if I hadn’t daydreamed so much about being an artist, I probably wouldn’t be [one] right now. I just feel like the idea of a dream means something different for different bodies. To open up and push more on what a Black dream can be—especially from a femme perspective—is really significant and something that I’ve just felt compelled to do a lot.
NY: What is it about the home that becomes political or rooted in expressing identity?
BRB: For me, it goes back to [the idea of] a daydream and how it’s a different thing for [everybody]. A daydream for one person is a reality for another. I can only think about it in an extremely personal way, because there’s just so much about us and our identities that are rooted in our experiences as children, in our living places, and in our families. It affects how you move about the world and I see [home] as a sacred space.
NY: In the exhibition press release for The way things go, you include a poem in which you refer to a “them.” You write, “There is something the matter with them / Because they think / There must be something the matter with us.” Who is this them?
BRB: [The poem is] an adaptation of a poem by a psychologist named R.D. Laing. It’s from a book of his called Knots. He describes these knots, these psychological kinds of twists, and I was inspired by that in terms of working through emotional space, especially nuanced emotions that come up in mundane life. I basically just queered the text: as in, it started with a “he” pronoun because it was referring to a parent and son relationship, and I changed all of the “he’s” to “them.” I’m interested in a group dynamic, and I’m also interested in pushing on the pronouns and kind of opening up the narrative to more people who might find themselves in similar psychological knots. I’ve always been interested in language and wordplay. I identify as nonbinary, and I’ve been trying to introduce my pronouns to family recently and trying to navigate my school and some outdated thoughts about the gender binary. I wanted the boundaries between the collective and the self to be blurred a little.
NY: You’ve managed to put up an entire show while quarantining. How has working from home affected your creative process, specifically thinking about the idea of daydreaming while confined at home?
BRB: My process became me reflecting on my home space and what was immediately around me: my new neighborhood, my feelings about it, and [random details like] the number of skunks in it. I would just become obsessed with super mundane parts of my daily life and that would be reflected in the work. I would try and unpack why I was obsessed with [this or] that, and how an image might point to some larger system in a microcosm sort of way. I’m not gonna lie, I’m really excited about the work but I’m more excited that I worked on a lot of it slowly at home. It took me back to being in high school or being a kid and being like, “Okay, these are the supplies I have, make it work. This is what we’re doing.” That’s how a lot of the work came about.
NY: The skunk in your piece, Gatekeepers, is hard to miss.
BRB: I’ve generally been thinking about scent narratives in my work. Maybe this is a silly story, but my upstairs neighbors were smoking weed in the house and the downstairs neighbors were complaining about the smell. I don’t smoke weed in the house, but the upstairs neighbors said it wasn’t them and it got blamed on me. I thought, “This sucks,” because, of course, I’m the only Black person in the apartment complex. So I was like, “I bet if I got sprayed by a skunk, I could just smoke in the house,” and tell them that I got sprayed by a skunk and they wouldn’t [know] the difference. So I had this ridiculous daydream, really cartoony. I was watching Pepé Le Pew a lot. I was thinking about binaries too; like the binary relationship between the smell of roses and, like, a skunk’s ass. Also, experiences of microaggression are so mundane and small, but they play a role in establishing binaries between Black and white bodies. A scent narrative is a micro thing, but [it’s] part of the experience, part of the narrative.
NY: You’ve mentioned language a few times, which also feeds into this idea of narrative. Where does your interest in linguistics stem from?
BRB: Growing up, my mom worked in early childcare, and so I’ve always been drawn to learning motifs. Those are such formative years. There are so many symbols in the world for young Black kids to look at that tell them so much about how the world feels about them, without explicitly saying so. I’ve also been screen-printing for a long time, and it, of course, has a history [associated with] propaganda and the spread of information. My ideas about language are all tied up in print media and propaganda. Also, as much time as I have spent in institutions adopting this art language—this theoretical language and these frameworks from which to see the world—none of those institutional languages actually do anything to help heal me. I’m interested in how language can [heal].
NY: Like semiotics on a personal level for healing.
NY: Your work contributes to a tradition of artists who depict their subjects in states of intimacy or domesticity to speak to larger conversations of personal or historical reflection. Kerry James Marshall, Carrie Mae Weems, and Jordan Casteel come to mind. Who—either in the art world or outside of it—are some of your influences?
BRB: When I was an undergrad, the Kerry James Marshall show Mastry was up [at MCA Chicago] and that show made me go, “Okay, painting. I’m going to paint what I want to paint,” and that was powerful. I’m definitely thinking about Deana Lawson, Carrie Mae Weems, and Lorna Simpson. A lot of photographers, like Roy DeCarava and Tod Papageorge, have been really influential. They’re the same photographers Carrie Mae Weems was referencing in her work. My largest painting influence would actually be Yoshitomo Nara, the Japanese artist. I think that has to do with the emotional content, and maybe that’s why the domestic is always showing up within my work—because that’s a space where people feel the comfort to be emotionally candid and just like really human. I think I’m interested in empathy, and I feel a lot of empathy when I look at Yoshitomo Nara’s work. That’s the beauty of it. [His work] makes me feel sad and happy at the same time.
NY: How does being an artist play into your identity? Is it something separate or is it more so ingrained in how you move about the world?
BRB: I won’t say that I don’t think I can do anything else, but no matter what, art is something that I would do. As a healing practice, as a method of trying to find language where there is no language, and in trying to process memories—your imagination has to fill in the blanks. I think it’s just who I am. I’ve been able to create a visual language that allows me to communicate with the world in a way that I rarely feel like I have the chops to do anywhere else. I’m passionate about it and it brings me a lot of joy. And even just imagining that it can bring someone else joy—that’s meaningful. It really, truly helps me get through the day.
Brianna Rose Brooks (b. 1997) is a nonbinary Black artist originally from Providence, Rhode Island. Brooks lived in Chicago for four years where they received a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. They are currently pursuing an MFA in Painting from the Yale School of Art in New Haven, Connecticut.
This interview was originally published in Carla issue 23.