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Gus Brooks-Simpson, 28, is an artist who explores themes that humans have engaged with since the beginning of time. His work unifies his passion for philosophy and art, combining pillars that transcend nations and time - and inspired by the ancient world, fascinated by religion and compelled to study humanity and creation.
Bolanle Tajudeen, the founder of the educational platform Black Blossoms, sat down with Gus at his studio in Croydon, south London, to discuss how nature and life plays a crucial part in his artwork.
Watch: Black art, Black stories, Black voices
Bolanle Tajudeen: How was art part of your life growing up?
Gus Brooks-Simpson: My earliest memories of making art as a young child were drawing on the walls at home. I also remember how much I loved reading picture books such as Biff and Chip; as I got older, I got really into the Dandy and Beano comics which included titles such as Dennis the Menace.
When I was in school, I used to draw in the margins of my books. I was always doing art in the wrong places at the wrong time – I remember doing maths and drawing on top of my book. I didn't have much guidance from my teachers about challenging my creative expression, which explains why I did not enjoy academic subjects that much.
Bolanle: Do you remember where your first artistic inspiration came from?
Gus: I was in my graphic design class at school, and I came across The Boondocks. I was around 13 at the time, and when I saw the characters, I was ‘Yo! what is that?’ I had never seen Black cartoon characters presented in a way that resonated with me. Until then, I had never drawn a Black person before, but after seeing The Boondocks, I started drawing Black people.
Bolanle: Did you not see Black people in art before?
Gus: I did, but it never really spurred me to want to pull out my sketchbook and start drawing Black people. Immediately after coming across the Boondocks, I started watching the animated series. There was Storm in X-Men, she was Black, and there were Black character's in Da Boom Crew, but it was the style of The Boondocks that captivated me. It was very similar to South Park exploring political and social issues.
As a young person coming into adulthood, watching The Boondocks shaped my awareness of identity. The world around me, the politics of social commentary on The Boondocks shaped my thoughts and ideas and my artistic practice.
Bolanle: Do you think this is what influences the storytelling aspect of your practice?
Gus: I am not creating artwork to send messages. My art is more there to ask questions rather than make a statement.
Bolanle: There is so much power in that. What ideas are you questioning in your artwork?
Gus: Primarily, my work explores themes and concepts that humans have been dealing with for a long time. God, spirituality, nature and morality... I am interested in how humans relate to the world we live in, their cultures and belief systems.
Bolanle: Interesting. I can see aspects of religion in artwork and this relationship that people have with the idea of a God. Can you tell me more about how you are working through this in your work?
Gus: I find inspiration in many different books of faith – the Quran, the Bible and the Torah, alongside beliefs with a spiritual element such as Buddhism. I see a lot of ideas in all religions inspiring; regardless if they have one deity or a pantheon of deities, they all have so much wisdom and beauty. There is so much richness in how man has maintained his relationship with God, deity, and nature, which profoundly affects my work. I explore and express myself in most of my art pieces.
When talking about divinity, I know the absence of evidence is the evidence of absence. But for me, I feel like the presence of humans on this earth alone makes me believe in a higher power, and then when you start delving into the structure of anatomy and how nature is structured, the intelligence of it all is out-worldly.
Bolanle: That's deep.
Gus: *laughs* I guess. I am even trying to go beyond art at times. I am currently creating my alphabet; it's fun because I'm making something that no-one understands.
Bolanle: Why are you choosing to make an alphabet?
Gus:. Alphabets and languages are the foundations of cultures, and I think a civilisation awaits being created within us all. I'm in the early stages of developing my alphabet. I haven't prescribed them any phonetic core elements yet. Now, they are just symbols. This is an example of my artwork not trying to send messages to viewers, as I am the only one who will understand the alphabet.
Bolanle: I visited Disrupt Space earlier this week, and Paul Reid (its founding director) was showing me your work. He is so proud and enthusiastic about your practice. What is it like belonging to a Black visual art agency?
Gus: It is incredibly cool because it feels as if I am part of a collective. Paul put us together, and although we all come from different places, even different parts of the world and art practices varied, there is so much interconnectedness between all artists. It is also a significant learning experience for me; listening to my peers and just looking at their work again is an experience as a team of talented artists surrounds me. When I look at their work, I want to go to the studio and up my game.
Bolanle: Disrupt Space is collaborating with Yahoo by bringing together specialised NFT and digital makers to aid Disrupt Space artists in making their own. What are your thoughts on creating a non-fungible token (NFT)?
Gus: NFTs and cryptocurrency is a blossoming field, and I am interested in how people can make and store money outside of centralised institutions. I also want to know what precautions can be put in place as crypto is a volatile market. Aside from the financial side, I am thinking about how my artwork will be received in this infinite digital space. It has been beneficial attending the Yahoo workshop with industry leaders in the NFT scene; it is enriching. I feel privileged to have them share their experiences and guidance around the NFT piece I will make.
It's exciting right now; I am trying to do my best to develop the coolest idea that will help solidify my space within this world, as I know there is space for my work to exist in the online multiverse.
Watch: Black & Beautiful in Britain