Artist Spotlight: Gianni Lee
Gianni Lee is a visual artist, fashion designer, music producer and international DJ who started gaining popularity through the viral success of his mixtapes as well as his streetwear brand Babylon Cartel. Lee uses painting as a language to tell the story of a people fighting for their home and their existence and his canvas and color choices are a platform for him to express inner-feelings on issues he can’t put into words. He tells stories that speak about social issues in America and abroad and we had the chance to honor him and his work in 2019 at Art Basel. We caught up with him recently to discuss more of his background and beliefs so check it out.
If you could describe yourself in three words, what would they be?
I don’t think I could limit myself to words. Words are hard for me. I’ve always had trouble and that’s why I relied so heavily on imagery and color to get my point across. If I could describe myself in hues I would say aqua blue, matte black and cherry red.
When you hear Black Excellence, what or who comes to mind?
Me, you and anyone else Black who wants something out of this world but also wants to give something tangible back to this world while they are living on it. It’s no special look, walk or talk to me. It’s just real Black people living their truest and best selves, free from discrimination and judgement.
The traumatizing experience of a Black man being wrongfully accused of a crime is unfortunately common in the U.S. How has this inspired your work and advocacy?
Let me first say that I think Criminal Justice Reform is needed and is imperative in this country. I can’t stress that enough. The continued policing of Black bodies in America is a problem and must be addressed. It’s a revolving door of bullying and I always feel slightly pressured with the responsibility of addressing it in my work as a black man. The past, the present and the future of it. We need to know what was, and we need to openly discuss and plan what CAN be. Generational trauma is real and we are dealing with it everyday, that same trauma inspires my work. It’s a direct line to our ancestors that I’m speaking through and I’m only the vessel.
What brings you satisfaction in your work?
My satisfaction is always the finished product and the reactions of people when they first see it. I’m competitive with myself so I always want to push my limits and do something better than the previous piece. I’m in this constant battle with my future and past selves to see who can bang out the most iconic painting. It’s like a weird time travel fringe art film. I probably wouldn’t watch it because it would suck.
Tell us about how you got started in the arts.
I got started the day my Mother enrolled me in this special education arts kindergarten called Moonstone. We learned everything through the arts as a foundation. I remember I got into a fight at school and my punishment was to draw exactly what I did wrong and present that drawing to the class followed by an apology. Shit was wild in Kindergarten.
What’s your most unforgettable professional memory?
I can’t really think of any, but I don’t like getting paid for projects late. The times that I did, it made me feel like I was at the bottom of the totem pole and my presence and contributions didn’t truly matter because this said company is not paying me on time.
Black Excellence means celebrating every and any Black experience. What experiences should we shine more light?
All things in the African Diaspora. All cultures, religions, customs and communities that never see press or the light of day. All of these things have been stripped from the history books and under-reported. If only we know the extent of our heritage and just how powerful we were then and are currently. It all starts with education and we need to know who we were to sculpt who we can become.
What can we look forward to from you in 2020?
More projects, more exhibitions. This year I told myself I would open up more and show just how dynamic I can be as a creative. I have a solo show coming soon, I’ve been preparing and painting for it and I can’t wait to display that new body of work because it means a lot to me.
Photos: Aaron Ramey, Jade Lilly
Check out Gianni’s latest collaboration with Levi’s right here and stay tuned for more details on his solo show coming soon.