Brett Cook Reflects on 30 Years of Socially Conscious Art

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Brett Cook stands before his piece 'Self Reflection' at YBCA, as part of the exhibition 'Reflection & Action.' (Eric Arnold/KQED)

One of the highlights of Reflection & Action, Brett Cook’s career-spanning exhibit at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (with choreographer Liz Leman) seeks to make poignant, emotionally-resonant art out of unthinkable tragedy.

“The Black (W)hole” is an installation of six “Young Ghosts” — people of color from Oakland, all killed before their 32nd birthdays. Cook fashioned ancestor altars for the six subjects – Alex Goodwin Jr., Sahleem Tindle, Sultan Bey, Vernon Eddins Jr., Victor McElhaney, and Yasmeen Vaughan – using oil paint, mirrored plexiglass, wood, dye-infused metal prints, artificial flowers, and string lights. The choice of a mirrored surface is especially appropriate, as viewers can gaze deeply into the portal-like portraits and see their own reflections.

The portraits, adorned with photographs of their subjects from various stages of their brief lives, effectively serve as bridges to the spirit world, and reminders that urban youth of today often face greater trauma than their parents once did. These six Black lives mattered. Honoring their lives is an opportunity to lift up community health by naming them and acknowledging their existence. Some of us knew these six young people. Many of us know people just like them, who were taken too soon. While grief is unavoidable in these situations, there is solace to be found in Cook’s art, which celebrates these unfortunate martyrs while issuing a subliminal call to end the violence on our streets that kills our youth.

Brett Cook’s portrait of Victor McElhaney, as part of the ‘The Black (W)hole.’ (Eric Arnold)

That the installation serves its intended function was confirmed by a recent visit to the YBCA gallery, where Lynette McElhaney, Victor’s mother and a former Oakland city councilmember, was observed communing with her son’s portrait. McElhaney’s suffering has been the most public of all the Young Ghosts’ mothers; it’s entirely ironic that the founder of Oakland’s Department of Violence Prevention was later personally impacted by violence. She will never be the same again. But on this Thursday afternoon, in a nearly-empty gallery, she appears to be having a therapeutic experience, staring into Victor’s portrait and thinking unspoken words. The installation won’t bring her son back. But it allows her to interact with his image in a deeply spiritual way.

Cook’s artistic practice over the past 30-something years has frequently attained these elevated levels of poignance. His journey of creative expression began with a cultural identification with hip-hop, and an attraction to graffiti. Cook went from being a tagger to a piecer, and then a muralist, portraitist and multimedia creator, mastering each step along the way. His art has been intertwined with his work in education, which has added pedagogy, often of a radical nature, to his toolkit. And though he’s exhibited in Europe, completed projects in Mexico, and been part of an avant-garde New York loft scene during the late ’90s and early 2000s, much of his formative years as an artist-educator were shaped by his time in the Bay Area of the early ’80s through mid-’90s.


“When I started painting on walls, there was no hip-hop section at the record store,” Cook remembers, though hip-hop was already an extension of his cultural existence. “I was a popper. I was a writer. I wrote rhymes. And because I could draw good, I started painting on walls. I was painting in San Diego before Beat Street, before Sprite commercials with beats in them. And so there wasn’t even that traditional apprenticeship program, to kind of scaffold what I thought graffiti or hip-hop was supposed to be. It was really just a cultural expression of myself.”

‘The Crayon,’ spray enamel on masonry (non-permissional
work), Psycho City, Market and Franklin Streets, San Francisco, 1988. (Courtesy Brett Cook)

Coming of age in hip-hop

Cook arrived in the Bay Area as a young UC Berkeley undergrad in 1986 – a time when local hip-hop and the graffiti subculture were both in formative stages. During the late ’80s, “there were comic book stores all over Telegraph (Avenue in Berkeley), and people were tagging all around. You could tell what a writer looked like, and you’re still stealing caps from spray fixative shops, from the art stores. For me, that was the burgeoning of the golden age of graffiti here in the Bay.”

Cook studied art classes as an undergrad. But he also got an education in Hip-Hop Community 101. His neighbor in the UC Berkeley dorms was Ben “Beni B” Nickleberry – a hip-hop DJ who would mix records on turntables in his dorm room, whose KALX-FM show featured some of the earliest appearances by Digital Underground, and who would go on to become a founding member of the Bay Area Hip-Hop Coalition and the force behind indie hip-hop label ABB Records. Cook also soon met Dave “Davey D” Cook (no relation), who would go from KALX DJ to KMEL on-air personality to KPFA public affairs host and San Francisco State professor. Cook the art student also played on the lacrosse team with Michael O’Connor, who would later become a nightlife impresario, known for legendary venues Mr. Fives, the Justice League, and the New Parish. He remembers zipping on a scooter with O’Connor to catch shows at Wolfgang’s nightclub.

“We’re all just there as part of the same cultural tokens, all these people that became pillars of hip-hop evolution,” Cook says. “That was just part of our social network, you know, we need to call it hip-hop. (But) we were just like, yeah, that’s our folks.”

‘Self,’ spray enamel on masonry,
non-permissional public work, Fruitvale tracks, Oakland, 1998.
The text reads: ‘The wall is my canvas, the canvas is my message, the message is my theory, the theory is my life.’ (Courtesy Brett Cook)

Back then, aerosol art was regarded as “a pejorative medium,” Cook says. When he started studying painting at UC Berkeley, his art teachers “would not look at this as a legitimate medium. And I understood that as racist. It was almost part of this chip on my shoulder that I had as a young practitioner.”

In San Diego, Cook recalls associating hip-hop with Black and brown inner-city communities, and thinking that was what defined hip-hop. The Bay’s multiculturalism threw him for a loop, before becoming part of his milieu. Another compelling aspect was the Bay’s focus on social justice and activism, and the influence of both institutional and non-profit spaces. In addition to hip-hop culture and graffiti style being embraced locally, he says, “this is a place with a mural tradition. This is a place with a public art tradition. There were all these other kind of engines that gave it energy in a unique way.”

In the late ’80s, he says, the Bay stood out from other regions. “Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco were all mural-making centers at that time,” Cook says, but “spray paint was not really embraced the same way it was here.” While New York also had an established mural tradition, and was obviously a major center of hip-hop culture, Cook notes street artists there felt more pressured to go the commercial route.

Brett Cook. (Courtesy Brett Cook)

In the ’90s, Cook threw himself into street art, most of it non-permitted, sometimes collaborating with another artist named Aaron Wade, sometimes piecing on his own. In addition to graffiti’s continued development, all kinds of other public work flourished at the time, in what Cook refers to as “a high-water mark of public art expression.”

Institutional support came first from community-oriented nonprofits and cultural centers, and later spread to museums and academic institutions. Early on, he says, the Luggage Store and Mural Resource Center supported emerging artists, as did Precita Eyes, which named Cook “Best New Muralist” for his spray-paint creations in 1993.

In the mid-’90s, Cook became part of the first wave of Bay Area aerosol artists to exhibit at larger, well-respected institutional spaces, along with Barry “Twist” McGee. Those years were especially vibrant: Cook worked at Southern Exposure as a curator, created murals in Mission District alleys and elsewhere around the city, and still painted at the railroad tracks. “There was a really diverse way of understanding what it meant to be an artist,” he says. “(You) didn’t have to just be a writer, didn’t have to just do portraits, didn’t have to just be in the nonprofit system. That, I think, is part of how I got to manifest in the complexity that I am now.”

A portion of Brett Cook’s ‘Reflection & Action,’ at YBCA. (Eric Arnold/KQED)

Voices of the people

Intentionally, Cook’s portraits at YBCA aren’t overly photorealistic, which would perhaps conceal the human essence of the subjects, the seeming imperfections which reveal character and intangible qualities. Instead, though his portraits utilize photos as starting points, the finished images contain vibrant color palettes imbued with dynamic energy that become windows into the souls of the people Cook paints. The Young Ghosts – all of them joyful and filled with vitality – will be remembered as they were on their best days.

This empathetic connection with his subjects stretches back at least three decades. One of Cook’s first major installations, Homelessness, was completed in 1993 on the exterior of YBCA while the center was under construction. By all accounts, that project – photos of which are included in the current exhibition – was a turning point for the artist.

He recalls applying for the project (“at the time, no one was doing construction walls”) and being accepted, along with Michael Rios and Barry McGee. In those years, SoMA “was really an extension of the Tenderloin at that time,” he says, with working-class and immigrant families alongside unhoused people, who in the public’s perception were an eyesore but not yet an epidemic.

A portion of ‘Homelessness,’ from the YBCA construction wall site.
Spray enamel on wood, Third
and Howard Streets, San Francisco, 1992. (Courtesy Brett Cook )

Initially, for the project, Cook “was just going to do portraits with statistics about homelessness, or being unhoused — we didn’t even use that term then. And then somewhere in the process, I got this idea to actually interview the people and use their voices, their quotes. And really, that was the beginning of my 30-year practice.”

After graduating from college, Cook moved to New York City in the late ’90s – a vibrant time for the city, with all kinds of cultural immersion opportunities. Headquartered in a live-work loft that he used as a studio, as well as to throw memorable all-night parties, he eased into the NYC art world and was embraced by the city’s hip-hop community. He took part in the first hip-hop exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, and later exhibited in Europe with Sanford Biggars in another hip-hop-themed exhibition.

While his art eschews hip-hop cliches, incorporating hip-hop’s social and cultural sensibilities lent Cook agency. “Doing a project in hip-hop in Brooklyn in 1999, it was an investigation for me to realize like, yeah, really, hip-hop is me,” Cook says. “It’s my culture. It comes from me, from being a Black American exposed to the kind of aesthetic cues and the postmodernist sensibility of what it was and really the expression of my voice at that time.”

A public project with photos from the 6th Street photography workshop and the Luggage Store. Spray enamel on wood, San Francisco, 1993. (Courtesy Brett Cook)

Cook’s approach may not sound like the revolutionary counternarrative that it is. “In the history of Western art,” he explains, “the model almost never has a voice. …When you see Gauguin paint those naked ladies in Polynesia, even when you see someone doing a character on a wall somewhere, it’s usually through the filter of the artist (that) you’re hearing about that person. What started for me 30 years ago, and now has kind of evolved, is recognizing that actually, this is an opportunity to magnify this person’s voice, both literally and using quotations from interviews with them.”

Examples of this technique inform nearly every aspect of Reflection & Action. Some of Cook’s subjects are well-known, with a degree of familiarity, celebrity, or at least expertise in their fields. But the majority are unsung figures like Oakland muralist Melanie Cervantes, grounded in community sensibilities and/or a personal aesthetic, who will be unfamiliar to many viewers.

Brett Cook with his portrait of Oakland poet and Cultural Affairs Manager Robert Bedoya at YBCA in San Francisco. (Eric Arnold)

Encountering Cook’s portrait of Roberto Bedoya, the viewer is led to contrast the portrait with its source photo, but also to balance the visual image with quotes about belonging, equity, and culture as important societal values. Awareness of Bedoya’s long history as a progressive Chicano-Latino poet, cultural policy advocate, and current Cultural Affairs Manager for the City of Oakland aren’t prerequisites for allowing his words and likeness to resonate.

“When I think about the conventions of the way people are trained to come into a museum or come into a gallery, there’s not the expectation that they’re supposed to do anything other than consume these passive objects,” he says. His work, however, has been informed “by the crucible of the Bay Area, of having a social justice sensibility, for so much of my life that it wasn’t just enough to make an object.”

Brett Cook’s portrait of Little Bobby Hutton, accompanied by the 10th point of the Black Panthers’ Ten-Point Program, as part of a 2012 Oakland Museum of California installation in collaboration with Life is Living/Reflections of Healing. (Courtesy Brett Cook)

Art as a healing force

Healing urban communities of deep-rooted trauma has been a recurring theme of Cook’s work long before “The Black (W)hole.” Reflection & Action includes a series of portraits done while Cook was living in Harlem in the late ’90 and 2000s that show everyday denizens of the New York neighborhood, which first appeared as public art installations intended to foster an authentic sense of community. Cook’s “Reflections of Healing” series from the 2010s immortalized local legends like former Black Panthers Lil Bobby Hutton — depicted as an angel, with wings — and Joan Tarika Lewis. This series was displayed during the annual Life Is Living festival in West Oakland’s DeFremery Park, which Cook assisted in curating, and has appeared on the exterior wall of the Oakland Museum of California, facing traffic on Lake Merritt Boulevard.

Addressing trauma remains a common theme in hip-hop as well, whether expressed through R.I.P. T-shirts, mural memorials, rapped eulogies, or turf dance tributes. Urban dwellers often have to maintain positivity in less-than-ideal living and environmental conditions, address social, cultural and economic inequity in positive ways, and claim identity separate from being othered.

An installation view of ‘Reflection & Action’ at YBCA. (Charlie Villyard/YBCA)

But while hip-hop has leaned in on social, economic and environmental conditions as causes for trauma and PTSD, considerably less emphasis has been placed on finding ways to heal. Cook doesn’t necessarily have all the answers. But he believes members of urban communities who can relate to the struggle do; they may just not know it yet. This is where the “Action” in Reflection & Action comes in. Cook’s art is not intended to elicit passive participation. It’s a call for an intentional response; to find answers by looking at static-seeming fields like policymaking with creative eyes.

Cook explains how, a few years ago, he was involved in a collaborative project with SF State and the Health Equity Institute, “looking at public housing in San Francisco and what art and healing existed there, with the idea to support funding and programs through the development of these public housing projects, to give people more access to those things.”

The experience cemented a core belief in Cook’s work, and the way art interacts with the world. “I don’t think it’s just about developers,” he says. “It’s policymakers, it’s politicians, it’s educators. Within all of these different sectors, there is the possibility to be more creative with the way that we work.”


‘Reflection & Action’ runs through June 11, 2023, at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Details here.