Detroit sculptor takes viewers 'behind the mask' to explore layers of identity in new exhibit

Embodying your authentic self is difficult. We all wear a mask to some degree whether it’s the personas we choose to present to the world, how we behave in social settings, or subconsciously adopting the expectations of race, gender, and class. Which version is the real you and what happens when you take the mask off?

Austen Brantley. Photo: Jeff CanaloscieGetting to know his authentic self is what inspired sculptor Austen Brantley’s exhibition “Behind the Mask” at Norwest Gallery of Art. The series of sculptures and masks combine African motifs, European forms, and African American faces with symbols of "false" identity. 

Faces lie on a sand-covered floor in a corner of the room. They’re crowded around a ceramic box holding an African mask and hands that look like they’re crawling out from the abyss. A closer look will reveal casts of cellphones, birds, and tennis shoes scattered in the sand. This installation is called “Weathered."

“They all represent masks to me," Brantley explains.

"The phones represent masks in terms of social media and the Jordans represent masks in terms of status symbols," he says. "The birds are people that have died in my life and all of it is just kind of encapsulated together in this very weathered state."

"It’s also a feeling of being trapped.”

Several of the sculptures are missing chunks out of their faces. Other pieces are missing faces entirely, including “Venus", a sculpture of a voluptuous woman that greets visitors at the start of the exhibition. 

“I think everyone is a little bit broken, and that’s a very beautiful thing that there are pieces of us missing from scars or trauma,” Brantley says. “I’ve always tried to make the faces [in my previous work] as perfect as possible, but sometimes I just feel hollow. With some of these, I just wanted them to be faceless and feel how I feel.”
The beauty in Brantley’s work is in the imperfections of something seemingly perfect. Impeccably chiseled ceramic busts are riddled with scratches and holes that reveal what look like wires underneath the skin. These skeletal frames are a nod to abandoned buildings around the city of Detroit.

“I get really emotional when people talk about Detroit in a bad way because there are abandoned buildings," Brantley says. "I’ve always seen it as something very beautiful. Things don’t have to be all the way perfect. They can be raw — that’s where real beauty comes from.”

Brantley is a Detroit native and self-taught sculptor. His talent was recognized by one of his teachers at Berkley High School in 2011 who pleaded with his parents to encourage his abilities. Prior to that, he didn’t think he had any potential at all.

“I was in high school getting bad grades, just hanging out and chilling,” he says. “I took sculpting as an elective — I didn’t even want to take it. The teacher of that class was the first person to believe in me. At a parent-teacher conference he told my parents I had the potential to live as an artist and my parents and I both laughed. He got really emotional about it and that really touched me and changed my perspective.”

From there, it was history. Brantley’s work has been displayed at the Detroit Institute of Art, the Charles H. Wright Museum, and the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, amongst others. He was also a 2017 recipient of the Gilda Award for emerging artists through the Kresge Foundation. 

Earlier this month, he unveiled “Boy Holds Flower," a public sculpture at the East Canfield Pavillion greenspace. This sculpture of a young boy holding a flower is a partnership with the Canfield Consortium, a nonprofit organization dedicated to revitalizing the East Canfield Village community. Brantley considers it a self-portrait as the boy is a reflection of the vulnerability he felt as a child who wanted to be free of gender roles.

“When I was young I was very sensitive. I wasn’t a tough kid and I didn’t know how to be a boy or a man. This sculpture is just a way of telling [young boys] that it’s okay,” he says. “In public art in America, there’s nothing that really talks about young Black men just being beautiful outside of a historical context. Every time you see [a sculpture] of a Black kid, it has to be next to Harriet Tubman or something like that, so this was just a way of being therapeutic.” 

"Boy Holds Flower Within Himself"

The "Behind the Mask" exhibition features an alternate version of “Boy Holds Flower” called “Boy Holds Flower Within Himself." In this version, the boy’s face is missing and you can see flowers peeking through from the inside. He’s also holding a fragment of an African mask instead of a flower. 

“There’s more of an assertive quality to that one,” Brantley said. “It’s saying he can be his true authentic self, whatever that is. He’s finding that gem that was missing.”

At Norwest Gallery of Art, a description tells gallery-goers that the exhibition is based on the "duality of being African American in the world today." Using a new ceramic technique of press molds, Austen "pays homage to the stolen Heritage of African culture and ancestry that moves through his DNA."

Based on this, it would be easy to interpret “The Weathered” as a sort of shrine to Brantley’s African ancestors. It feels like a symbol of African Americans returning to their original heritage and leaving the facade that was forced upon them in America behind. However, Brantley says the installation is a reflection of being disconnected from Africa and feeling pressured to embrace something that feels foreign to him. The expectation to create African art because he’s African American doesn’t sit well with him. It’s another piece of the identity puzzle that’s based on other people's perceptions. 

“It’s something I’ve always debated,” he says. “I’ve always felt weird about people saying that I should make African sculptures because I don’t feel African. This show was a way for me to touch on that.”

A bust reflecting Austen Brantley's self portrait.Brantley set out to grow as an artist and person in general for about three years before he was able to make the pieces for this exhibition. He traveled to Italy, Mexico, and China doing workshops with other artists along the way. During his travels, and throughout his career as an artist, Brantley has felt trapped between others’ expectations of him and what he actually wants to express in his work. 

“I’m stuck between trying to use classical expression of art and more expressive things,” he says.

As he learned more about styles of art around the world, he combined them to create his own — a process that he said was one of his greatest teachers. 

“It’s about identity,” he says. “I took everything that I learned in my travels and the experiences I had there. Sure, I learned about the local culture and history, but I was also learning about myself. I met a lot of other artists and gaining those skills was imperative for creating the show as well. It really helped me to delve into myself as a person.”

As for whether he’s completed the process of finding himself, Brantley says it’s an ongoing project.

Catch Behind the Mask at the Norwest Gallery of Art until the end of September. The gallery is located at 19556 Grand River Ave., Detroit, MI 48223.

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