BRANDON DREW HOLMES INTERVIEWED BY ASHER PENN

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Portrait by Asher Penn

Brandon Drew Holmes is an artist whose critical practice directly addresses the pervasive culture of white supremacy in both the underground communities and the contemporary art world alike. Through his poetry, performance, curation, writing, and artworks, Holmes has developed a reputation as an uncompromising voice within a compromised situation, bringing a personal honesty and integrity and to a dialog that has historically been duplicitous by design.

Where are you from?
The DMV.
DC, Maryland Virginia… What’s it like there?
It’s the east coast of North America. Kinda simultaneously suburban, urban, rural. Spent a lot of time at Six Flags, Borders, Barnes & Noble…
How did you get into art?
I’ve always been surrounded by art. My grandma was a poet. My moms tried studyin photography for a bit at the Corcoran, but had to drop out because she was a single-mother at the time. My step-granddad was very social within D.C.’s Black creative scenes.
So creativity was something your family valued.
In my family if a child was interested in dancin, then they were put into dance classes/competitions and they did that until we said we didn’t want to do it anymore. If you want to be a athlete, if you want to be a artist, it was all looked at the same; keepin us busy in hopes of keepin us outta trouble.
There are a lot of art museums in DC, right?
It’s the nation’s capital, so yea, I’d spend weekends with my grandma hittin the museums (the Hirshhorn was our turn up spot). Im really grateful to have had access to free museums, but also fam who took me. Livin in California has been a wild bummer because I see the diff between private and public.
Were you an arty teenager?
Constantly drawin, writin, and stuff. I attended a visual and performin arts program in Maryland. It was a wild situation because its like an “Art program”, but extremely poor and in the hood. I wasn’t a hipster arty kid. None of my peers were. We thought of ourselves as arty, but there wasn’t the social image that typically is associated with the label. That Rachel Leigh Cook from She’s All That “look”. Like we was just regular niggas who could draw.
What was your focus at art school?
Photography and fashion design.
Who were your favorite photographers?
David LaChapelle. The structurin of “high and low” and all that other bullshit is something that sat with me the most. I was constantly consumin some form of media, whether it be radio, or television, or magazines. I was obsessively takin in some aspect of the North American pop cultural machine. But I was really uninformed at the time and found LaChapelle’s gay white male gaze really allurin LOL. It was a well crafted excessive trash of a spectacle that my young obsessive ignorant mind ate up.
What was the art school that you ended up going to?
California College of the Arts. They dropped “Crafts” from their name the semester I enrolled for fashion design.
Getting rid of craft is a bad sign.
They sent me a letter sayin “We don’t want to be associated with Martha Stewart crafts shop.” It was aesthetic ignorance mixed with insecurity and desperation for capital- not even a desire to succeed but just to have authority. There was also an impendin presence of design, and design culture. In ’03 the notion of being a graphic designer had just had become mainstream. People didn’t realize that designers have a ridiculously high level of craft. But I didn’t care cause I had a scholarship.
Can you tell me a little bit more about your college experience? Was it a 4 year program?
It was, but I dropped out. CCA is a trash-ass school with horrible programmin, teachers, guidance/counselor staff… just completely corrupt and self-servin, as far as the fashion program was concerned. I transferred out to a commercial art school – the Academy of Art University.
How was the Academy of Art University?
At the time it was a cheesy, horrible, fraudulent place but it actually turned out to be a ridiculously amazin program that offered me access to designers like Alexander McQueenm Azzedine Alaia, Rodarte and Proenza Schouler. College was whatever. I’m not gonna say it wasn’t interestin, but that was such a minuscule insignificant moment for me, character buildin wise.
What were the other students like?
Majority of the kids there were a joke. White, of course. Privileged, while desperately tryna present themselves as something else. Doesn’t last for long, though. Who you are always comes out, especially with white kids.
What kind of fashion were you drawn to?
In high school I was obsessed with the Victoria’s Secret fashion show because they were just sellin capitalism and sex and I was a femme gay boy. Lots of music video stylin. So very MTV/TRL. I was consumin nonstop pop culture. In college I really lost interest in the spectacle and got obsessed with Balenciaga, and what Nicholas Ghesquière was doin at the time. Rigidness. Control became more intriguin than boastful excessiveness.
Did you keep making clothes after college?
Not really. I’d always been doin other things as well so it was easy to stop focusin on makin clothes and get more heavily back into writin and drawin. Designin a label is expensive and you need certain equipment, a studio, things like that. My motivation wasn’t there.
So what did you do instead?
Around 2007 I started volunteerin at art nonprofits in the Bay Area, internin at a gallery in San Francisco… a big chunk of my social life got focused on the “art scene”… It all just came about through a happenstance realization of “you’re always around so you might as well make this official” type thing. But it never was a official thing.
What was your impression of the scene?
It developed in layers. I’d meet people in the art industry that were really surprised I studied fashion because it wasn’t deemed art or relevant within the art industry/scene or they’d be taken aback that I liked a particular genre of music because I’m Black. There’s this thing where you could be at a hole in the wall space that’s not makin money and not interested in that (because of family wealth) but runnin itself like some blue chip gallery, or takin themselves just as seriously. Business and wealth are opaque in the Bay Area. Theres a lot of privilege there, so people treated everything with a friendly nonchalant air. But this was the white art scene.
Even though the art world is a business.
We say art world though it’s not a world. It’s an industry with varyin scenes just like any other industry. We don’t really say music world or fashion world. We say industry. We use art world to separate ourselves from what we’re doin. Aspects of money, class, and things like that can go unchecked, unscrutinized, unexplored because it’s a world. This is an industry and you make a shitload of money to literally do nothin but sell these useless ugly pieces of shit.
Were you making art around this time?
When I got involved with galleries/volunteer work I actually stopped makin art. I was workin at a pizza place and would go to galleries before my shifts and on days off. Eventually I started curatin exhibits which led to gettin interested in this idea of the exhibit as an artwork. I was just workin with other artists to make their ideas happen as my creative work.
Can you tell me about the shows you were curating?
Typically structured around something that had something to do with me personally LOL. The first exhibit I curated was structured around a specific point in my life- I had been stayin in a small room in my best friend’s house, all of my personal stuff was stored in her basement because the room wasn’t large enough to hold anything. The plan was to stay two, three months to save up money to go get a better place or possibly leave the Bay Area. That stretched out into me bein there for a year and not accumulatin anything because it couldn’t fit into the room.
So your stuff was getting dust on it.
Yea. The install was a mixture of my personal items- lamps, desk, tables, shit like that, which I hadn’t used in a year- and artwork that I couldn’t afford to buy. It was installed in this way that was intriguin but frustratin at the same time because it didn’t delineate what was and wasn’t an “artwork”.
That’s cool.
Another exhibit/piece was this thing called the Beautiful Kiosk, which was talkin bout how a gallery is a store, art is for sale. It just doesn’t get sold and interacted with the way a sweater, book or a lamp might, because its highly priced alongside its social and class structures. Art is a commodity but it actually has to socially function in some way so the person can decide if they want to buy and invest in it. At that moment in my life I was homeless, so I was really truly beginnin to think about commodities and space and consumption.
You were pointing to the actual function of the show itself.
When you look at a paintin, film, a photograph, or when you experience music or readin, theres a function there, but we don’t actually talk about the function of contemporary art. We don’t discuss these things and our individual interaction. Most artists, collectors and scensters don’t actually deal with the realities of art’s various functions in their life. There are a lot of people who buy art because it makes them relevant. People make art because they hope it’s gonna make them relevant. We don’t talk about these things. I was thinkin about this a lot because I was once again restructurin my life.
How were the shows received?
People are over that conversation now, but at that time, some were goin headstrong with the artistically active curator, but still havin difficulty talkin about it. There’s the original definition of a curator as a selector and someone who cares and nurtures shit, but ultimately, it’s people operatin on the industry level of, “You’re hot. I like your stuff. This could sell. We can make money. This is how this space is gonna continue to run” type of stuff. Though people were hesitant to accept the idea a curator can be an artist within history.

Pensive Drawings: Fuck white Boys, 2016

Was this why you transitioned into writing?
I got to this point where I could start doin these things myself. It made more sense to just go about it that way as opposed to approachin artists and bein stressed out jumpin around San Francisco and Oakland, tryin to acquire money for them. So I moved into that and became known as a writer amongst my peers.
Was it a thing where everyone wanted you to write anyways?
I’ve always been an outspoken person. That was a part of my bio as a joke for a long time. Certain people in San Francisco referred to me as a “man of bold statements”. People would approach me for social commentary on things. It was just entertainin fodder for them. I’m a reserved person but very opinionated and have no problem expressin my opinion if need be. I’m not one to put statements out into the world unless I feel like it’s needed, which is also how I kind of came to a point in my life where I needed to discuss white supremacy.
Was it something you hadn’t been talking about before?
Pretty much. That’s an aspect of white supremacy. We’re put into a way of complacency that isn’t complete silence, but just quiet chatter. We know it, and we see it, we feel these things, but we’re fed through media to not fully want to believe in white supremacy. To think that its not significant or saturated as it actually is. I know and believe myself to be a charismatic person, an endearin and nice person, but at the other end of that, I also know the reality of how white people interact with me. There is a history of how white people interact with Black people and how white people are entertained by people of Color, specifically Black people.
Which was confirmed by your experiences.
I know now for sure there were tons of people that were fetishizin me. Tons of people who were lookin at me as some minstrel construct or me bein foreign and interestin to them. When I was younger in San Francisco doin art stuff, I definitely was not conscious enough to see that’s what was happenin, but that’s what it was. I’ve experienced tons of people who make statements to me about how they’ve never met a Black person who knows the things that I know or talks the way that I talk.
That’s gotta be disappointing.
I’ve grown up sporadically bein dropped in white spaces, and in general I began navigatin fetishism and people placin their views of me onto me at a young age. I was six feet tall by the time I was ten years old, so I’ve grown up with that sense of disappointment in people. I was taught by my mother to never really put hope into white society (specifically in the first grade when she pulled me out of an elementary school overseen by a racist principle). But yeah, that disappointment. I wasn’t present with myself enough to feel anything beyond. The first gallery that I worked at, I started workin there from doin an unpaid internship, and I know genuinely both of those curators liked me. That they were attracted to me. They liked me as a person, but I also know within the reality of white supremacy, there’s aspects of our relationship they’ll never be able to comprehend. There’s an actual part of them, as white people, that they’re never gonna be aware of or truthful with themselves on why they were attracted to me.
Which in many ways has nothing to do with who you actually are.
I know I’m actually a chill, fuckin awesome person, but there’s also the reality that I know for a fact white people have used my presence at their gallery to get grants and opportunities with other institutes. It’s sold as, “We are a diverse gallery. We care about community. One of our interns is “black” and he actually lives in the neighborhood” and stuff like that.
How did you start making your text drawings?
I didn’t know how to start writin about a lot of issues and stuff and discussin race, and so basically I would start drawin out the text. I just wasn’t interested in writin essays myself, so those drawin’s were to release that. It was a moment in my life with people thinkin that they understood who I was, seein themselves as a “good” white person. Those drawings were very much me basically just readin the world.
Are you still making them?
My mind is a whole lot more clear than it was and I think about things differently. The way I make them now is very different. At that time I was socializin with a group of people who I thought were makin personal artwork to explore themselves and to register what was goin on in the world on a real level. Now I see all that as just white bullshit. An aspect of makin those drawings was me basically callin bullshit on a lot of my peers’ art practices and them as white people. I do that with my actual voice now, as well as my work.
Despite that, or maybe because of it, they’re “successful” works.
Well, I knew these drawin’s were going to be well received. Because they are bein sincerely and genuinely made, which a lot of artwork isn’t. And I produce work for myself. There was a bit of desired approval there which is where art makin goes wrong, but their conception had more to do with figurin out my life than figurin out how to be relevant on the scene/industry.
You mentioned earlier that you’ve been homeless before.
I’ve been homeless sporadically since livin in California. It’s a really privileged take on bein homeless, for sure. I was sleepin in parks, checkin on shelters, sneakin into buildin’s for shelter, but I was also still organizin independent exhibits LOL. I was just going with the flow.
Were you homeless because you were broke, or…
Just not bein able to get hired and people refusin to rent to me. When I moved to The Bay in ’03, it was structured in this way that within a week, you could find a minimum-wage job, dependin on what your capabilities and stuff were. Within a month, you’d be able to find spots to live that was within your budget, and slowly over time, because of gentrification and capitalization, that changed. Every time that I’ve been homeless it’s not because I can’t find a job, but because people won’t hire me. For me, I know it’s built around the white gaze. They’re goin to hire this white person over me or they’re goin to hire this other Black person/POC who they see as (physically) less threatenin/more acceptin. No matter the race of the employees, their goin to hire someone they feel more confident in bein able to dominate.
Do you see yourself having developed different survival skills?
I was always an outsider when I lived in the Bay Area, so there was a part of me that was socially structured to just navigate and keep rollin’. The first time I was homeless, that actually helped me get to a point in seein peoples truths. I thought I was grown LOL, but I learned that I couldn’t depend on people because we will make this statement, “Well, call me if you need anything,” but when you call, we don’t answer.
Last question: you brought up white supremacy a number of times and how it relates to the art industry. My personal perspective is the culture of art is more often a symptom of the way that people are behaving, and thinking. This kind of goes against the notion that Artists could lead the way. Do you think art can save people from something like white supremacy?
Three years ago, I would definitely have said “yeah, we have the capability” because we have decided to be artists, as a group of people with varyin privilege and fortune. Today I no longer see it as a “we”. White supremacy has affected so many aspects of life and culture and people of Color need to step away from a lot of this shit and focus on our own communities. Art is life and Life is art and white people have rerouted that. Colonization has taught us to approach creatin in particular confines and narratives. Because of that, I don’t see it for white artists being able to save anyone from themselves. I mean look at any protest surroundin gentrification that has white art people thinkin y’all aren’t supremacists or directly involved in it’s existence. Black people, and people of Color in general, are faced with survivin. We are born into social situations where we are met unconsciously with two options: fightin for our proper existence with a sense of hope or move forward attemptin a consistent level of comfortability. Both are attempts to survive and distance ourselves from the violence of white people, which is pervasive. White people have created a situation where Black people either be artists for them or activists against them which is a deceptive ploy and a constant fail. The activism of Black people is our art and our art is a part of our activism.