Cast from Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee, 2020, 154 min.). (Photo: © David C. Lee)
Spike Lee is our generation’s Martin Scorsese, making films about New York stories that have largely gone untold in Hollywood. From Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X to 4 Little Girls and Da 5 Bloods, Lee’s gift for filmmaking blends image, music, and text to kaleidoscopic effect to reveal complexly layered tales of contemporary life.
But few may also know Lee is also the consummate collector: a man moved by the visceral desire to preserve artifacts of our shared histories in their many-splendored forms. His an archival practice driven by reverence and respect for artists, athletes, musicians, filmmakers, writers, and activists whose will to create has shattered the barriers they were expected to silently endure should they have chosen a lesser fate.
“You know what this is about? This is about love. These are people who touched me, inspired me. I’ve been lucky enough to be friends with some of them,” Lee told the Los Angeles Times, while walking through a 2021 exhibition drawn from his legendary collection. Perusing the quiet galleries lined with props and memorabilia from his films alongside historic artifacts that have shaped his visionary approach to storytelling, Lee revealed, “This is really a very, very small part of all the stuff I have. I could fill the Brooklyn Museum. I’ve always been a collector. This is a real life’s work.”
Like all great visionaries who speak truth to power, Lee is an unstoppable force, whether pacing the floor of Madison Square Garden in support of his beloved New York Knicks — or bringing realizing his dream to create Spike Lee: Creative Sources, now on view at the Brooklyn Museum. The exhibition is a true full circle moment for the Brooklyn native whose outsized persona exemplifies the County of Kings. Creative Sources deftly weaves together a kaleidoscopic array of photographs, paintings, album covers, movie posters, letters, first-edition books, costumes, and film memorabilia into an intricately layered celebration of Black American life.
Rather than offer a highlight reel of Lee’s prolific archive of groundbreaking films, the exhibition goes straight to the source, allowing us to consider the object as a repository of soul. Organized around themes of music, cinema history, family, politics, sports, Brooklyn, and Black culture and history, Creative Sources considers the interplay between art, culture, and history as they mix and mingle across the passage of time, shaping our sense of self amidst the ongoing struggle for liberation in a nation that would sooner silence, erase, steal, and lie. When brought together, these objects stand as a testament to resistance, resilience, and integrity, plumbing the depths of Lee’s masterful storytelling
To organize a show of this scale and scope, Kimberli Gant, Brooklyn Museum’s curator of Modern & Contemporary art, started at the very beginning: with the object itself. Rather than present works from his collection according to structural hierarchies, Gant followed Lee’s lead, following the threads weaving together the director’s panoramic vision that all unfolded the moment she stepped inside his Brooklyn studio.
Here, Lee arranges his collection with an intuitive eye, transforming the former four-story firehouse into a veritable wonderland from which he could readily draw inspiration. “From the offices and the stairwells to the bathrooms, there wasn’t a blank wall to be found,” says Gant. “You see signed movie posters with vintage photography, sports memorabilia with fine art and historical artifacts, all mixed together and clustered in certain groupings.”
Amidst the visual symphonies that surrounded her every glimpse, Gant worked with Lee to distill songs of freedom and hope that could be carefully orchestrated into a magnificent display of collective triumph against all odds. In the same way, Lee’s collection illuminates the brilliance of the individual and the power of the group, allowing people to feel their way to a deeper truth. Like spokes on a wheel, Creative Sources considers many paths to the same place, allowing visitors to follow their own instincts and draw from this well of inspiration on their own terms.
Attuned to the natural rhythms of life where synchronicity and simultaneity abound, Lee’s collection transcends the material plane. Each object meets us where we are, inviting us to glide across the surface or slip into a deeper for those whose curiosity is awakened. Everywhere there is genius that plays it as it lays: a 1966 Diane Arbus portrait of James Brown at home with curlers; a 1972 Shirley Chisholm campaign poster; a 1985 Nike “Jumpman” poster signed by Michael Jordan; and the 2005 Kehinde Wiley painting Investiture of Bishop Harold as the Duke of Franconia. The permutations of meaning are as expansive as imagination itself, elevating the immersive exhibition into a work of art.
Perhaps this is an extension of Lee’s process itself: a kind of storytelling that takes shape through the creation of storyboard. Freed from the limitations of language, each object could speak a thousand words in every language at the same time to reveal the multidimensional qualities of the symbolic realm. What happens to a Puerto Rican handheld flag when shown alongside masterpieces by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Gordon Parks, and James Van Der Zee? It’s a question the lies at the very heart of this unforgettable show.
Spike Lee: Creative Sources is on view through February 4, 2024, at the Brooklyn Museum.