Conversation with the Artist: Demetri Broxton


Conversation with the Artist: Demetri Broxton

All images courtesy of the artist.

Demetri Broxton is a mixed media artist of Louisiana Creole and Filipino heritage who was born and raised in Oakland, CA. His textile sculptures reflect his connection to the sacred art of the Yoruba people of Nigeria, the beading traditions of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians, and his love of hip hop and graffiti. Broxton holds a BFA with an emphasis in oil painting from UC Berkeley (2002) and an MA in Museum Studies from San Francisco State University (2010). His work has been exhibited internationally and most recently at SFMOMA Artists Gallery (2019) and UNTITLED, Art Fair (2020). His work is held in several private collections and the permanent collection of the Monterey Art Museum. He is represented by Patricia Sweetow Gallery in San Francisco, CA. 

If I Ruled the World, 2019. 48” x 28” x 8”. 

Everlast boxing gloves, cedar, cowrie shells, Japanese seed beads, Czech seed beads, silver wire, mirrors, red coral, nylon thread, stainless steel chain & hardware, herbs, frankincense.

Broxton understands his work as an ongoing investigation of cultural continuities from Africa to America and is particularly interested in how these ancient cultural forms find their way into mainstream culture. Thus, elements of Nigerian royal regalia, sports equipment with significant ties to African American history, Southern voodoo/hoodoo traditions, and quotes from hip-hop artists are seamlessly blended with beaded patchwork employing the same techniques used by the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians.

Whose World is This?: Jack Johnson/Nas, 2021. 12" x 15" x 2".
Japanese beads, Czech beads, Antique white heart beads, photo transfer, acrylic paint, canvas, shadow box.

In the Yoruba and New Orleans tradition, men are the creators of beaded regalia; however, this is not the case in mainstream American culture where beading and weaving techniques are often seen as women’s work. Broxton’s mash up of bead weaving, which quotes hypermasculine phrases from hip-hop songs, creates an intentional tension and contrast between delicate and powerful, beautiful and dark, masculine and feminine. The use of cowrie shells adds an additional layer of complexity to the underlying ideas in Broxton’s work. Cowrie shell sculptures in the Yoruba tradition are called Ilé Ori or House of the Head Shrines. Ilé Ori are shrines to a person’s spiritual essence; protected by a shield of cowrie shells. During the height of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, human beings were purchased with cowrie shells brought by Portuguese slave ships. In some cases, owning an Ilé Ori could protect a wealthy Yoruba person from being sold into slavery. This juxtaposition of beauty, pain, power, and influence can be seen throughout Broxton’s series; as the shells in Broxton’s artwork represent the violence and wealth of the slave trading economy – a heritage that continues in sports and hip-hop lyrics.

MoB: Why is beadwork in your art important to you? What kinds of stories does your art tell?

Beading is something I’ve done for a significant part of my life. My mom had an amazing collection of beaded jewelry from the 1960s and she gave me several of them. I was so excited about them as a middle school student, that I wanted to learn to make them myself. After my youngest child was born, I could no longer leave the house for hours at a time to visit my art studio. I wanted to do something creative that I could do at home, so I gravitated toward beads. I started off making jewelry using off-loom weaving techniques that I’d learned from beading magazines. When I decided to shift to making art with the beads, I learned some bead embroidery techniques from books. As I got deeper into the process, I simultaneously met a Mardi Gras Indian Chief (Demond Melancon) through Instagram and he gave me some tips and tricks used by Mardi Gras Indians to make their regalia.

Hustle & Motivate, 2019.

Everlast boxing gloves, redwood, cowrie shells, silver plated Japanese seed beads, Czech seed beads, quartz crystal points, onyx points, silver wire, mirrors, nylon thread, stainless steel chain & hardware.

My art is highly inspired by my family’s connection to Louisiana, in particular, the beadwork of the Mardi Gras Indians and going back even further in time, my fascination with the sacred beadwork of Yoruba (Nigeria) royals. I also combine my love of music, particularly hip hop, so all my pieces have lines/verses from hip hop songs.

Worth the Weight, 2020. 78" x 28" x 24".

Everlast gloves, cowrie shells, 24K gold Japanese delica beads, Czech seed beads, redwood, frankincense, High John the Conqueror root, cotton & nylon thread, brass nails, mirrors, stainless steel chain and hardware.

I often look at the ancient beadwork of Yoruba royalty for inspiration. In a few of my pieces I have replicated, as best as I could, some of the patterns and designs in Yoruba beadwork, but only in small sections of my work. There isn’t much information about these designs available online so I have to do a great deal of figuring it out on my own. More than ancient beadwork, I find inspiration in the music I listen to. Most of my pieces start with a single phrase. Most of the time I will get a verse from a hip hop song stuck in my head. For me the verse has to have multiple meanings that also speak to history and the ongoing struggles of African Americans. Other times, such as in my piece Save Me, Joe Louis I am inspired by a few words that have held a significant place in African American history and also speak to the superhuman aspects of early boxing champions.

The World is Yours, 2020. 77" x 25" x 8".

Found American flag, used Everlast boxing gloves, Japanese and Czech seed beads, Czech cast beads, cowrie shells, cotton & nylon thread.

MoB: What are your influences and inspirations behind your art?

In addition to hip hop verses, traditional Yoruba and Mardi Gras Indian beadwork, I'm particularly inspired by the history of boxing and the historical use of beads as trade currency. Two books that I read over and over are Boxing: A Cultural History by Kasia Boddy and Lose Your Mother by Saidiya Hartman. I feel like these books are able to provide me with enough inspiration to propel my artwork for years to come. Boddy looks at the history or boxing from ancient Greece when boxing represented two people enacting war and beating each other sometimes to the death. She masterfully brings that history forward to the modern era and analyzes the role of race in the boxing ring. Hartman revisits West Africa and the archives of bills of sale kept during the height of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. In her research she discovers an approximate formula for the exchange rate of cowrie shells to pounds of human body weight for a strong man. Though she doesn't break down the exchange rate for other items, I often ponder the exchange rate for beads and other items of trade.

The Power, 2018. 48” x 28” x 8”.

Everlast boxing gloves, cowrie shells, Japanese seed beads, Czech seed beads, mirrors, nylon thread, stainless steel chain & hardware.

MoB: Do you have any upcoming projects, concepts, and new work we should look out for? 

I was selected as one of this year's recipients for the Kala Master Artist Awards for 2021 at Kala Art Institute in Berkeley, CA:   
Otherwise, I don't have another exhibition planned until 2022 at Patricia Sweetow Gallery in San Francisco. Having the rest of the year to work is actually really exciting for me. Being an exhibiting artist often doesn't give me time to experiment and work out new concepts. This pause is a welcome break for me. My first pieces made with beads were jewelry items using off-loom weaving stitches like right angle weave, brick and peyote stitch. I haven't previously incorporated those techniques into my art practice, but I've begun experimenting with them lately and I plan to use these stitches extensively in my forthcoming pieces.
Thank you so much, Demetri, for sharing your work with the Museum of Beadwork!
To see more of Broxton's work, follow him on Instagram: @dbroxtonstudio, or visit his website here.

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  • Heather Kahn
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