Redefining Blackness: Eric Briscoe
The fine arts illustrator and professor at Morgan State University discusses how his work creates a silent dialogue
Fine arts illustrator, coordinator of the visual arts major at Morgan State University; Baltimore
Professionally, Eric Briscoe inhabits the sometimes opposing worlds of commercial artist and art educator. He incorporates imagery from popular culture — mainly comic books — to delve into the thought processes and preconceived notions of his audience, and equipping his students to use their art to do the same thing.
Briscoe spoke to The Undefeated about how he learns from his students and the effects that 2020’s protest movement had on him as a father to a young Black man.
You’re a working artist and an art educator at an HBCU (historically Black college and university). How do you redefine Blackness in today’s climate through your work, and also prepare your students to do it themselves?
My voice and words have never been able to completely convey how I felt about society. When you’re speaking, people are often just waiting for you to stop so that they can speak. So rather than do that, I put it in images.
Images create what I call a silent dialogue between the viewer and the work itself. [The viewer] is put in a position of having to sit there and listen to the complete analysis of what I’m talking about. What I end up doing is taking in the same information that other people are taking in, but using my filter to point out things about society and circumstances that are important for me to expose to people. I’m much better, and in general people are so much better, at putting that into an art form. It’s so much easier and more complete when you’re able to do that.
I try to convey to my students that they have a responsibility to do the same thing, but they have to learn the language first. So, you learn your English, how to make sentences, how to make paragraphs and so on, and once you’ve mastered those rules, then you’re allowed to break them. Working in the art form like I do, it’s beneficial … it’s something that I have to do. The students have a lot to talk about, and they need to form some kind of vocabulary to be able to convey it rather than keep it inside and have it eat them alive.
A lot of your illustrations are inspired by comic book imagery and characters with Black faces and bodies in place of the normally white characters. What are you trying to say about Blackness with those images? Does the message change when you include Black celebrities (Nina Simone, Basquiat, Prince, Sade)?
The comic book characters are present in the images because I grew up on comics. Comic books were how I learned to read at a high level at a very young age. They gave me kind of a Zen place. I tell my students often that I always had comic books. I would move from place to place, and clothes or possessions would come and go and I never cared about them — the only thing I cared any amount about was my comic books.
It wasn’t until I was very much an adult that I realized what was so important about them: comic books do what fairy tales did back in the day. You had some heavy circumstances to explain to a society or to children, so they would put it into fairy tale form. Ring Around the Rosie was actually about the plague, even Dracula was about someone who was an actual murderer. I found out that the comic books were actually conveying real-life circumstances.
Long story short, because of my own negligence, I allowed my entire comic book collection to get stolen. I was crushed, but at some point I started creating these images of people as comic book characters, and [that gave me] that same feeling that I got from my comic books. I started to create images of celebrities that I respected greatly, but I would put them in the form of a comic book character to convey what it is about this particular person that was meaningful to me.
An inverse example of this artistic strategy is evident in your piece Bury Me, where you overlay the Killmonger character from the film Black Panther over a photo of late rapper Tupac. Both men were considered villains by some and heroes to others. What were you trying to express about the in-your-face Blackness of both the rapper and the fictional character?
Ironically, it came from a debate I had with my students in class. During this discussion, a student called Tupac a martyr, and I was like, ‘Wait a minute … what’s a martyr?’ The student answered, ‘A martyr is someone who dies for a cause.’ So I said, ‘What was Tupac’s cause?’
They went all around trying to figure it out, and eventually I was like, ‘No. Tupac was an entertainer.’ He was a conflicted individual. On one track he’s uplifting the people, and on the next he’s not doing that. He was a volatile individual.
I did some reading on the death quote from Killmonger in the Black Panther movie. [‘Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships, because they knew death was better than bondage.’] Mind you, something about that quote never sat right with me. Lots of it was cloudy, so I had to figure out what that was all about, and someone had written something that I was really surprised by. [The writer’s idea was], when Killmonger said ‘Bury me in the ocean,’ he didn’t say, ‘just dump me in the ocean …’ He was talking about being cremated and having his ashes poured in the ocean out of respect, but the character himself didn’t really do much that was respectful. He was victimized when he was younger, but he didn’t do anything that was respectful to be buried with those honors.
So I started thinking about that and it was kind of similar to the discussion I had been having with my students. I decided to use that [Tupac] image, and this is the second time I’ve used that photograph, somewhat for the same reasons. The first was Tupac with Batman’s costume on. Looking at both characters [Killmonger and Tupac], they both were conflicted, both from their personal perspectives and from the audience looking at them. At one point they hailed them, and at another point they didn’t.
I wanted to take that dichotomy and put it together to see what people’s reactions would be, including the brand of the slave ships on Killmonger’s chest. A lot of my work is meant to be open-ended, whereas I have a very specific set of reasons that I do something, but I never definitively say, ‘No, this is the end-all, be-all about this work.’ It’s used to open up conversations with folks to see what they’re going to do. It’s somewhat selfish of me to do it because I’m doing it to continuously fuel me to give me more of a dialogue to portray people.
Another of your works inspired by comic heroes is Peaches. Explain how this image depicts what I’ll call the superpowers of Black women, if that’s what you were trying to express.
Indirectly. That piece came about because I teach a course where I’m asking students to analyze a song and translate it into an image. The particular song for Peaches is Four Women by Nina Simone. In the song, she talks about four different women. There’s Aunt Sarah, Saffronia, Sweet Thing and Peaches. With those four women, there’s a discussion about their circumstances and, indirectly, how they ended up being who they are, and it seems to me that [Simone] was going chronologically.
So when we get to Peaches, she has a whole different attitude than the other four women. Peaches is over it. She’s tired and she’s angry now, this righteous kind of anger. So I think about ‘four’ and I think about The Fantastic Four, which was created in the 1960s, that time period when people were up in arms and the civil rights movement was in full gear.
Thinking of four made me think of 40, and another thing that Peaches is probably mad about is the 40 acres and a mule that was promised but never given. She’s mad as hell about that. Her costume looks like a Fantastic Four uniform, but If you look at the emblem on the character’s chest, it actually says ’40,’ and the colors are turned to red, black and green.
The words in green behind her are the negative words that are used against Black people over and over again. Peaches is also mad about that, and she’s [using her power] to pull out the lighter color words which are more respectful descriptions — sister, mother.
Art is difficult to define, but it’s an archaic word that basically means ‘to be.’ When I’m creating artwork, I’m giving my perspective of the subject or subject matter that I’m dealing with. It might be weird, but the majority of images that do are of women. I do that because I think that a lot of the negative things that men do, they wouldn’t do so often if women would dismiss those activities. A lot of the things that most men do, they do for the attention of women — I’ve seen it in clubs, I see it on campus. I look at that as a strength [of women]. Peaches is the one that’s demanding all of this.
In Great Expectations, the young man could be gaming rather than studying, or he could be gaming in addition to studying. What was your intention in depicting young Black men with this illustration?
That particular young man is my son, and those books are actually from some of the classes he takes. He’s very intelligent, but there are still things that we fuss at him about a little bit. Then when we stop and think about it, it’s like, ‘Do we realize how good of a kid we have?’ If these are all we complain at him about, we’re all right.
His pastime — he’s doing it right now — is gaming. His dream is to be a game designer or programmer. So one day I was working in the room where he was gaming, and I looked at him at that angle you see in the piece, and I just quickly took a picture. This was around the time of [the police killing of] George Floyd.
The way I quote-unquote sketch now is to take a photograph — sometimes for weeks on end — and just look at it and look at it and look at it. In my mind, a drawing is taking place. There’s ideas popping up left and right.
So I was thinking about that image and I realized that something about this moment, this time period, is different. This is not the first time you’ve had someone die at the hands of law enforcement, but something about this was very different and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Then [the protests and counterprotests] were happening, and it came to me in the form of the signs in the background of the image. Where it says, ‘I KNOW ALM (All Lives Matter), DO YOU?’ is more so about, ‘Why do you keep saying that? What is it that you think is actually happening? Why do you think so many millions of people are wrong about what is happening?’
Not only is this not the first time that has happened, but it’s not the first time we’ve had protests. The background signs go back to the sanitation workers’ protests. The signs they held that said ‘I AM A MAN’ kept popping into my head. So the signs in my image are memories of what has already been discussed ad nauseam.
The ‘OH, NOW?’ sign is in response to the NFL. I was pissed when the commissioner came out and said, ‘Oh, we were wrong about Colin Kaepernick.’ Kaepernick’s message had not changed since Day 1 — he made it very clear what he was talking about. These things were happening back then and he tried to tell you, but you turned your head. So when [Roger Goodell] makes those statements now, and the Washington Football Team addresses their racist name, it’s like, ‘Oh, now you do that?!?’ It’s not about social justice, it’s about their bottom line. I’m from the D.C. area and have been a fan of the team for years, while hating the name, and I’m not satisfied with the name change because the culture that made them dig their heels in for so many years hasn’t changed.
The image’s name, Great Expectations, comes into play when I’m looking at my son and realizing that for all of these years we’ve heard all of these things about young Black men, going back to … hell, ever since slavery. We’re told all of these things about what we should do, how we should dress or act, and I look at my son knowing what type of kid he is — nice kid, generous, non-materialistic. He’s the epitome of what a parent would want to see. But I also know that [other people], just looking at him, their attitude will be completely different. We worry about what the climate and society is going to do to that kid we’ve got.