Hip-Hop producing legend Swizz Beatz may be most know for being “The best rap producer of all time,” according to Kanye West, but lately he has been making a name for himself in a different artistic community. Swizz has become one of the most prominent fine art collectors in America, buying pieces worth millions of dollars by artists like Ernie Barnze and Andy Warhol. Most recently, he has turned his efforts to helping young artists catch their big break and get the recognition they deserve. Swizz curated and opened a collection called The Unknowns in conjunction with Canon’s Rebel with a Cause campaign to showcase some young artists. Resource got the chance to sit down with Swizz to talk about his own art and working with Canon to curate The Unknowns.
The essential goal of this project was to find completely unrecognized and under appreciated artists on social media, ask them if they would let Swizz Beatz and Canon use their work, then surprise them with enormous publicity and an auction of their work at Sotheby’s, one of the worlds premier art auction houses. In a quiet room at the back of Sotheby’s, Swizz pours everyone something to drink and tells us how photography has influenced his artistic world, “My mother’s father was an amazing photographer. My first important piece in my collection before I started the Dean collection was an Ansel Adams… I feel that photography is something that captures time, even though our activation with The Unknowns is not based on photography, the story’s being told through the lens of photography. You have visual artists painting on canvases and mixed media, but the story is being told through Canon and photography, so you get the best of all worlds with that collaboration.”
Prior to the exhibition and auction at Sotheby’s, the featured artists had their work projected onto the Brooklyn Museum and the Bronx Museum of the Arts. This unexpected display was meant to both give these unknown artists a public eye and challenge the place of “street art” in the art world at large. Swizz says, “I think it’s just groundbreaking to take these artists that we sent the invite to on Instagram… [and now they] are sitting in Sotheby’s today at a real auction of their works. Then we have the art show on New York City museums – forget being inside of them, we put you outside the museum in the biggest form that’s possible… then we also put those artists in front of millions of people on social media. I mean they’re not unknown no more. Just think about that. Two days ago these artists were probably not on nobody’s radar and now they’re having people checking for them.”
Though the artists in The Unknowns were all painters, Swizz refrains from categorizing artistic mediums, including his own, “It’s just one bucket, it’s all art. Whether it’s design, whether it’s me painting for my own relaxation, whether it’s me collecting, whether it’s me shooting photography of my kids or somebody’s art show or some views of some vacation I’m on or just being silly with the camera, it’s all art… I just choose to spread my arms out and touch all those different components because it’s available. Why just be boxed in? Thats why I say the sky’s not the limit, it’s just the view. Why should we just be in one place because that’s where we put those 10,000 hours in? Put those 10,000 hours into something else as well.”
He also doesn’t differentiate between fine art and street art, “I’m not really into street art and all these names for different art, I’m just into art. Period. All forms of art I’m a fan of. I don’t like boxes and categories even though the world is built on it. If I can use Sotheby’s to be a tool to speak with these artists, to get them on the next level then we gonna be at Sotheby’s. If I have to set up another platform to use another platform, we using another platform. If we need to use Canon, we use Canon. If they need to use the Dean Collection, they use the Dean collection.” It’s this opportunistic philosophy that allowed Swizz to bring these artists into Sotheby’s, “My thing is by any means necessary. I’m not really committed to any institution when it comes to getting the word out there because I can’t depend on that. I gotta go with who’s willing to do the right thing at that present moment. Tonight, Sotheby’s is doing the right thing, so we’re here… It’s like you have an opportunity, now use your opportunity to make another opportunity.”
At the silent auction, Princess Smith was the artist that stood out. When speaking with Smith, you could see the passion behind her paintings and the appreciation for the amazing opportunity Swizz and Canon where giving her. She says,”When I saw [my art on those museums], nothing could prepare me for that moment. That’s my work on this huge gallery, on the Brooklyn Museum, the Bronx Museum. That’s amazing… Putting it on the exterior walls, that’s totally breaking boundaries… I’m so exited about being a part of that process. It’s so amazing, I shed tears.” Smith’s work certainly exemplifies Canon’s “Rebel with a Cause” campaign. She say’s of her paintings, “All of my work from the moment I seriously started creating until this point, the goal has always been to represent African-American women in the most positive and productive way that I possibly can. There are so many negative ideas and expectations on African-American women, I feel like it’s my responsibility to do that.” Clearly, Swizz has found some extremely talented artists with a bright future ahead of them.
Events like The Unknowns bring out the best in the photography industry and make good use of Celebrity status. Swizz and Canon had an opportunity, then they used that opportunity to make another opportunity for talented artists who need it. Hopefully those artists will be able to pay it forward as well.
*Update: Canon has released a new video, explaining The Unknowns and the Rebel With a Cause project: