For Brian de Graft, art was initially a fun distraction, to take his head off of long university days. But when you’re born with a talent, this won’t stay unnoticed. His hobby became his work and even though he says that most of his collages don’t have a specific message, the fact that he gives existing imagery a new life and meaning is interesting enough on its own. We asked him about his sources of inspiration and his relationship with art and collage.
You have a BA degree in Film and a Master in English Literature, how did you end up making art as a living?
During my studies, I became increasingly tired of staring at screens so much (doing research, analysing films, writing papers). Geoff J. Kim, a friend whom I met in Amsterdam, had been making amazing analog collages for some time, which inspired me to give it a go back in 2013. I had always enjoyed drawing and being creative, and something about the expressive freedom of remixing found images appealed to me. I instantly became hooked. After a day at the university, coming home and getting lost in a world of paper, scissors and glue was the perfect downtime. Then, mainly through my Instagram page, people started becoming interested in my art. So sales, commissions and features started coming in. I studied literature to improve my writing, and I also have a writing job; the combination of a textual and visual creative job is great!
How would you describe your way of working?
What I make and how I make it depends on my mood and inspiration, but I usually just begin by putting on some good music and flicking through second hand books. I’ll then stumble upon an image I want to use and take it from there. I like combining colours and shapes from art books (Matisse, Picasso, Bruegel) with photography (landscapes, architecture, interior design). It’s a way of bringing together my influences and interests. I am also using a lot of paint and charcoal lately.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
Although anything from music to nature to skateboarding can influence me, my art is probably influenced most by the artists I admire, like Kurt Schwitters, Gerhard Richter and John Baldessari. Last year, I went to see the Matisse cutouts exhibition at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum. That was amazing! The same museum also has some beautiful art work from De Kooning.
You’re originally from Germany, but you now live in Amsterdam; in what way do these places inspire your work?
My love for art started in my hometown Cologne, Germany. It’s a great, international city with a lot to do and see. But right now Amsterdam is my favourite place to be and biggest source of inspiration. I live in Amsterdam’s city centre, where inspiration is around every corner; from museums and concerts to canals and parks. It’s a beautiful, culturally rich city perfect for any artist.
When was the first time you realised you could make money out of this hobby?
After a few art sales through Instagram, agencies started becoming aware of my work and asking for commissioned work. When I realized how much money one commissioned piece could get me, I thought, “Wow, this would be a sweet job!”
Which project that you have done so far is your favourite?
Probably my Add Yellow series.
Can you tell a bit more about this project, is it mine if I add some yellow?
Because most collages are made using other people’s work, artists are often confronted with questions like “is it ok for me to simply use this?” and “how much do I need to change before it ceases to be someone else’s and becomes my own?” This also gives collage a certain reputation. That’s why my series is it mine if I add some yellow? addresses the subject of art and ownership directly, in an in-your-face sort of way. If I alter someone else’s creation by simply adding a piece of yellow paper, whose is it? And does this even matter?
What is your relationship with art, and especially collages?
As cheesy as it sounds, my personal relationship with art is one of escapism and beauty. For me it’s about discovering and creating things that make me feel better and more hopeful. I like the reappropriation of existing things, and with collage you can use existing imagery and make it your own, similarly to how a music producer samples sounds that appeal to him to make a totally new, exciting track.
Your work MK, handmade collages on pages of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, is in a way a statement. Which emotion did you want to evoke with this work?
At the end of the day, it’s only a terrible book written by a deeply troubled individual; people needn’t fear it so much. Nazis hated modern art and called it ‘degenerate’, so I wanted to literally stick modern art to them; turn their leader’s hateful words into works of beauty and hope.
You also cover social issues in your work, like how we deal with stereotypes and prejudices in United Colours. Is there a united message in all your work?
No, most of my work doesn’t have a message, but I make exceptions if I feel like it. Given my multi-cultural background (I’m half German, quarter Dutch, quarter Ghanaian and spent my childhood in England), identity and the way we perceive each other interests me.
Do you have the ambition to do collaborations with brands? Like the Air Max 1 collages you did.
Sure! The Air Max 1 collages were just an homage, but I’d love to start working with cool companies.
Are there any exciting future projects you are working on now that you would like to share?
I can’t go into specifics yet, but I’ll be making art for a French hotel and might soon have a cool print partnership, so stay tuned!