International sculptor Nijel Binns has been commissioned to create art pieces of prominent cultural influencers including Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Tupac Shakur, and Michael Jackson. Nijel discusses his passion for martial arts, using his art to inspire youth through Tupac’s legacy, and his biggest project to date: The Mother of Humanity statue, which is twice the size of the Statue of Liberty.
It’s early afternoon on a Saturday, and the Oakland Museum of California is slowly but surely filling with patrons anxious to experience the new RESPECT: Hip Hop Style & Wisdom exhibit. Upon entry, a large black wall painted in grandeur gold lettering reads “Enter The Dojo”; a Japanese martial arts reference to a space designed specifically for meditation and learning. A subtle yet significant reverence to the intermingling of martial arts and Hip-Hop culture; likely to the credit of the exhibit’s co-curator Adisa Banjoko who is known to practice Jiu Jitsu. In this room, guests are encouraged to practice what’s defined as the four elements of Hip-Hop culture: rapping, DJing, graffiti, and dancing. The interactive environment is indeed a large open learning space, displaying a colorful Oakland themed mural, turntable simulators, and a dance floor for breakdancing.
To the left of the room, two large video projectors are mounted adjacent to one another, giving its audience a crash course tutorial of how five generations of Hip-Hop culture influenced an entire nation. Each pupil sits at full attention, enamored by the history lesson. In the back of this class, a man sits discreetly. He’s casually dressed, possessing a dignified posture. Unbeknownst to anyone in the room, this man also has a love for martial arts, with decades of experience in film and sculpting. He has worked with some of the most prominent names in entertainment. No one knows his art piece of arguably the most influential figure in Hip-Hop, is on display the next room over. No one has a clue that the man humbly blending in to enjoy the experience, is the renowned international sculptor, Nijel Binns.
Dominique Nicole: So when I listened to your interviews, you mentioned that you like to ‘start from the inside out’.
Nijel Binns: Yes. (laughs)
D: You like to really study your subject and you like to really get to know and understand your subject. In your words, you like to know ‘what they eat for breakfast and start from there. Why is that?
N: Well, what I do is reflected by the finished product. But that’s only the end result of internalizing the subject. So you have to know your subject. You have to know your subject very well. That’s the only way you’re going to capture their essence basically, and that’s what I’ve done with Tupac, and Malcolm X and Garvey. Otherwise, you’re only doing something that’s on the surface and you’re not really getting to the individual inside.
D: So what is your overall inspiration? Do you just wake up and say ‘I want to do this’? Or is it all drawn off of their political or social influence?
N: Well a lot of them are commissioned pieces. Take, for example, Marcus Garvey. This one was commissioned by his son Dr. Julius Garvey. What he wanted to do was, his father was always shown wearing military regalia, so he said ‘well my father was a scholar’. In fact, the first, one of the first books he read was by Booker T. Washington from slavery. So he wanted to depict his father holding a book in a studious look. This other piece was commissioned by an organization in Los Angeles of Malcolm X. They commissioned it in plaster and then I did this rendition in bronze. And then this piece was commissioned by an organization in Atlanta. There was an old statue of Tupac there that was taken down eventually and they commissioned me to create a new one, so this is the model for that piece.
“I’m really excited to have three of my pieces here. The Malcolm X, the Marcus Garvey, and the Tupac. This is really an incredible exhibit; the entire Hip-Hop exhibit, so I’m pretty honored. I’m pretty honored to have them here.” – Nijel Binns
D: That is amazing. You also mentioned your love for martial arts. You’re a martial artist yourself.
N: Yes I am. My first work was with Jackie Chan in his first American film The Big Brawl. I worked in Karate Kid 2 and China O’Brien 1 and 2 so I’ve got a pretty extensive background in martial arts.
D: You appear to be a fan of the Hip-Hop culture. Am I correct?
N: Yes, you are correct.
D: So, how do you feel about Wu-Tang? The Wu-Tang Clan; how they incorporate Hip-Hop with martial arts?
N: Well you know, I think they had a good idea to combine the two because the energy of the martial arts like what you saw with Bruce Lee, infused the Hip-Hop culture. So I think it was just a great combination of Wu-Tang Clan, martial arts, you know the whole nine yards. It worked together very well.
Nijel Binns holds Tupac sculpture at RESPECT: Hip Hop Style & Wisdom exhibit
D: I know when you first started, you said you had a plan. Your whole plan was to join the Airforce so you were able to travel-
N: (laughs) You did your homework.
D: I did my homework. Your whole plan was to join the Airforce to enable you to travel and then be stationed in certain locations so you can make your connections as a creative.
N: Yes, and it worked.
D: It did work. So you said Bruce Lee was the first person you worked with?
N: Well, I ended up working with Bruce Lee’s director, Robert Clouse, who did Enter The Dragon for Bruce Lee. That’s also the same director that was Jackie Chan’s first American director. So I worked with Robert Clouse for many years. I did quite a few films with him.
D: So how would you parallel the discipline that you learned being in the military with the discipline of being an artist? How would you parallel the two?
N: Well actually, there’s not a real parallel in the military and being an artist. The parallel actually comes from being a martial artist and creating art. The discipline that you have to have in the martial arts to study and train year after year, that’s the same discipline that I put into creating these works of art. That’s where the correlation is. Martial arts, art.
“The Mother of Humanity statue represents for the first time in human history, the symbol that actually says that all of humanity is connected. We’re all interconnected. We’re all one human family. You have a lot of things that have been done to keep people divided, but the Mother of Humanity is a historical, anthropological, factual statement that all of humanity is really one human family” – Nijel Binns
D: You’ve done some amazing work. Do you mind mentioning what other pieces you were commissioned to do?
N: Well, I was commissioned to create a monument called the Mother of Humanity which is a sixteen-foot-tall monument in Watts, California. I’m getting ready to do that same statue in Cameroon, Africa which will be three hundred thirteen feet tall; approximately twice the size of the Statue of Liberty. I was also commissioned to do Shirley Temple. A lot of people don’t know that the only statue of Shirley Temple in existence, the one that she was alive to see dedicated, was the one that I created. That’s at the Fox Studio lot. I was commissioned to do a statue of Jackie Chan which his good friend commissioned me to do. Michael Jackson was my first commission. I was commissioned to do a statue of Michael that he received for the 1990 top selling “Artist of the Decade” award. I’ve done a number of different commissions.
D: Your first Michael Jackson piece, you gave it to his father.
N: Well, the one that I did of Michael in 1985- you did your homework (laughs). Really well, I gotta tell ya.
D: I did.
N: That very first statue I gave to his father, Michael came to the office where his father worked, saw the statue and took it and kept it. Five years later I was commissioned to a statue of Michael that was created by his record company, and I created that for Michael.
Nijel Binns Michael Jackson bust sculpture
D: I remember in the story that you had told the interviewer, you said you were living in Southern California, I believe, and you and a friend went down to the office of…
N: Fitzgerald Hartley.
D: But you were looking for a different exec.
N: We were looking for Quincy Jones.
D: Yes! You were looking for Quincy Jones.
N: As we walked out of the office, Quincy Jones wasn’t there but my friend saw another open door and we walked into that open door, I had my portfolio and the guy said ‘Hey. We were just about to look for an artist to make this of Michael. Do you think you can do it?’? I said sure. And I did it.
D: Did you ever get to meet Quincy Jones?
N: As a matter of fact, I met Quincy Jones when I did a statue of Lena Horne. When Lena Horne did her one-woman show in L.A., I was there and I met Quincy Jones backstage with Lena Horne when I was presenting the award to her.
N: I met Quincy Jones on a couple of occasions.
Nijel explaining his art pieces to a museum guest.
D: So, the Mother of Humanity statue, I read that it is sixteen feet tall, all bronze. Is this the biggest challenge you’ve ever had or the biggest project you’ve had in your lifetime?
N: Up to this point, yes. But the one I’m working on in Africa is twice the size of the Statue of Liberty. It’s huge.
D: When I post this interview, please tell the audience what the Mother of Humanity statue represents.
During the interview, a museum patron stops to admire Nijel’s sculptures through the glass casing. He acknowledges the woman graciously, thanks her , and seamlessly resumes.
N: The Mother of Humanity statue represents for the first time in human history, the symbol that actually says that all of humanity is connected. We’re all interconnected. We’re all one human family. You have a lot of things that have been done to keep people divided, but the Mother of Humanity is a historical, anthropological, factual statement that all of humanity is really one human family. And one human family that stems from the African woman giving birth to every nation on Earth. That’s what the Mother of Humanity represents. The Mother of Humanity also represents a mother’s loving kindness because in the world that we live in today, the very first act of kindness, the ones that our mothers shared with us by giving us birth, is missing in our world today. So the “Mother of Humanity” statue represents a mother’s loving kindness to bring that energy back into the world.
The patron previously awed by Nijel’s work stops to listen in on the interview. Nijel then introduces himself while explaining his pieces and their meanings. I too, briefly become a student of the significance of his masterpieces.
D: Who do you hope to inspire with your Tupac piece?
N: I only learned about Tupac after being commissioned to create this piece. What I hope to inspire in youth is non-conformity. Be willing to push the envelope. Be willing to explore and be bold. Be fearless and be creative, and that’s what I hope to inspire. The title of this work is “Tupac Shakur: A Work in Progress”. He was always growing. He was always evolving. The Tupac that you see here would’ve been a totally different Tupac that you would see today. So that’s what I want to inspire. When you look at him, that’s why all the tattoos, they’re raised. They’re raised for a purpose so that people can get to explore and realize the fact that he was growing with every tattoo that he had on him. He was growing and evolving, and that’s what I want to inspire with this piece.
D: So when do you anticipate to have your Mother of Humanity statue sent to Africa?
N: Well, we’re doing the groundbreaking in Cameroon next year and after we begin construction, it will be about a five-year process. That’s an exciting monument to look forward to. It’s going to be on a theme park that we’re building called “Mother Land”, so if you want to see more of it, got to our website at motherofhumanity.org and you’ll be able to see more about it there. I’m very excited about that project.
D: And why that country of choice?
N: It chose me. No, it did. I had three countries on a short list. I had Ghana, Tanzania, and Kenya, and I had an exhibit, and Cameroon was nowhere on the radar. But somebody who had gone to Cameroon came to me and said ‘ Well Nijel, you’ve got these three countries, but what about Cameroon?’. So I said OK Let me take a look. Before I knew it, we were in Cameroon. I fell in love with the culture, the people, the land. There are two hundred acres of forest on the ocean, the Atlantic Ocean. It’s paradise. So, it chose me.
Learn more about the Mother of Humanity Project at http://motherofhumanity.org/
Facebook: Dominique Nicole
Mother of Humanity Monument Foundation
Andre Alporter for Mother of Humanity Media Group
Dominique Nicole for Dominique Nicole Media