Afro-Brazilian artist Alexandre Keto recently completed his latest mural, Alive With Us, as part of the “Not A Monolith” project facilitated by NYC non-profit ArtBridge. Their programs especially aim to empower artists whose backgrounds have been historically marginalized. A statement from the organization reads, “‘Not a Monolith’ is an extension of this programming — a direct and meaningful engagement with the Black Lives Matter movement. By providing 10 Black artists with prominent public locations throughout New York City over the next 12 months, we aim to help them show that Black identity is more complex, nuanced, and vibrant than its traditional representations.”
Keto’s contribution at 43rd Street and 6th Avenue in Midtown Manhattan brings public art to a neighborhood typically bereft of it. Here, the artist takes an intuitive, softly shocking approach to police brutality. Alive With Us depicts Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, and Agatha Félix without using the ‘last photos’ circulated ad nauseam by mass media reporting on deadly police brutality. Instead, Keto envisions what these lives could have become if not cut short. Using Google, Facebook groups, and television interviews with victims’ closest relatives, Keto researched each individual’s aspirations and interests to add a measure of factual accuracy, elevating the height from which viewers suspend their disbelief.
Eight-year-old Agatha Félix was hit by a stray bullet shot by a Brazilian police officer in 2019. She was sitting in a van next to her mother on her way home. The case marked the seventeenth child in Rio de Janeiro shot that year and her death marked the fifth – criticized by an activist as part of a genocidal policy toward black people. Keto has portrayed her twice on the mural’s far-right, once in a state of piece and again wearing butterfly wings, perhaps inspired by his encounter with a photo of Félix dressed as Wonder Woman. Keto’s other subjects are victims of police shootings in America; Sandra Bland, enraptured by the sound of her own saxophone, and Michael Brown smiling his eyes peacefully shut, maybe enjoying a breeze. Trayvon Martin, the most recognizable figure of the bunch for the sweeping dialogue his murder spurred in 2012, is only pictured between his nose and collar. His posture is confident, his style clean cut. “Trayvon was in love with aviation — flights and planes,” Keto said when we met at the wall three days into its creation. “He could have become a pilot. I am painting him as if he was a pilot. That pilot could be the pilot that flew me in here.”
“As a creator, I can create the world that I want to live in,” Keto explained. “I wish they could be here.” While it’s too late to right the wrongs that have already been committed, Keto believes in the power of painting as visualization. He has chosen to paint the world he wants, where every individual enjoys the right to their own existence. “Based on what we paint, we can guide people’s thoughts,” he elaborated.
Set square in the heart of Midtown Manhattan, just two blocks from Times Square, Alive With Us is an anomaly of its own landscape. Midtown Manhattan is a tourist attraction engineered to trap eyes on advertisements and storefronts. It is the financial capital of the country’s most fiercely burning beacon of capitalism. Public art runs scant here, save for several murals curated by Street Art for Mankind on the far east side, over by the United Nations. Keto has completed more than 1,000 murals in 21 countries, with a decided passion for, in his words, “helping to spread his message of community in overlooked neighborhoods and sections of the world.” With all its wealth and infamy, Midtown seems like the opposite of overlooked. In terms of street art though, it is a truly forgotten pocket.
“It’s so good to be by Times Square and not painting for a big company,” Keto noted. “Imagine Coca Cola would hire me to paint a wall — I would kind of paint what they wanted. Here it’s totally my vision.” While he appreciates the place for the platform it provides, he did point out, “I can be in New York, I can be anywhere. This is what I wanted to paint. This is what I wanted to say.”
He found the locale more physically challenging to paint than others he visited by virtue of traffic and distraction. While Keto contended with a constant barrage of audio cacophony and social interaction over the course of the mural’s creation, this unique element also made the project special. “Even today there was a black woman passing by. She was like, ‘I like to see myself in that wall,’” Keto recounted. “I think this is one of the most important things — people see themselves and relate to it. She was like, ‘I’m so happy to see my features in the city.’ I think this is one of the points. Also it’s a topic that we need to talk about. Whether it’s here in New York City, or in Brazil, or in Japan — it’s justice, and we need to talk about it. People need to understand.
Most of the people who go to Africa think that ‘I’m gonna go there to help people.’ I go to Africa to help myself, to understand things that I was not able to learn at school in Brazil.
Keto plans to stay in New York to paint a little longer, moving onto his next project in Brownsville, Brooklyn. However, he did note his firm intention to flee the city before winter reaches its full force. Eventually, he intends to return to Africa, especially Senegal. “Most of the people who go to Africa think ‘I’m gonna go there to help people,’” he explained. “I go to Africa to help myself, to understand things that I was not able to learn at school in Brazil.”
He leaves a morsel of this love in his wake. “From this particular piece, I wanted people to think “‘It’s more than a hashtag.’ We’re speaking about real lives. Real dreams. It is not only one person who has died — the cops killed an entire family, not only one person.” Alive With Us dreams without wallowing. The mural turns its eyes towards a brighter future, the same way Keto intends to catch the West African sun before New York’s biting chill claims his hands for itself.
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Writer, Cultbytes Vittoria Benzine is an art journalist, essayist, and editor based in Brooklyn, New York. Her affinity for counterculture and questioning has introduced her to exceptional artists and morally ambiguous characters alike. She values writing as a method of processing the world’s complexity. You can find Vittoria's writing published by UP Magazine, The Smart Set, Street Art United States, and more. l website l