Comic book artist teams up with Denver Art Museum to bring kids closer to African art

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A rendering of a book, The Masks in your dreams
Courtesy R. Alan Brooks
R. Alan Brooks collaborated with the Denver Art Museum on a book to accompany the African art collection at the museum — and finished the project himself.

When officials at the Denver Art Museum wanted kids to have a better understanding and connection with recent exhibits, they turned to local comic book artist R. Alan Brooks.

A new project Brooks worked on with the museum — and then finished himself — is no different.

"They wanted something that would create a way for children to emotionally connect with the art that's part of that exhibit," Brooks said. "And so that was basically what they pitched to me."

In the past, Brooks has collaborated with the Denver Art Museum on a number of projects. Those include a comic about Nat Love, a Black cowboy from the 1800s, which is now part of a permanent display in the museum, as well as “The Return of Balthazar” for the exhibit “Saints Sinner Lovers and Fools.” Those successful partnerships led to a new comic aimed at helping children connect with the museum's African art collection.

Inspired by family

Brooks drew inspiration from his soon-to-be 9-year-old niece, incorporating themes of overcoming negativity through art and tradition.  

Brooks said he thought about what lessons he wanted his niece to have.

“What I would like to instill in her to have a healthy adult life, and how that connected with the themes of the African art, because all those pieces of art are connected to some theme, whether it's family tradition, honoring the ancestors,” he said.

In the comic “The Mask in Your Dreams,” Brooks' niece is on a field trip to the museum, where children's dreams come to life. 

Graphic novel rendering of two girls posing with African art.
Courtesy R. Alan Brooks
R. Alan Brooks collaborated with the Denver Art Museum on a book to accompany the African art collection at the museum — and finished the project himself. The book features his soon-to-be 9-year-old niece and incorporated themes of overcoming negativity through art and tradition.

”I created this story essentially in your dreams, you can have any adventure, you can swim with mermaids, you can wrestle with dinosaurs, whatever it is,” Brooks said “And then when people are mean to you in real life, then monsters come into your dreams, which in a larger sense for me represents the damage that's done to us by people mistreating us.”

The idea is the African masks in the exhibit — and the rich histories behind them — can help heal the damage caused by negative experiences in life.

Crowdfunding helped save the project

Initially, the museum planned to print a limited number of copies for on-site use. But when unforeseen circumstances left the project in limbo, Brooks turned to a new avenue.

He launched a Kickstarter campaign to independently publish the book. The museum jumped in and contributed significantly to the campaign. 

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The setting sun reflects off the Denver Art Museum June 30, 2020.

Lindsay Genshaft oversees community & family programming at DAM and is excited to have copies to include in the exhibit.

“What we're hoping happens is that they see the objects being portrayed in the comic book and they can find the real thing in the gallery, and kind of match them up and then have even further discussions about the objects,” Genshaft said. 

The campaign successfully secured funding for 1,000 copies, a substantial increase from the original five. The Denver Art Museum will receive 25 copies of the book to make available to visitors in the Africa exhibit.

'The highest and most wonderful gift'

For his part, Brooks said the book isn’t his creation alone but the product of the community around him.

“Like the Denver Art Museum, engaging in the community, all these people who backed me on Kickstarter in order to get this book printed, those are all people who believed or trusted me enough to invest in it.  My niece agreeing to be part of the art, being able to hold that book in my hand is really not just about making a pretty book,” Brooks said,  “I mean, there's that, and I love that, but to me, it represents all of the love that has come to me from the community of people around me, and that is really kind of the highest and most wonderful gift.” 

“The Mask in Your Dreams," will be available to borrow at the Denver Art Museum's African art exhibit later this summer. R. Alan Brooks says an additional printing is possible.

Editor's note: The Denver Art Museum is a financial supporter of CPR News. Financial supporters have no editorial influence.