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From street art to rugs, West Philly’s Gianni Lee continues to ‘paint from struggle’

West Philly-born artist Gianni Lee just debuted a limited edition rug collection that features renderings of his artwork.

Gianni Lee pauses while showing pieces of his art in his Bushwick apartment in Brooklyn, NY on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020. Lee is a well-established artist from Philly.
Gianni Lee pauses while showing pieces of his art in his Bushwick apartment in Brooklyn, NY on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020. Lee is a well-established artist from Philly.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

When multidisciplinary artist Gianni Lee was in kindergarten, he adored Ghostbusters. Seeing that he was a fan, his mother bought him Ghostbusters toys and cautioned him to be mindful of other kids who might break his new gear.

But at Queen Village’s Moonstone Preschool, classroom rules encouraged sharing. So when a classmate wanted to play with his new ghost trap that rolled out and opened with the press of a button, Lee politely declined and was sequestered to a timeout by his teacher.

The teachings of “your Black mother didn’t always parallel with the teachers at this predominantly white establishment,” Lee said in a recent interview. “I was told I was wrong at school, but at home, I was told that I’m just protecting what belongs to me.”

To reconcile, Lee was asked to draw his feelings, and the incident became his first experience creating art.

Since then, Lee has become an established artist who often depicts the political, social, and economical plight of Black Americans. Lee has dabbled in several artistic disciplines, including street art, fine art, fashion, and music. And on Wednesday, Lee debuts HOME, a limited-edition rug collection that features renderings of his artwork.

“A lot of the times, I’m just really pissed at society,” Lee, 34 of West Philly, said. “I use my art as a way of getting my thoughts out and complaining about things, rather than just complain on a social [media] platform. I don’t really know another way to paint. I paint from struggle. I paint from the years of trauma that my people have gone through. It just feels like it’s necessary for me to paint this way.”

While showing paintings at a gallery in Soho last fall, Lee met Cyrus Nazmiyal, vice president of the rug manufacturing company Rug & Kilim. Lee said that Nazmiyal had attended a number of galleries where he was showing, but at the Soho event, Nazmiyal bought one of Lee’s paintings and proposed a collaboration.

One of Lee’s signature motifs of his street art is colorful skeletal figures. He’s painted them in several areas of New York, where he’s lived since 2018. Nazmiyal explained to Lee that the skeletons would translate well into a rug design.

“He has a studio in midtown Manhattan, and I started going there every week,” Lee said. “His dad [who founded the company] started teaching me about the rug business, which is totally different from this little cool internet art world that we’re in. We ended up sending him some images and the images were sent to India and people started making rugs.”

One of the images selected by Rug & Kilim was of an untitled painting that re-created the Haitian Revolution. The rug, entitled, “The Great War,” shows blue skeletons fighting pink skeletons for the ownership of the land. Another rug, “Pharaoh by the River,” depicts a pharaoh version of Lee’s trademark skeleton set at the banks of the Nile River among plants.

The process of making Lee’s rug collection is intricate. The Rug & Kilim’s art department conducted an in-depth colorway and yarn selection, followed by a draft rendering. The yarn was then spun and naturally dyed. After extensive hand-knotting on a loom, the rugs were washed, stretched, and prepped for shipping. One rug can take up to six months to produce.

The rugs are $600 for a 3-by-3-foot size and $10,000 for an approximately 8-by-10-foot size. They can be purchased on Lee’s website.

“Bringing Gianni Lee’s work to life has been both idyllic of the custom process with Rug & Kilim as well as a bold endeavor for our team,” the rug manufacturer said in a statement. “What began with Gianni’s first visits to the showroom grew from a shared love of creation.”

And the love of creation is the essence of Lee’s friendship with North Philly rapper Tierra Whack, who’s known Lee since she was 16.

“I look up to him,” Whack said. “His whole swag and the way he carries himself, it’s just so new and fresh. He just has it. He’s a star.”

Whack said that she’s always been inspired by Lee’s sense of humor and authenticity. “Gianni just keeps it real. Whenever you see his art, then you meet him in person, you’re like, ‘Oh this makes sense,' ” Whack said. “All we do is laugh. He always tells me that we can never be serious.”

Although his work has been featured in publications like Vice, and The Fader, Lee’s creative endeavors extend beyond canvases and street art. This summer, Lee released a song entitled “Gas” featuring Philadelphia soul singer Andrea Valle. For many years, Lee worked as a fashion designer and founded the brand Babylon Cartel. He’s collaborated with such brands as Nike and Kenneth Cole. His designs have been donned by the likes of Rihanna, Young Thug, Kehlani, and Jhene Aiko.

» READ MORE: This Philly native created art for Coachella’s main stage

As Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition’s artist-in-residence, in 2017, he presented his inaugural solo exhibition Why Don’t You Hear Me? In 2018, Lee presented his follow-up They Sat Back, They Let it Happen in Los Angeles. His permanent street installations are currently on view in Paris, London, Bulgaria, New York City, Cuba, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia.

Lee’s work ethic is undeniable, “but I expect that of him,” said Tayyib Smith, cofounder of Little Giant Creative and a mentor to Lee. “Gianni was raised by a single mom in the Black community. ... Entrepreneurship, particularly for people in marginalized communities, [has been a way] to use your talents, your environment to create opportunity.”