Image shows a Jay Z collage by Jazz Grant, showing a black and white portrait of the rapper, silhouettes of crowds, and hands raised in the air

Jazz Grant creates colossal mural for a colossus of rap

The British visual artist talks to us about creating large-scale collages to accompany an immersive exhibition in Brooklyn, which pays tribute to hip hop icon Jay-Z

Brooklyn Public Library’s summer exhibition, The Book of Hov, pays tribute to Jay-Z, who hails from the same borough of New York. Yet the rapper, real name Shawn Carter, was supposedly kept in the dark about the project, which is quite the feat considering the amount of archival material on display. The covert mission was led by the team at his entertainment behemoth Roc Nation, who worked behind the scenes to produce an immersive spectacle designed by Bruce and Shelley Rodgers. It takes over two floors of the Central Library as well as the main building’s exterior, which has been draped in his lyrics.

Told through photographs, audio, artworks, texts, and archive ephemera, the exhibition celebrates Jay-Z’s contribution to music and culture over his career, which has stretched and shapeshifted over decades. It also features a scale replica of Baseline Recording Studios, where much of his work was made. At the same time, it’s a celebration of the library, encouraging new visitors through the installations as well as the 13 limited edition library cards featuring Jay-Z album artwork created for the occasion.

Photo of the main hall at the Brooklyn Public Library showing Jazz Grant's mural of Jay Z surrounding the upper half of the space
Photo: Shareif Ziyadat

Jazz Grant’s collage work is a suitable expression of the many phases of Jay-Z’s career. Known for her collaborations with musicians and fashion brands, the artist created large-scale collages for the space, drawing on the different eras of Jay-Z’s videos for influence.

Working with creative studio VisionCurate, Grant spent four months printing, hand cutting, and collaging high resolution archive imagery into striking compositions carrying layered meanings. “I think in some ways, the secrecy of the project allowed me to stay focused and not get overwhelmed by the scale of it,” she explains. Creating collages at these scales was a novel but rewarding experience, particularly as she’s building up to a solo exhibition next year.

Image shows lots of photographs pertaining to Jay Z scattered on a wooden floor by artist Jazz Grant
Process imagery
Image shows a black and white portrait photo of Jay Z cut out from its background, shown on a green cutting mat
Process imagery

“Initially, the ideas spoken about were to try and create a collage that brought together every and all aspects of Jay-Z’s life, music, achievements, businesses, interests, everything. All together, all at once. Non chronologically,” she explains. Her collages for the two large facing walls speak to these elements but figuratively rather than through direct references, noting that it was “more about the vibe”. Portraits inevitably play a key role in the collages, including a staggered cutout of the rapper that looms over the space, evoking the multiple eras and personas he has absorbed throughout his career.

“The two long, thin balcony pieces demanded a different approach. Here I was thinking about the format like a graphic novel or film reel. I wanted everything to tie together but to also journey through some kind of abstract story. And this was an opportunity to touch down on the different era’s of Jay-Z and make sure the most iconic moments and significant places were covered.” These include signposts for Brooklyn’s Marcy Avenue – home to the housing complex where he grew up and the subject of his retrospective 2017 track Marcy Me.

Photo of the main hall at the Brooklyn Public Library showing Jazz Grant's mural of Jay Z, including a cut-out of hands forming a shape of a triangle, a black and white portrait of the rapper, and a silver car
Photo: Jamie Strachan

Nestled between the brick and the concrete are natural motifs. “I knew I wanted some kind of organic imagery and came to use leaves and buds to signify the passing of time, the incredible growth and different lives lived by Jay-Z,” she explains. “The passing of time is also hinted at through the night time, day time and dusk background imagery which are all pulled directly from different music videos of his.”

The multifaceted installations dovetail with the aim of the exhibition, which according to the Roc Nation team was “to provide a behind-the-scenes look at a Hall of Fame songwriter and performer, successful business person, and a consequential philanthropist who has never forgotten the lessons he learned on the road to success. And the borough where his journey began.”

Photo of the main hall at the Brooklyn Public Library showing Jazz Grant's mural of Jay Z lining the space, and a vertical banner that reads 'I'm the modern day Pablo Picasso, baby'
Photo: Shareif Ziyadat

The Book of Hov runs at the Brooklyn Public Library;