See Highlights From a New Show of Spike Lee’s Vast Personal Archive—From Prince’s Love Symbol Guitar to a Stunning Kehinde Wiley Portrait

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Walking through “Spike Lee: Creative Sources” at Brooklyn Museum, what emerges most plainly about the filmmaker is his avid, omnivorous collecting appetite. The exhibition brings together more than 450 objects from his personal collection in a massive showcase of his sources of inspiration. It’s a hoard that is as wide as it is deep. 

The show is split into seven broad themes that have shaped Lee’s long career in film and defined his personality. The opening section on Black history and culture is comprised of objects as varied as posters created for Malcolm X (1992), Tim Okamura’s 1993 portrait of Toni Morrison and a Virgil Abloh-designed ensemble. There’s an entire room housing Lee’s trove of vintage movie posters—among them the French new wave film Breathless (1968) and the Steven Spielberg blockbuster Jurassic Park (1993)—and an even bigger space is dedicated to his sports memorabilia. 

Installation view of “Spike Lee: Creative Sources” at Brooklyn Museum. Photo: Paul Abreu Pita.

“Spike’s collecting is 360-degrees,” said Kimberli Gant, the exhibition’s co-curator, at the show’s preview. “We’re trying to create a narrative to make sure our visitors have a story that they can hopefully recognize as I did when I first encountered the collection. Patterns, faces, and ideas come up again and again in different sections. They’re all so connected.” 

While a portion of Lee’s collection was included in a 2022 showcase at the Academy Museum, “Creative Sources” delves further into the director’s specific obsessions. For one, his love for photography is evident throughout the show and concentrated in a gallery that includes names like Weegee, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, and Andy Warhol. Gant called it “a mini-education [in] photo history of the 20th century.” 

“Fruit of Islam Members” from (1992). Photo: © David C. Lee.

The personal nature of Lee’s collected objects comes to the fore in the show as well. A good number of artifacts bear autographs and inscriptions to the director, making them all the more intimate. Cases in point: a tennis racket once owned and signed by Serena Williams, a Public Enemy poster with a note from Chuck D, and quite bizarrely, a huge printed ad for American Express featuring Martin Scorsese, who signed it “in admiration.”  

“I love the images of his family too—that moment of vulnerability,” Gant said, adding that the specific section centered on Lee’s family has been painted in fuchsia in a tribute to his mother who loved the color. 

Installation view of “Spike Lee: Creative Sources” at Brooklyn Museum. Photo: Danny Perez.

Of course, fans of Lee’s films will recognize props, costumes, and photographs from his productions, as well as clips that are dotted throughout the show. The honors the director has received—a BAFTA, two Academy Awards, and entries into the Library of Congress—are also included here as a mark of his own creative achievements.  

“We only ever see a very small side of him or his persona,” said Gant. “This was an opportunity to add to visitors’ knowledge of Spike, giving them a very different view, perspective, and understanding.” 

Below are six unmissable highlights from the exhibition.

 

1. Michael Ray Charles,
(Forever Free) Bamboozled (1997)

Michael Ray Charles, (1997). Collection of Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

Best known for his complex body of work that confronts the misrepresentation of African Americans in popular culture, Charles served as a visual consultant on Lee’s 2000 movie Bamboozled. The artist’s 1997 canvas was included in the film and in his telling, pretty much inspired the comedy on modern-day Black minstrelsy. “Spike denies it,” Charles has said, but “there was no Bamboozled before my work.” 

 

2. An African National Congress flag
inscribed by Nelson and Winnie Mandela

Nelson Mandela’s inscription on an African National Congress flag in Spike Lee’s collection. Photo: Min Chen.

Described as one of Lee’s most prized possessions, the flag was gifted to the director during the making of 1992’s Malcolm X, which briefly featured Nelson Mandela. That period also marked the final chapter of apartheid; in a few years, Mandela would sweep the country’s first democratic elections. “Victory is in sight,” Winnie Mandela wrote on the flag. “We shall be free!”

 

3. Prince’s Love Symbol Guitar

Musical instruments in Spike Lee’s collection, including Verdine White’s bass guitar and Prince’s Love Symbol guitar. Photo: Min Chen.

Lee and Prince go way back. The pair first bonded in 1986 at the late musician’s Paisley Park studios and since then, Lee has directed Prince’s video for 1991’s “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night,” while Prince has supplied songs for the soundtrack of Lee’s Girl 6 (1996). So, yes, of course the filmmaker owns one of the songwriter’s Love Symbol guitars, in addition to a heap of other Prince memorabilia. 

 

4. Patrick Martinez,
Fight the Power (Chuck D) (2018)

Patrick Martinez, (2018). © Patrick Martinez. Collection of Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee. Photo: Michael Underwood. Courtesy of the artist and Charlie James Gallery, Los Angeles.

Martinez’s stunning neon and plexiglass sculpture is part of the artist’s project to celebrate and immortalize the work of rap heroes—in this case, Chuck D of Public Enemy. The group’s track “Fight the Power” is of evident significance to Lee: it soundtracks a key scene in Do the Right Thing (1989) and is represented in the Music segment of the exhibition, in a poster printed with an evocative verse from the song.

 

5. Carrie Mae Weems,
Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee (2018)

Carrie Mae Weems, Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee (2018). Photo: Min Chen.

While photographing Lee for Time magazine following the release of BlacKkKlansman, Weems captured this tender moment between the director and his wife of 30 years, offering a portrait of a loving marriage. “I’m a lucky man,” Lee has said of his relationship with the producer. Weems and Lee’s ties also go beyond this photo commission: the artist’s work was most recently included in the Netflix adaptation of She’s Gotta Have It. 

 

6. Kehinde Wiley,
Investiture of Bishop Harold as the Duke of Franconia (2005)

Kehinde Wiley, (2005). Collection of Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee. © Kehinde Wiley. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

Wiley was commissioned by Lee to paint this portrait of Jackie Robinson, which is an absolute showpiece in the Sports section of the show. In it, the baseball legend—the first Black player in the Major League Baseball—is depicted resplendent in his Dodgers 42 jersey (which Lee donned in Do the Right Thing), in a stance befitting of sports royalty. “Imagine the pressure,” Lee once wrote of Robinson. “The entirety of African American progress is on your shoulders.” 

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