Nijel Binns Sculpted Creative Encounters with
Jackie Chan, Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder
She’s the only cornrow-wearing Black woman in the world who stands 16-feet-tall and embodies aesthetic attributes of Asian, African, Native American and European people. She’s part mythical goddess, part urban princess whose presence in the south-central district of Watts was intended as a symbol to urge community healing after the infamous Los Angeles riots of 1992. Every enduring gesture of The Mother of Humanity™, as she’s called by her creator Nijel Binns, offers thoughtful symbolism: She holds “a feather of peace found not only in Native American culture but it was used by the Egyptian goddess Maat,” shared Binns, “her left breast is concealed while the other is exposed, not for pornographic nature […] in the Amazon women warriors used bow and arrows and amputated their left breast to make it easier to draw their bow—the breast is symbolic of the source of mineral resources for all humanity, and her form is modeled on the continent of Africa that is sublimely established in her shape.” This graceful two-ton monument, valued at U$200,000, would be followed by six reproductions to be placed in Africa, Australia, Brazil, China, India and Spain if this portrait sculptor’s vision is ever realized.
For Binns, The Mother of Humanity™ is a testimony that the art of figurative sculpting isn’t confined to creating portrayals of living or deceased heroes. Binns, a native of Battersea, England, spent four years in Mandeville, Jamaica before migrating to Newark, New Jersey in 1963. “My first exposure to sculpting was at St Benedict’s Preparatory [in 1971], I fashioned a hand flashing a peace sign that I finished in antique gold.” Being highlighted for his talent in a Newark newspaper inspired Binns to explore his artistic ability. But his first professional sculpture wasn’t executed until 1990.
“I’m an anomaly in many ways: I’m self-taught as a sculptor and as a writer,” shared Binns, who tutored himself in ancient Egyptian history, Greek sculpture and the Renaissance period. “I did one semester at Montclair State College in New Jersey, I learned to draw lines and squiggly circles and felt that was not for me.” Binns traded college for four years in the U.S. Air Force, with the intent of entering the film industry. “I became a stuntman in Jackie Chan’s first American film The Big Brawl. Being a stuntman and fight coordinator was his priority until he decided to create a 3/4 life-size bust of Michael Jackson.
“It was clay with a ceramic gold finish,” he recalls, “I gave it as a gift to Joseph Jackson [Michael’s dad].” A photo of that statue and a thank you note from Joseph Jackson that read: “In acknowledgement of the gold statue of Michael that you sculpted for my family, I express sincerest appreciation. Your work is a pleasure to own. I find the statue is beautifully detailed and well crafted. It captures the likeness of Michael very well.” That note was in Binns’ folio during a chance meeting in 1990 with Stan Hilas of The Fitzgerald Hartley Company, who was searching for a sculptor to create a bronze figure of Michael Jackson.
That note and photograph, coupled with being prepared for the opportunity, secured the commission to create the Artist of the Decade Award that was presented to Michael Jackson by CBS/Epic executives Tommy Motolla and Dave Glew. That year, Binns was retained by Motown to create the Maasai Princess, a 18K gold-plated bronze statue valued at $75,000, that was presented to Stevie Wonder on the occasion of his 40th birthday. Among Binns’ other illustrious commissions is a bronze bust of John W. Mack, former president of the LA Urban League, and the first bronze monument of actress Shirley Temple for a daycare center that bears her name at Fox Studios in Century City, California.
From a piece of clay to a silicon mold to a wax form for a ceramic shell in which molten metal is poured, the process of crafting a bronze bust can consume four months and requires painstaking attention to details. Binns scours photographs of his subjects taken from all angles in search of the expression that “captures the soul of the person.” He passes on his ‘love of beauty’ through sculpting classes at his Los Angeles studio.
In spite of his impressive commissions, the creative life for Binns is peppered with struggle and angst. “I manufacture for eternity,” he said, “most people don’t see the value in that. I usually have to initiate projects for people to say, ‘Oh, yeah I need that.’ If there’s a Nate Holden Performing Arts Center there should be a statue of Nate Holden not just a name on a building.” One can say the same for the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial site. Songwriter and music producer Joshua Thompson of Tallest Tree Music attests, “[Nijel’s] a living master who has trained with masters, he’s nearing his peak and is someone the world ought to notice. When you see how people react [with amazement] to the accuracy of his work that impact is what art is supposed to do.”
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