Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. Muhammad Ali. Boxer, activist. Everyone in the world knows Muhammad Ali for many reasons. However, most people don’t know that he was a painter, poet, and peace advocate. In Rodney Hilton Brown’s new book, Muhammad Ali The Untold Story: Painter, Poet, and Prophet, an invisible side of the groundbreaking boxer’s life comes to light for the world to see. Designed in three parts, the book takes readers on an intimate journey of an overlooked side of his existence. Recently, The Chicago Defender had the opportunity to interview Mr. Brown to gain a better insight into Muhammad Ali, the artist.
Chicago Defender: How did the journey begin with you and Muhammad Ali?
Rodney Hilton Brown: I took over a failing art gallery in Soho in the 1970s as a part of a business deal. At the time, I quickly figured out that there was no money to be made selling editions (of art) by Kohler, Warhol, or Sehgal, so I decided I should find my own famous artist and publish limited editions by him and that way, I might be able to make some money. Obviously, the most famous person in the world at that time was Muhammad Ali, so I arranged to meet him in Boston. At the time, he was there for a charity exhibition fight to raise money for the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts, a school that taught children a variety of fine arts.
When we met, the two of us just “clicked.” He had a way of looking at you and seeing through you like painted glass. After the fight, he invited me to come up to his hotel room, and it just so happened that I had a suitcase full of easels, paints, brushes, and so forth. Right then and there, he knocked out the first three paintings for me. Some of the people who were around him were telling him that he shouldn’t do this. They also said that I would make a fool out of him, but they didn’t know that he enjoyed painting all of his life!
His father was an artist and taught him and his brother how to paint. The more they tried to talk him out of it, the more determined he was to paint more paintings with me. So every time he would come to New York, he (Muhammad Ali) would stay at the Plaza Hotel, two blocks away from where I lived, and we would get together so he could paint.
Chicago Defender: What was the driving force behind Muhammad Ali’s artwork?
Rodney Hilton Brown: When it came to boxing, he was famous for saying, “I’m the greatest,” but he never said that about his art. He would say I draw pictures with meanings. The subject of his art was either boxing, or themes were grounded in social justice.
Chicago Defender: What do you think was his best work of art?
Rodney Hilton Brown: I think his greatest poem was “We Came in Chains.” It’s a poem about Black History that talks about the past and present state of black people.
Chicago Defender: Why do you believe he trusted you with his artwork and the “other side” of him as an artist and a poet?
Rodney Hilton Brown: It was an easy decision. There was no one else interested in it or preserving it.
Chicago Defender: At the beginning of the book, you discussed how he worked towards helping young children of color learn about art. Why was this so important to him?
Rodney Hilton Brown: I think because art and poetry balanced out a child’s education. I was with him one time when he visited a prison in Harlem. While there, he encouraged the prisoners to stay out of jail/trouble. He did many things like this behind the cameras because he loved children and wanted to help them get educated. He just really loved children.
Chicago Defender: Are all of the poems in the book original works of Muhammad Ali?
Rodney Hilton Brown: Yes, everything is his original work.
Chicago Defender: What inspired you to preserve these works throughout the decades?
Rodney Hilton Brown: By nature, I am a military historian, author, and collector. When you collect something, you’re really collecting the knowledge that goes behind each piece. So you’re really collecting history no matter what you collect, and I felt that Ali held a unique place in the world. One aspect of it was publicly appreciated, which was obviously his boxing because he was a three-time world heavyweight champion. Still, other sides of him were important, and I felt that they should be preserved for the world. There have been hundreds of books about Muhammad Ali, the boxer, but my book is the only one that goes into Muhammad Ali, the artist, the painter, the poet, and the prophet.
Chicago Defender: When did he have time to create his works of art?
Rodney Hilton Brown: He had a lot of downtime between fights and when he was training and relaxing. I think it was a part of his process of relaxing. So he turned to his art and his poetry as a way to deescalate with his grueling schedule.
Chicago Defender: What messages do you think today’s generation of artists can take away from his work?
Rodney Hilton Brown: I think what they can take away from his artworks are the social justice themes the work expressed. You don’t see that very often in modern art. In most modern art, when you walk in an art gallery, if you see a painting hanging upside down, you wouldn’t know it was supposed to be the other way because of the way some of the works look because they’re not conveying a message. They’re conveying something that’s supposed to be misunderstood rather than something that is understood. He echoed the messages of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s messages of peace and love for people of all races, creeds, and colors, which is especially important for the times we live in today.
Everyone has a hidden story that should be shared with the world. Through the collection of his artwork, Muhammad Ali’s voice will be heard from a different perspective which will continue to solidify his legacy as the world’s greatest. For a better insight into Muhammad Ali’s work, pick up the book Muhammad Ali The Untold Story: Painter, Poet, and Prophet.
Liz Lampkin is a Lifestyle, Love, and Relationships writer. Follow her on social media @Liz_Lampkin.