I am sick of skimming. The news brings one battle, betrayal, or death after another, washing over me without really registering. So when my eye lands on an opaque, terse announcement that a New York gallery owner was killed in Rio de Janeiro, I read every word. Determined to go deep for a change, I set a news alert, then look up his social media, his career, his childhood.
The initial Associated Press story is brief: Brent Sikkema, seventy-five years old, co-owner of a prominent Manhattan gallery, was reportedly killed with a sharp object. The inimitable Daily Mail fleshes out the background: Sikkema was “pals” with Michelle Obama and artist Kara Walker. He and his husband, age fifty-four, had a thirteen-year-old son. Sikkema bought the house in Rio ten years ago and visited at least three times a year.
He was stabbed eighteen times. Eighteen times, in the face and chest. Personal, angry, passionate? Or just making sure?
Despite a ripple of shock and pity, default response to any stranger’s brutal murder, Sikkema still feels remote to me. Then I read Vik Muniz, one of Latin America’s most acclaimed artists, admitting, “I have spent more than 30 years trying to pointlessly emulate his juggling of fearlessness, kindness, and sophistication.”
Other friends and artists emphasize his kindness, his fierce commitment to social justice, his passion for art, his wit and delight in absurdity, his joy. Turns out this sophisticated New Yorker grew up in a farm family in Morrison, Illinois, before heading to the San Francisco Art Institute. No wonder he posted an outraged photo of a $70 bill in Zurich for a hamburger “that would have been better at Burger King,” served with “soggy French fries and cole slaw that must have been made when Reagan was President.”
He was tickled by the fact that the mariposa flower, which hates heat and wilts in two days, is the national flower of steamy, paradox-rich Cuba. Clarice Lispector was one of his favorite writers, so he must have appreciated wry drama. Cheerful about his age, he quoted T.S. Eliot: “Old men ought to be explorers.” Even his quickest, most casual photos show an eye for beauty, absurdity, and heart-wrenching detail. Before turning to other artists’ careers, he was a fine-art photographer.
On older social media posts, Sikkema remembered Leonard Cohen, mourned for George Floyd, stood in front of Trump Tower with a middle finger raised, and spoke of “the daily pain of watching the world’s inequities being fully exposed by Covid.” I find myself envying this sensitive, warm heart that knew how to feel others’ pain without getting sunk by it. Rarely did he post selfies, though in Miami Beach, there he was in canary yellow slacks, a goldenrod tie, and a white shirt—a fun look, if not a great one.
A few of the posts knock the wind from me, given what has happened. “I’m generally a chaos kind of guy,” he wrote. “You know my kind of place—where struggle is real every day—Cuba and Brasil.”
His alleged killer, I now know, is Cuban. So is his husband, Daniel Garcia Carrera, whom he wed in 2013. Is this suspicious (the police are definitely checking) or one of life’s coincidences, daring us not to jump to conclusions? The marriage certificate is posted in a Sikkema genealogy. They had their son by surrogacy; Sikkema wrote an amused post about having to be listed as “mother” on the California birth certificate. Going way back, I see adorable photos of Garcia Carrera holding their son or playing with him. The couple was on Fire Island for an art fundraiser in 2014; they also cochaired a fundraiser for Children’s Museum of the Arts. But in recent years, photos of Garcia Carrera are scarce.
Curious, I poke around and find a memoir he wrote about being gay in Cuba. It is full of pain. He was born into a humble and communist family, his publisher notes. He writes of being “raped as a child and imprisoned as an adult,” called “faggot, degenerate,” forced to prostitute himself to escape. Did Sikkema want to soothe away that past?
Early in his own life, he was director of Vision Gallery in Boston. What the bios do not say is that he was briefly married to Vision’s founder, Mary Pratt. She shared his interest in photography and together, they donated art to the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. He was thirty-two when they married, and it was his second marriage. Was he, lovingly raised in a rural, Christian community, trying hard not to be himself? If so, he gave up—and returned home a success. Recently he donated Annan Mill, one of only two or three stone mills remaining in Illinois, to the Morrison Historical Society, in memory of his great-grandmother.
Sikkema often carried a family photo with him on his travels—though “other days I have to put it face down on a shelf,” he added on Instagram. In the photo, he is held close by his mother, Emily “Billie’ Sikkema. His older brother is standing, and their grandmother, great-grandmother, and great-great-grandmother stand behind them. “All were hard-working women,” he wrote, “…stoic and without complaint or self-pity. On my great-grandmother’s refrigerator door was a note that read—grandma has a sleeping pill too and it’s called hard work.”
At the time, he was the only one from that photo still alive. His brother, a millwright in Bettendorf, Iowa, died at seventy. The photo felt like “a summation of who I am,” Sikkema wrote, then added resolutely: “Now I have a husband and a son and we are making new family photos.”
What was missing from those new photos? The stoic, contented endurance. The next relay of news articles reveals that Sikkema and Garcia Carrera were separated, divorcing, and embroiled in a high-stakes custody battle, with Garcia Carrera reportedly demanding a big chunk of cash and a pension in exchange for allowing Sikkema more time with their son. Sikkema had admitted on social media that at his age, with his travel schedule, he could not be relied upon to make sure the child was up, clean, and fed every morning before school. But, he added, “I am just as important to his life as my ex-husband is.”
Garcia Carrera is reportedly in New York with the boy; presumably he has an alibi, and this was not a quick end to a custody battle. But did he know the killer? The alleged (and it is hard to doubt) stabber is tracked down fast, sleeping at a gas station. Alejandro Triana Trevez left a bloodstained cap and shirt at the scene and was caught on security camera removing gloves as he walked to his car. He had waited, shadowed inside the car, for almost fourteen hours before emerging at 3:42 a.m. He hesitated (or was he following a prearranged schedule?) outside the entrance to Sikkema’s home about a minute, then entered. Either he had been given a key or the door was unlocked; entry was not forced. Fourteen minutes later, he shows up on the video again, walking to his car. His gait is easy, almost nonchalant, no sign of a tormented passion quenched. He is removing a pair of gloves as he walks.
It is a rainy, warm summer night in Brazil. Gloves?
Over and over again, I watch the security video. Sikkema, clad in shorts and t-shirt, comes home to his arty, upscale Jardim Botânico neighborhood around 4:30 p.m. on January 13. Trevez is already parked outside, watching unseen. Why wait almost fourteen hours? To make sure he was sound asleep? There were no defensive wounds on the body; he was either unconscious or startled into submission.
The Brazilian police are quite frank; the officer in charge says that while they are sure they know who killed Sikkema, and the crime was premeditated and careful, they do not yet have a motive, and there may have been a mastermind. Money was taken—roughly $30,000 in U.S. and $30,000 in Brazilian currency according to most reports. By the time Trevez is arrested, he has only $3,000. The sneakers at his home match those in the surveillance video. There is blood on the bench of his car. Yet he insists, strenuously, “I didn’t kill Brent, and I didn’t know him.”
He has a thin face, full lips, heavy brows, Obama ears. His mom, a physician, died of cancer. He was living with one of her good friends in São Paulo.
The next set of reports suggests that Sikkema and Garcia Carrera had hired Trevez as a driver, or a security guard, or a handyman. (Previous reports guessed Garcia Carrera and Trevez knew one another, or that the three had met when Sikkema and Garcia Carrera visited Cuba in 2020, two years before Trevez came to Brazil as a refugee.) Had Sikkema, after the separation, formed a relationship with him? Did Trevez just want money? Cui bono?
Translated on Facebook, Garcia Carrera’s latest message reads, “Our son and I cried for you without tears, we cried for you in the way it hurts the most.” The words sound sincere. A stranger, I cannot approach that measure of grief. But one of the million tragedies a day has taken on a fuller life, and its mysteries leave a raw edge.
Was it better, miles away in another lifeworld, to know less? I remember Sikkema’s tender photos of families in Cuba, his absurd jokes, campaigns for justice, beloved friends many would deem freakish or tacky, art that holds your gaze and makes you wonder. Maybe he was a bastard underneath all that, who knows? But even this glancing touch affected me. Skimming never does.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.