February 8, 2008

Portrait Gallery embraces hip hop

By Jonna Knappenberger
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire

WASHINGTON - Hip hop may not be what visitors to art museums expect to hear - or see.

Yet, the music and the visual art it inspires have come to the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in an exhibit that combines portrait art with the influence of hip hop, affirming that both are alive and vibrant.


Tim Colon and Dave Hupp are known in the graffiti world by their tags, “CON” and “AREK.” The lettering they use in their murals like “Recognize!” is self-consciously from the 1980s. –Mural photographed by Mark Gulezian

Just down the hall from a permanent exhibit of portraits from America’s beginnings, three curators have collaborated on a hip-hop-inspired display, “Recognize!” The exhibit will run from Friday through Oct. 26.

Brandon Fortune, the Portrait Gallery’s curator of painting and sculpture; Frank Goodyear, assistant curator of photographs, and Jobyl A. Boone, a predoctoral fellow, have chosen a variety of mediums to explore the music’s effect on visual art - including graffiti murals, paintings and photographs of performers, videos, a poem and the installation piece the poem inspired.

The curators carefully addressed the negative public perception of hip hop. Goodyear said the news media have tried to move the genre to the margins of society because of the “very real” negative connotations of misogyny and violence.

“But there’s nothing marginal about hip hop at all. Hip hop is at the center of our culture. It’s the most influential cultural phenomenon that extends beyond the music,” Goodyear said.

The curators said their goal was to make the exhibit uplifting and inclusive, rather than a historical sequence or critical examination of the culture.

Four of the seven artists have ties to the Washington-Baltimore area. This is the first major gallery exposure for graffiti artists Tim Conlon and Dave Hupp, who combined efforts on four murals. Each uses a tag in his works to identify himself to the world - Conlon is “CON” and Hupp is “AREK.”

Boone explained that the tag is a form of self-portrait.

“Contemporary portraiture isn’t always figurative. It isn’t always representational. Of course, when you’re painting graffiti, you’re not out there having your picture taken. So, your tag is your face to the world,” she said.

Fortune said the graffiti in the exhibit emphasizes visual language and not defacement. Conlon and Hupp confine their work to legitimate spaces. Both consciously used 1980s-style mural lettering to invoke the shared history between hip hop and graffiti.

David Scheinbaum drew on the jazz photographs of Roy Decarava, a black photographer in Harlem in the early 1900s, for his black and white photographs. He was drawn to photographing hip hop artists in 2000 when he took his 13-year-old son to a concert by Del, Tha Funkee Homosapien.

The most famous hip hop artists are portrayed in four paintings by Kehinde Wiley, part of a series VH1 commissioned in 2005 for a Hip Hop Honors program.

The paintings portray hip hop icons in poses and the styles of classical portraits. Wiley painted LL Cool J in the style of a John Singer Sargent portrait of John D. Rockefeller, Big Daddy Kane in the classical pose of an earl and Ice T in the setting of a portrait of Napoleon. Although the poses resemble classic portraits, the performers’ personas and some of the eye-popping backgrounds are modern.

He takes away the context, and by doing this, basically, Kehinde Wiley takes the black-man subject, who had only been on the margins of historical, grand portraiture, and puts that man squarely in the center of tradition,” Fortune said.

The exhibit’s three videos are self portraits by Jefferson Pinder, who teaches art at the University of Maryland. He “mixes and remixes” hip hop soundtracks with visuals of himself in a suit.

In the last room of the exhibit, Nikki Giovanni’s recorded voice reads a poem she wrote for the show. Inspired by the poem, Artist Shinique Smith created an installation piece with images of prominent artists, calligraphy and pink shoes.

Goodyear called it an “altar to hip hop.”

Referring to the entire exhibit, Goodyear said, “We consider this to be some of the finest work in the tradition of portraiture today. This is not a dead artistic genre and here are some individuals who are recognizable to different audiences.”

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