Hip-Hopalypse Now

Hip-hop has, at times, been cast by the establishment as a negative force, despite it arguably being one of the most important cultural movements of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. It is easy to see how much modern culture has been affected by hip hop: whether it is a beat-boxing McDonald’s commercial, or Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year. With this in mind, it is only fitting that a new exhibit, entitled “RECOGNIZE! Hip-Hop and Contemporary Portraiture,” has opened at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery to, well, recognize hip hop’s growing influence on mainstream culture.

The goal of the exhibit is “to reposition hip hop as one of the key cultural movements of the last 20 years,” said associate curator of photography Frank Goodyear, who is also a graduate professor of American studies at GW. The exhibit marks a third installment in the Gallery’s “Portraiture Now” series, and is the first hip-hop exhibit ever to be on view at the Smithsonian.

“RECOGNIZE!” includes work from six artists and one poet: painter Kehinde Wiley, photographer David Sheinbaum, video artist Jefferson Pinder, poet Nikki Giovanni, sculptor Shinique Smith and graffiti muralists Tim Conlon and Dave Hupp.

Highlights of the exhibit include Wiley’s work – large paintings of black males in poses emulating some of the most famous portraits in the history of art, such as LL Cool J cross-legged, echoing John Singer Sargent’s portrait of John D. Rockefeller.

“Wiley takes a black man, a subject who had only been on the margins of historical grand portraiture, and puts that man squarely in the center of the tradition,” curator Brandon Fortune said.

Conlon and Hupp’s huge graffiti murals draw on old-school lettering styles from the 1970s and 1980s for inspiration.

“In the street, your tag is the face you present to the world, your self portrait,” guest curator Jobyl Boon said, discussing the significance of tagging in graffiti.

This aspect of the exhibit, like others, “grew up organically,” she said, noting that the tags fulfilled an aim of the exhibition – highlighting D.C.-based art. Conlon lives and works in the District, while Hupp hails from Baltimore.

With one of the goals of “RECOGNIZE!” being to emphasize positive aspects of hip-hop, it comes as no surprise that the vast majority of work features artists either from hip-hop’s early days, or those on the fringes of the contemporary mainstream (all arguments about whether mainstream hip-hop is hip-hop at all aside.) You will find any photos of rappers such as the recently-arrested Lil’ Wayne. This isn’t to say the exhibit is trying to gloss over the more unsavory side of hip-hop. As Goodyear put it, “This exhibition should not be seen as a comprehensive history of hip-hop since the 1970s. This is an artist-driven exhibition.”

“RECOGNIZE!” is on display now through October 26. The National Portrait Gallery (8th and F streets, N.W. – Gallery Place/Chinatown Metro) is open daily from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Visit Npg.si.edu for more information.

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