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All Eyez On Me: ‘The Culture’ at the Baltimore Museum of Art Celebrates 50 Years of Hip Hop

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Have you ever attended a museum exhibition where older white people are not just a minority in the galleries but a vast minority? Perhaps you have walked through a museum where hints of booming bass and snippets of contemporary Black music filter out of a dark video gallery, but placing it front and center in a major traveling exhibition? Mic drop. 

In Baltimore, in a venerated house of culture, in a monumental gallery space where the height of the walls makes you feel tiny, the sound of hip hop reverberates. Arguably America’s most popular and significant cultural movement of the past fifty years, the beat bounces off of velvety charcoal-colored walls and gleaming concrete floors, blanketing a collection of paintings, photography, sculpture, fashion, album covers, designer bags, blingy-azz jewelry, and Air Jordans, in a shimmering energy. The message is clear: what was once relegated to the margins is now canon.  

Opening this Wednesday at the BMA, after an entire weekend of jubilant preview events and parties, The Culture: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century is a transformative, must-see exhibition. This is not just because it applies diligent anthropological research to contemporary art and popular culture, treating both as equals. And it is not just because it visually functions like a succession of nested jewel boxes, each more dazzling than the next as works of art emerge from a dramatic darkness. This exhibition is groundbreaking because it signals a new way forward for museums around the most coveted commodity in cultural institutions: relevance. 

When our most respected establishments affirm popular music and fashion genres usually relegated to dance clubs and ephemeral fashion shows, placing it in an equitable conversation with a multitude of the best contemporary artists who have been inspired by it, this is nothing short of a revolution. In many ways, The Culture serves as a harbinger for a second Pop Art movement, one that promises to be incredibly popular, both in Baltimore and beyond.

 

Garments by Dapper Dan, Virgil Abloh, Telfar Clemens, Addidas x Pharrel Williams, Baby Phat, and Grace Wales Bonner
BMA Director Asma Naeem at a Press Preview for The Culture on April 1, 2023
This exhibition is groundbreaking because it signals a new way forward for museums around the most coveted commodity in cultural institutions: relevance. 
Cara Ober

In opening remarks on Friday, April 1 at a preview for The Culture, BMA Museum Director (and co-curator of the exhibition) Asma Naeem made a strong case, surrounded by an ecstatic crowd of artists, museum team members, journalists, and collaborators who, by any measure of museum attendance, were younger and Blacker and browner than any previous exhibition has attracted. Even compared to the BMA’s last few years highlighting Black artists like Mark Bradford, Jack Whitten, Mickalene Thomas, an entire exhibition devoted to Black Abstraction, and the Great Migration, the energy and diversity around this exhibit was markedly different, and for a few very specific reasons. 

In her informal speech to the press, Naeem admitted that they had originally wanted to title the new exhibit “All Eyez On Me,” an homage to Tupac Shakur, Baltimore’s fallen saint of rhyme and most beloved poet, but his estate could not allow it. Instead, the curatorial team, half BMA and half St Louis Art Museum (SLAM), where it heads next, opted for something more oblique and aspirational: the culture, which is how hip hop is often described by those who embrace it in their lives and art. The Culture is also a fitting name because this is the business that museums are in. They have unparalleled power to identify, highlight, and establish what is considered culturally valuable, creating the future of art history that the academics, auction houses, and patrons of the art will embrace, essentially minting the canon.

In an essay titled “Watch The Throne,” Dr. Naeem lays out her argument for a “new gaze” more clearly, citing The Carters (Beyonce and Jay-Z) and David Hammons, Bad Bunny and Roberto Lugo, Missy Elliot and Caitlin Cherry, in an appeal that is as compelling, and certainly as passionate, as the exhibition itself. Reading the essay’s critique of museums was gratifying to me, because her arguments have been central to much of my writing for the past decade, in terms of asking for more intentionality and active involvement as members of an arts ecosystem that is economically and socially driven, especially at a catalytic regional scale.

“Art museums have largely stayed silent when it comes to acquiring these works, in a tacit and sometimes not-so-tacit disapproval of the subject matter, the vernacular syntax and materials, or the embedded values,” writes Naeem. “That is to say nothing about the questions of artistic excellence and mastery that continue to be whispered among certain gatekeepers.” It’s one thing to admit the risk-averse and largely unimaginative collecting practices of museums, but quite another to put your money where your mouth is. After many years where the BMA has made bold statements about its values, especially concerning diversity, representation, and inclusion, this exhibition actually lives up to the hype and practices what is being preached. 

 

The Minister of Enterprise by Kudzanai Chiurai

Undulating across these sexy black walls, a profound diversity and equity abounds. We see fashion and jewelry and ceramics given the same deference as painting. We see world renowned artists Like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Mark Bradford placed alongside a significant number of deserving Baltimore-based artists like Megan Lewis, Ernest Shaw, Joyce J. Scott, and Charles Mason III. We experience a vast selection of today’s emerging artists from across the globe, with gallery representation beyond the handful of white, wealthy blue chip New York galleries that typically monopolize museum purchases, and these include several from Baltimore which are women-owned and run.

While it is essential that the art in any quality exhibition is significant and exquisitely crafted, it’s not enough to simply feature works of art by artists of color without broadly considering context. Race, class, age, place of origin, and the ecosystems and communities they represent are equally important, and sometimes more important, in terms of inclusion and accessibility. This is a strength that threads itself through The Culture and is worth noting that this kind of purposeful inclusion never happens by accident.

I want to return to Naeem’s essay to highlight a central tenet of the exhibit, articulated thoughtfully and not shying away from an argument. “To those contemporary art lovers who may think that when it comes to a conversation about hip hop, they can sit this one out, I will say the following,” writes Naeem. “Many of the most compelling visual artists working today are directly engaging with central tenets of this canon in their practices, in both imperceivable and manifest ways. I am not just talking about the underground legacy of graffiti and the affordability of such things as spray paint, or the appropriation of such collage-like-tactics as sampling and remixing, or the in-our-face bravura of rapping, or the ecstatic finessing and posing that is break dancing.”

“In contemporary art today, whether through the poetics of the street, the blurring of high and low, the reclamation of the gaze, the homage to hop hop geniuses, or the experimental collaborations across such vastly disparate fields as painting, performance, architecture, and computer programming, the visual culture of hip hop along with its subversive tactics and its tackling of social justice surface everywhere in the art of today,” writes Naeem. “For many visual artists, hop hop has enabled a radical interrogation of such previously stable and homogeneously white aspects of art history and culture as strategies of representation, genius, and who is the beholder. I would go so far as to say that with hip hop’s mind-blowing migrations from the margins to mainstream popular culture, we are in the midst of a second Pop art movement – one that is far more layered, polyphonic, commodified, sustained, and frankly, popular–than the one in the 1960s that Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, and others developed.”

For longterm BMA members and patrons, The Culture is an opportunity to catch up on cultural currency and to cultivate a new understanding of Baltimore as a site of cultural production. For the new audiences the show will attract, the exhibition is a rich reflection of self, a hospitable invitation to see and be seen, a long-awaited validation.

To paraphrase the Notorious B.I.G., “If you don’t know, now you know.” When you visit the BMA’s new signature traveling exhibition, know that you are experiencing the second wave of American Pop Art. This time, the movement has the potential to be broadly popular, inclusive, and led by Black and brown artists, curators, and arts professionals. The Culture is an opportunity to appreciate fifty years of cultural references that were once at the margins, but now aligning purposefully at the center. 

 

While you scroll through this photo essay by Justin Tsucalas, take a  listen to 2Pac performing All Eyez On Me, From the eponymous album All Eyez On Me © 1996 DRR.

 

detail from Virgil Abloh's Look from Spring/ Summer 2022 Louis Vuitton Collection
detail from The Minister of Enterprise by Kudzanai Chiurai
Works by Hassan Hajjaj, Tariku Shiferaw, Travis Scott x Nike, Cross Colors by Carl Jones and TJ Walker, and Sheila Rashid
Ceramic vase by Angel Ortiz
Hat by Virgil Abloh for Louis Vuitton
William Cordova, Moby Dick (For Oscar Wilde, Oscar Romero y Oscar Grant, Mixed media on reclaimed police car
detil from William Cordova, Moby Dick (For Oscar Wilde, Oscar Romero y Oscar Grant, Mixed media on reclaimed police car
Setta's Room, 1996 by Tschabala Self and detail Prototype Column For Tha Shaw, 2019 by Lauren Halsey
detail from Gajin Fujita's Ride or Die
Adam Pendleton's Untitled (WE ARE NOT), 2022
Arthur Jafa, Malik Sayeed, and and Elissa Blount Moorhead, "TNEG," single channel video
Prototype Column For Tha Shaw, 2019 by Lauren Halsey (detail)
auntie fawn on tha 6, 2021 by Lauren Halsey
Gajin Fujita's Ride or Die, vase by Angel Ortiz, and Soulja boy tol' Em by Troy Chew II
Rammellzee and Jean-Michel Basquiat, Beat Bop / Test Pressing, Vinyl Record
BMA Director Asma Naeem with Hassan Hajjaj, Cordi B Unity, 2017
Thigh-Hole Track Pant - Azalea by Telfar Clemens
BMA Chief Education Officer Gamynne Guillotte with Mark Bradford's Biggie, Biggie, Biggie, 2002
Introduction of Baltimore-based artists Ernest Shaw, Murjoni Merriweather, Devin Allen, and more
Human Hair Wigs by Dionne Alexander
Gucci and Dapper Dan Guccissima Leather Down Jacket, Spring/ Summer 2018
detail from WISH, 2004 by Wilmer Wilson
For Whom the Bell Curves, 2004, by Robert Pruitt (12 gold chains in 13 lengths)
Pure Plantainum, 2006 and Plátano Pride, 2006, by Miguel Luciano
Roberto Lugo, Street Shrine 1, 2019 (ceramic), El Franco Lee II, DJ Screw in Heaven, 2018l, and Human Hair Wigs by Dionne Alexander
Caitlin Cherry, Bruja Cybernetica, Oil on Canvas
Damon Davis, Cracks XIX, 2022, Concrete and homegrown crystals
Jayson Musson, Trying to find out spot off in that light, light off in that spot, 2014
Shinique Smith, Shortysugarhoneybabydon'tbedistracted, 2012
Travis Scott and Nike, Cactus Jack Air Jordan 1, 2019
Visitors in the gallery of The Culture at the BMA
detail from auntie fawn on tha 6, 2021 by Lauren Halsey
Cross Colors by Carl Jones and Thomas TJ Walker, Color Blocked Denim Style Jacket, 1992
detail from Robert Hodge, Promise You Will Sing About Me, 2019
Texas Isaiah, Untitled, 2021
WISH, 2004 by Wilmer Wilson
Zella, 2022, by Murjoni Merriweather and reflection of Street Shrine 1 by Roberto Lugo
Human Hair Wigs by Dionne Alexander
detail from Keepall XS Bag, 2021 by Virgil Abloh
detail from Nation, 2018 by Deana Lawson, collaged photograph
It was all a dream, 2022, by Zéh Palito
Unheard Sounds, Come Through: Extended Mix, 2022, by Jen Everett
detail from Bruja Cybernetica, 2022, Caitlin Cherry
Open, 2021, and Closed, 2021, by Monica Ikegwu
detail from Sunday Morning Music Video, 2020, by Jonathan Lyndon Chase
detail from I saw things I imagined, 2020, by Maxwell Alexandre
Robert Hodge, Promise You Will Sing About Me, 2019
Fresh Squeezed Lemonade, 2022, by Megan Lewis
Untitled, 2022, by Nina Chanel Abney
detail from Fresh Squeezed Lemonade, 2022, by Megan Lewis
Works by Jayson Musson, Sheila Rashid, and Larry Cook
Open, 2021, and Closed, 2021, by Monica Ikegwu
detail from Street Shrine 1 by Roberto Lugo
Heir to the Throne, 2021 by Derrick Adams
detail from Fendi, 2018, by Jordan Casteel

Featured artists and brands include: Virgil Abloh for Louis Vuitton, Nina Chanel Abney, Derrick Adams, adidas Originals by Pharrell Williams, adidas Originals by Wales Bonner, Anthony Olubunmi Akinbola, Dionne Alexander, Maxwell Alexandre, Devin Allen, Baby Phat, Bruno Baptistelli, Alvaro Barrington, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Mark Bradford, Jordan Casteel, Chance The Rapper, Jonathan Lyndon Chase, Willy Chavarria, Caitlin Cherry, Troy Lamarr Chew II, Kudzanai Chiurai, Telfar Clemens, Larry W. Cook, William Cordova, Cross Colours, Daniel “Dapper Dan” Day for Gucci, Damon Davis, Alex de Mora,  Stan Douglas, John Edmonds, Jen Everett, Aaron Fowler, Gajin Fujita, Nicholas Galanin, Luis Gispert, Hassan Hajjaj, Lauren Halsey, Robert Hodge, Monica Ikegwu, Interview Magazine, Kahlil Robert Irving, Shabez Jamal, Kahlil Joseph and Kendrick Lamar, Nia June + Kirby Griffin + APoetNamedNate, LA II, Deana Lawson, El Franco Lee II, Amani Lewis, Megan Lewis, Maï Lucas, Miguel Luciano, Roberto Lugo, Eric N. Mack, Charles Mason III, Emmanuel Massillon, Malcolm McLaren, Julie Mehretu, Murjoni Merriweather, Jayson Musson, Rashaad Newsome, Yvonne Osei, Zéh Palito, Gordon Parks, José Parlá, Fahamu Pecou, Adam Pendleton, Robert Pruitt, Rammellzee and K-Rob with Jean-Michel Basquiat, Sheila Rashid, Rozeal, Joyce J. Scott, Tschabalala Self, Ernest Shaw, Jr., Tariku Shiferaw, Devan Shimoyama, Shirt, Shinique Smith, Texas Isaiah and Ms. Boogie, Hank Willis Thomas, TNEG: Arthur Jafa, Elissa Blount Moorhead, and Malik Sayeed, Michael Vasquez, Wales Bonner, Adrian Octavius Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, Abbey Williams, Wilmer Wilson IV, and XXL Magazine.

 

More info:
The Culture: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century
April 5, 2023 — July 16, 2023

Co-organized by the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) and Saint Louis Art Museum (SLAM), the exhibition is supported by an advisory committee comprising experts and artists across a wide range of disciplines, including Martha Diaz, Founder and President of the Hip-Hop Education Center; Wendel Patrick, professor at the Peabody Music Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University; Tef Poe, rapper and activist; Hélio Menezes, anthropologist and curator of Afro-Atlantic Histories; and Timothy Anne Burnside, public historian and Museum Specialist in Curatorial Affairs at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

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