If the Smithsonian is the cultural authority it generally is regarded to be, MF Doom’s iconic metal mask will one day be displayed next to Lincoln’s hat and Kermit the Frog in the American Treasures section of the National Museum of American History. Until then, hip-hop fans will have to be satisfied with the exhibition “RECOGNIZE! Hip-Hop and Contemporary Portraiture” at the National Portrait Gallery.
Doom is one of the many rap luminaries whose image now hangs in the esteemed and legendary company of Thomas Jefferson and John Brown in the temporarily graffiti-covered halls of the Smithsonian institution.
The core of the exhibition is the photography of David Scheinbaum, who has taken pictures of hip-hop artists in concert since 2000. Scheinbaum photographed the biggest figures to emerge from underground hip-hop in the last decade, from Mos Def and Talib Kweli to the Roots’ ?uestlove and Erykah Badu. His subjects range from cult heroes such as Doom and Del the Funky Homosapien to the legendary KRS-One, Public Enemy and Gang Starr’s DJ Premier in late-career performances.
By portraying these artists in their onstage element, Scheinbaum has created nuanced images, simultaneously staged and candid, that vividly express the personality of his subjects.
The interaction between artist and audience, an element of hip-hop captured in many of these images, gives life to Scheinbaum’s dynamic portraits.
Scheinbaum’s photographs will appeal mostly to dedicated hip-hop fans, but nonaficionados should find a reason to visit “RECOGNIZE!” in the paintings of Kehinde Wiley. Wiley’s oil paintings depict famous rappers and anonymous, young black men wearing contemporary hip-hop apparel in poses adapted from classical European portraiture, set against bright and highly patterned backgrounds. Wiley’s paintings are big, loud and instantly engaging and must be seen in person to be fully appreciated.
Six of Wiley’s works are on display, including four of legendary rap pioneers, which were commissioned by VH1 in 2005 for its Hip-Hop Honors program.
Wiley’s use of big canvases and bold colors and his imitation of regal posturing are a perfect fit for three of the most out-sized personalities of the early 1990s: Ice-T, Big Daddy Kane and LL Cool J.
Other parts of the exhibition take liberty with the concept of portraiture or depart from it completely, including a mixed-media installation by Brooklyn artist Shinique Smith and a cycle of three videos by Jefferson Pinder.
Pinder’s videos are symbolic self-portraits set to a hip-hop sound track-in one he drags a heavy weight through a city to Quasimoto’s “Come On Feet.”
“RECOGNIZE!” is a vibrant and inspired exhibition. It is a very rewarding experience for hip-hop fans, while its celebration of the visual culture of the music makes it accessible to those who harbor a more general interest.
Part of what makes this exhibition such a stimulating experience is the context in which it is on display. The emphasis here is on the people who shaped hip-hop over the years, from old-school pioneers to avant-garde innovators. There is something sublime about seeing Wiley’s portraits, with their conventional compositional aesthetics and modern subject matter, in a museum dedicated to classical American portraiture.
The name of this exhibition is very appropriate. It is refreshing to see the generally austere Smithsonian recognize the influence of hip-hop artists in shaping contemporary American culture.