Hip-hop culture is most widely known in its musical form, but in fact it’s a broader phenomenon, encompassing dance, theater, fashion, visual art and politics.
The music that gave birth to hip-hop — often known as rap — has been with us for more than 40 years, and has gone international. In this country, it remains one of the most popular musical genres — if not the most popular — among teenagers and young adults.
In that respect, hip-hop is an ideal subject for consideration in the context of a university art gallery. Winston-Salem State University’s Diggs Gallery is currently featuring two exhibitions directly informed by rap and hip-hop culture.
“Uncategorized” is a solo show by photographer Chi Modu, whose informal portraits of hip-hop artists were featured during the 1990s in The Source, a leading rap periodical. The exhibition brings together a number of his color and black-and-white images in large and small formats. Most, if not all, of them were included in his eponymous book published in 2016.
Some of these photographs are professionally lighted studio portraits that tend to glamorize or otherwise idealize their subjects. Examples include two portraits of Tupac Shakur, the iconic West Coast rap artist who died tragically in the aftermath of a drive-by shooting in 1996, when he was only 25.
In Modu’s black-and-white portrait, Shakur’s eyes are closed as he exhales cigarette smoke, and his bare torso shows off a tattoo and the glittering gold Christian cross on a chain around his neck. In that photograph as well as a much larger color image set off against a black ground Shakur also wears his signature bandana tied around his head in a “do-rag.”
Other images in Modu’s show are more straightforwardly documentary, placing their subjects in settings that reflect the gritty urban context from which hip-hop culture originally emerged. Among these is a photo of Method Man — aka Clifford M. Smith Jr., a member of the East Coast rap group known as the Wu Tang Clan — looking relatively anonymous as he sits on a plastic crate outside the entrance of a Staten Island convenience store.
In a related vein is Modu’s informal portrait of the rap artist known simply as Nas, wearing ordinary street clothes (jeans, a striped polo shirt and running shoes) and looking conspicuously stoned as he reclines on a bed next to an old analog TV set and a teddy bear atop a wooden chest of drawers. The accompanying label identifies the setting as Queensboro public housing.
Although many of Modu’s photographs are modestly scaled, black-and-white images suitable for print reproduction, some of the color images — including the previously discussed color portrait of Tupac Shakur — have been specially formatted for presentation in gallery and museum settings. These large color images have been subdivided into multiple 7-inch squares — as many as 165 per image — individually push-pinned to the gallery walls in billboard-scale grids.
Among the latter are a close-up portrait of Method Man with his hair twisted into short braids and his face contorted into an exaggerated grimace, and an early photo of a poker-faced Snoop Dogg standing alongside a California highway sign.
Among their other characteristics, Modu’s photographs reflect rap music’s domination by male artists. Only one of his subjects — Lady of Rage, aka Robyn Yvette Allen — is female. She appears in a single black-and-white photo, informally posed on a Los Angeles street corner wearing large earrings, a protruding tongue tattooed on her chest and a silver, self-portrait amulet that emphasizes her signature “Afro-puff” hairstyle.
Speaking of female artists, the other half of the Diggs Gallery is given over to “UKNOWHOWWEDU,” a group exhibition that borrows its title from a track on “Kollage,” the 1996 debut album by Bahamadia, aka Antonia D. Reed. Paying homage to “strong, intelligent black women,” as an accompanying wall text has it, the show brings together conceptually interrelated works by four “women of color.”
Stephanie J. Woods doesn’t show the faces of the women in the color photos at the center of her mixed-media wall pieces. Instead she photographed their heads and shoulders from behind, in each case with their hair piled high and wrapped in cloth turbans emblazoned with empowering slogans such as “Strong Black Girl” and “My Black is Beautiful.” In lieu of conventional frames, she presents these photos surrounded by shimmering, gold-hued fabric and ornamental, ersatz-wood cabinet doors.
Woods is also represented by “Adultification,” a video installation in which images of children’s teddy bears are juxtaposed with dialog excerpted from “Set If Off,” a 1996 film about four black women bank robbers. Sample: “We are the ones who learn to sacrifice before learning to fight, … who make more with less, ... who make struggle look like a silk dress.” Imprinted upside down in large capital letters on the wall behind the video monitor is the phrase “BORN WITH CROWN AND RUSTED SPOON.”
LaKela Brown’s contribution to the show consists of seven white plaster panels embedded with relief images of hip-hop fashion accessories — bamboo hoops, door-knocker earrings and rope chains — as well as chicken heads (a derogatory hip-hop slang term for women).
Among the show’s most visually striking works are two paintings by Iona Rozeal Brown, which juxtapose traditional Japanese geisha imagery with references to hip-hop (including a turntable) and black American culture, and a commissioned mural by Georgie Nakima, a WSSU alumna.
Nakima’s mural combines portraits of two sly-looking, young black women with boldly colored, fluid, geometric-abstract motifs and the exhibition title, for a decidedly celebratory effect.