To celebrate the 50th anniversary of hip hop’s inception, the Baltimore Museum of Art opened a groundbreaking exhibition that explored the political, cultural, and aesthetic attributes that have made the genre a global phenomenon and established it as the artistic canon of our time.
Co-curated by Asma Naeem, the BMA’s Dorothy Wagner Wallis Director; Gamynne Guillotte, the BMA’s Chief Education Officer; Hannah Klemm, SLAM’s Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art; and Andréa Purnell, SLAM’s Audience Development Manager, The Culture: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century features more than 90 works by some of today’s most important and celebrated artists, including Derrick Adams, Mark Bradford, Lauren Halsey, Julie Mehretu, Adam Pendleton, Tschabalala Self, Hank Willis Thomas, and Carrie Mae Weems.
“Hip hop’s influence is so significant that it has become the new canon—an alternate set of ideals of artistic beauty and excellence centered around the Afro-Latinx identities and histories—and one that rivals the Western art historical canon around which many museums orient and develop exhibitions,” says 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.”
“Whether through the poetics of the street, the blurring of high and low, the reclamation of the gaze, the homage to hip-hop geniuses, or the experimental collaborations across such vastly disparate fields as painting, performance, fashion, 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,” she adds.
The work included in this exhibition is presented in dynamic dialogue with fashion and objects created and made famous by Lil’ Kim, Dapper Dan and Gucci, and Virgil Abloh for Louis Vuitton, along with iconic brands like Cross Colours and TELFAR. Together, the works in The Culture weave a compelling narrative about art and culture that is rarely experienced in a museum context—and one that highlights a broad array of conceptual and material innovation. The installation also contains significant personal and communal resonance for those steeped in hip-hop culture, while providing a crash course into the explosive impact of the genre over the past two decades for those less versed.
Since hip-hop’s creation in 1973, it has always maintained a deep connection with both the fashion and art world. The craft of constructing a hypnotizing melody, a beautiful article of clothing, or a colorful masterpiece from what was originally a simple thought or idea truly resonates throughout all three of these mediums. “I think that we have this idea in the more sort of general public that these are things that sit in discreet spheres from each other. But what we really know is if we look at the origins of hip hop, that contemporary art was always present in that conversation,” Guillotte tells ESSENCE. “Fab 5 Freddy was always moving between the downtown art scene and the burgeoning hip hop scene. And so, those connections have always really been there. Dapper Dan was making those connections to the high fashion world before Gucci was going to thank him for it.”
“Those connections, it’s always been wired and been part of, I think, how the culture has developed,” she adds. “I think that what we are trying to do is really shed light on those connections and to really assert that some of the most exciting contemporary art being made these days is really grounded and takes hip hop as its subject and its canon. You can’t really understand a lot of contemporary art being made without understanding its connection to hip hop.”
The world’s most popular artform first emerged as music from Black, Latinx, and Afro-Latinx Americans living in the Bronx in the 1970s. It grew at a rapid pace through large-scale block parties to encompass an entire culture that includes the four pillars of MCing; DJing; breakdancing; and graffiti writing. From its infancy, hip hop used its critical eye to examine the world’s cultural narratives and offered new avenues for expression and creativity.
In addition to the exhibition itself, a 308-page comprehensive catalog was also published in order to fully delve into conversation around self-presentation and adornment, language, technology, and the global presence in hip hop. For Guillotte and the other parties involved it was a difficult but necessary labor of love. “We had 50 plus contributors to this catalog, which is a lot of people,” she says. “But what we knew very early on is that we wanted a lot of different voices in that catalog. Catalogs very often can be very academic, and it’s scholars writing and a scholarly tone around the work.”
“We knew that we wanted, yes, scholars, but also practitioners, also people who are also poets, also interviews,” she says. “A lot of different styles and formats, so that it feels really polyphonic in the way in which hiphop is really polyphonic. There’s no one dominant way to do hip-hop.”
The Culture: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century is a ticketed exhibition co-organized by the BMA and the Saint Louis Art Museum and will be on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art from April 5 to July 16, 2023, and at SLAM from August 25, 2023, to January 1, 2024.