Bridging the Gap Between Rap and Art: Inside the Baltimore Museum of Art’s Major Hip-Hop Show ‘Hip-Hop Is a Canon’

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Installation view of “The Culture: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century” at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Photo: Mitro Hood/BMA.

Asma Naeem, Director at the Baltimore Museum of Art, emphasizes the significance of hip-hop as a cultural canon in an exclusive interview with Artnet News. According to Naeem, the genre, which has only been around for 50 years, deserves a permanent spot in museums and not just temporary exhibitions. This underscores the importance of recognizing hip-hop’s historical and cultural significance by adding it to the permanent collections of museums.

“First Hip-Hop Exhibition by Institution on the Genre’s 50th Anniversary: “The Culture: Hip-Hop & Contemporary Art in the 21st Century””

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, which originated in the Bronx at a birthday party hosted by DJ Kool Herc, the institution is showcasing its first hip-hop-themed exhibition. Titled “The Culture: Hip-Hop & Contemporary Art in the 21st Century,” the exhibition explores how this genre has influenced cultural production. The exhibit opens today and is not the only one commemorating the movement’s 50th year; Fotografiska and the Museum at FIT are also doing so. However, “The Culture” stands out as it interweaves the overarching culture with works of art, creating a collage of consequential objects and imagery.

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Installation view of “The Culture: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century” at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Photo: Mitro Hood/BMA.

“Naeem and her team of curators aim to break down the barrier between hip-hop and high art in their exhibition, with curator Gamynne Guillote stating that “The division between street and gallery is a myth” during the opening statement. Mark Bradford’s artwork, inspired by rapper Biggie Smalls, is showcased behind Guillote, with a subtle nod to the wordplay of the iconic musician.”

“Biggie Biggie Biggie” Artwork Takes Center Stage at Bradford’s 2002 Exhibition: A Review

In 2002, Mark Bradford presented his latest exhibition featuring the highly acclaimed artwork, “Biggie Biggie Biggie“. The piece, made entirely of gauze “endpapers” used for curling hair, captures the essence of Brooklyn’s legendary rapper in an abstract rendering. This artwork is prominently displayed in the exhibition’s first section, which is a “tasting menu” of what’s to come. Alongside “Biggie Biggie Biggie,” visitors can also appreciate Zéh Palito’s hot pink double portrait, Basquiat’s 1983 canvas tribute to jazz musician Charlie Parker, and a Dapper Dan down jacket from 2018. Don’t miss the chance to see these amazing pieces in person.

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Zéh Palito, It was all a dream (2022). Photo courtesy of the artist, Simoes de Assis, and Luce Gallery.

This article showcases a unique blend of art styles that respond positively to New York artist Shirt’s thought-provoking text-based work. The installation is featured in the Language section of the exhibition, which explores the question “CAN A RAP SONG HAVE THE SIGNIFICANCE OF ART” in bold black letters. This statement aligns with the exhibition’s thesis and highlights the enduring messages found in hip-hop culture.

Across its elements, hip-hop has always been a way for Black artists in particular to express the grind of systemic oppression, with rap and fashion offering aspirational counterpoints to reclaim painful narratives and history. The Adornment section of the exhibition offers such a juxtaposition of trauma and beauty.

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Hank Willis Thomas, Black Power (2006). Photo courtesy of Barrett Barrera Projects.

“Exploring the Intersection of Hip-Hop Culture and African Jewelry in Contemporary Art: A Review of Robert Pruitt, Hank Willis Thomas, and Deanna Lawson’s Works”

Discover the powerful connection between hip-hop culture and African jewelry through the masterpieces of Robert Pruitt, Hank Willis Thomas, and Deanna Lawson. From Pruitt’s depiction of gold chains that reflect the transatlantic slave trade to Thomas’s Black Power gold grills and Lawson’s portrait of men with bold African facial jewelry, these artworks offer a tangible language that translates hip-hop’s cultural messaging to a wider audience. Don’t miss the chance to explore the intricate details of these remarkable works, including a snapshot of George Washington’s rotting dentures, and discover the deeper meanings behind their bold statements.

Baltimore Sculptor Murjoni Merriweather and Her Hair Braid-Crafted Sculpture Z E L L A (2022) Featured in Personal Adornment Section

In a section dedicated to personal adornment, Baltimore sculptor Murjoni Merriweather and her exquisite hair braid-crafted sculpture Z E L L A (2022) take center stage, offering a unique and personal perspective. Merriweather’s artwork perfectly aligns with the theme of the section, as it highlights the ways in which hair is used for adornment and self-expression. The artist herself stated that, “The section caters to the purposes of my piece, but also to myself as a person. With hair, we use it to adorn ourselves and feel proud.” Check out Merriweather’s captivating sculpture and her insights on personal adornment in the section now.

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Murjoni Merriweather, Z E L L A (2022). Photo courtesy of the artist, © Murjoni Merriweather.

The Brand component of the show explores how hip-hop fashion has a strong commercial appeal. The gallery begins with a graffiti panel and contrasts it with a Travis Scott Air Jordan 1 and a Cross Colours denim bucket hat to highlight how illegal vandalism has over time contributed to the emergence of a commodified culture.

There is even a display of Pharrell Williams’s now-legendary Buffalo Hat (debuted at the Grammys in 2014), which was originally designed by Vivienne Westwood and inspired by Malcolm McLaren’s 1983 Duck Rock album. The curators had to borrow the hat from the fast food brand Arby’s, which recently purchased the hat at auction.

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Installation view of “The Culture: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century” at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Photo: Mitro Hood/BMA.

“It’s always been multidisciplinary and it’s always been about the hustle,” said Guillote about hip-hop. “So it finds a very natural allegiance with the idea of commerce.”

Naeem’s favorite section, Tribute, adds to this conversation between generations with an homage to Tupac Shakur, who elevated gangsta rap into a veritable art form. The most stirring of three pieces dedicated to the late rapper here is Alvaro Barrington’s aluminum and cardboard hessian spelling Shakur’s potent lyric, “They got money for war but can’t feed the poor,” in yarn.

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Joyce J. Scott, Hip Hop Saint, Tupac (2014). Photo: © Joyce J. Scott and Goya Contemporary Gallery.

“Hip-hop is about youth. But how that gap between youth and respect for the previous generations constantly jumps and collides all happens in this section,” said Naeem, who added that Tribute remains her favorite gallery of the exhibition. “I just love Tupac.”

“The Culture” wraps with two rooms, themed Ascension and Pose, that each hold pieces exploring hip hop’s complex relationship with grief and the afterlife (the genre, unfortunately, continues to see many early deaths). Here, John Edmonds’s white-on-white silk print and Baltimore’s own Ernest Shaw Jr.’s dazzling portrait, I Had A Dream I Could Buy My Way To Heaven (2022), encapsulate both the gains and the losses across hip-hop culture.

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Installation view of “The Culture: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century” at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Photo: Mitro Hood/BMA.

The exhibit itself extends, intentionally, into the BMA’s contemporary art wing. In the midst of this crossover hangs Devan Shimoyama’s sculpture, made of Timberland boots, rhinestones, silk flowers, epoxy resin, and coated wire. A showstopper. This blend of street accoutrements and gallery-tier fabrics evokes a beauty that encompasses the street. “Hip-hop conveys different kinds of beauty—other forms of beauty that belong side by side with the Western canon,” said Naeem.

“These worlds have always been in dialogue,” Guillote added about the coexistence of hip-hop, fashion, and art. “That’s enormously important because there’s power in that. It serves somebody to assume that there is this thing that we call ‘the street’ and there is this thing that we call ‘the gallery.’ How scary would it be if there wasn’t?”

The Culture: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century” is on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive, Baltimore, through July 16.