Like many black twitter users, New York-based music journalist Naima Cochrane was feeling like this Black History Month was overrun by a slew of racial controversies, from politicians in blackface to Gucci selling blackface to Jussie Smollett’s unraveling case. While some have called the celebratory month "a wash" that and are rejoicing in its end, Cochrane took her own frustrations to Twitter.
Tweeting "Since #BlackHistoryMonth is already trash, here’s a thread of various levels of horrible, no good, very bad art," Cochrane created a thread making fun of a particular strain of black art that puts a mash-up of iconic black figures together in wild, often random situations. Think the Obamas, Martin Luther King Jr, Malcom X, Oprah, Allen Iverson, Kevin Hart, Mike Tyson, and others playing dice on the street, with Hennessey bottles at their feet. Or gun-wielding Bob Marley and Tupac escaping from a pack of people chasing them on horse Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid-style.
“I do feel like this painting style represents kind of what we’re going through particularly this Black History Month. I’ll be honest, I think every Black History Month during the digital age gets increasingly worse," Cochrane told VICE. "To me, there’s just more room for people to kind of destroy a really great celebration through antics and ridiculousness.” She believes the art represents that visually because, in an effort to be all-encompassing, it paints important black figures, "in ridiculous situations, or situations that don’t make sense, or situations that go against what they actually stood for.”
You want to see Rosa Parks double dutch with Michelle Obama? Just paint it! You wish Bob Marley partied with Muhammad Ali? Make it happen! “I call it standard 125th street fair art," Cochrane said. "Because in New York, or really any major metropolitan area where there are street vendors, you’re going to find this art. If you go to any kind of black expo or Essence festival it’s there. And then it’s going to be hanging in your barber shops, beauty salons, your aunt’s house, etc.” While the art is not exactly new, she explained, “It feels more prevalent now because there are digital artists that take it a little too far and people are trying to get fake-deep with it too.”
In recent years people like Cochrane have started to jokingly analyze the most off-the-wall of this artwork. One of the most well-known examples is a piece featuring Malcolm X baptizing Tupac, which sparked a search for the artist after Twitter users pointed out a muslim (Malcolm X) wouldn't baptize someone, and Tupac's "Thug Life" tattoo is misspelled to "Thug Lafe." "The urban legend is that the singer Tyrese painted it," Cochrane said. The whole ordeal sparked a hashtag #tyresepainting where people suggest other outrageous painting concepts with historic figures they'd want to see.
The art also shows the challenges of always relying on the same historical figures to represent history and how disorienting it can be during Black History Month to try and consider all of their legacies at once. “It’s always a random gathering of black people,” Cochran explains. “Tupac is always there, he’s like a sub-genre unto himself. But it might be like Tupac, Rosa Parks, Obama, and MLK. Who decided these people need to go together? What are they doing? Where are they going?”
A few artists called her out for seemingly belittling an important black art style, to which she responds that “there’s no public art that isn’t subject to public critique.” But more importantly, the positive side of the art style is certainly not lost on her. “Part of our survival as a people—and this also relates to Black History Month—comes from our ability to take something heavy and turn it into something good or amusing and flip it in a way that actually edifies us instead of scandalizes us,” she said. “The art is really extra for no reason, and we’re really extra for no reason sometimes. That thread, even though it looks like I’m clowning it, I’m really appreciating it.”
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