Post-Black Art in the Age of Hip-Hop

An intimate look at how a generation of black artists who grew up in the hip-hop era are expressing their version of the American experience.

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Dec 12 2014, 4:20pm


Oh, what a feeling, Fuck it, I want a Billion by Awol Erizku

Young black and brown men in skirts, do-rags, and military jackets with " HBA" emblazoned across them took over Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art on October 30. The event was called Hood by Air: Id, and was the result of a collaboration between MoMA's PopRally and Shayne Oliver, the black fashion designer who runs the eclectic and androgynous label Hood by Air. Since 2006, the label has sought to expand the vocabulary of street style—with the help of fellow travelers like Kanye West—by challenging gender norms while still grounding itself in hip-hop culture.

HBA's multidisciplinary work at the MoMA featured a performance by gender-bending rapper Mykki Blanco, a frenetic video installation, and a presentation of the brand's spring 2015 collection. It was incredible to see such a new, creative force like HBA, which has become so synonymous with hip-hop, be canonized in the same institution that exhibits works by Warhol and Picasso. The presence of HBA on that lofty platform signaled just how ever-present and impactful "post-black" art is today, while also highlighting how hip-hop has evolved into a creative form that fits within both entertainment and fine art.

Post-black art diverges from the late Amiri Baraka's black arts movement, which grew out of the racial tension of the 60s and 70s and sought to create radical new forms of expression removed from Western culture. Instead, post-black artists celebrate and indict an America that has given lip service to progress but still allows oppression to thrive. The differences between the black arts movements of the past and the present-day post-black arts movement grow even starker when you look at the impact of hip-hop on America. As esteemed curator Thelma Golden says, post-black artists "are both post-Basquiat and post-Biggie."

Golden helped introduce the first wave of this movement to the world back in 1994 with Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art, a show at the Whitney Museum. The show was so significant in signaling a new wave the Whitney will be holding an event this evening with Golden, writer Hilton Als, and critic Huey Copeland to commemorate and discuss its impact.

As game-changing as Black Male was for exposing the world to post-black art, Golden didn't really start using the term until the 2001 in the exhibition catalogue for the seminal show Freestyle. In that catalogue, she described the post-blacks as artists who are "adamant about not being labeled 'black' artists, though their work [is] steeped, in fact deeply interested, in redefining complex notions of blackness."

Golden followed up Freestyle with a series of high-profile shows—Frequency, Flow, and Fore. With reverence and indignation, these exhibits confronted the contradiction of being both the descendants of slaves and privileged American citizens. The shows featured work made by the first wave of post-black artists like Rashid Johnson, Glenn Ligon, Mickalene Thomas, Sanford Biggers, and Hank Willis Thomas. Although all the artists exhibited were different, Golden discovered that the crucial connecting tissue "that defined these practitioners [was] music."

In the time since Freestyle opened, the music and culture that helped birth and define the post-black movement has changed drastically. It went from older blacks and whites wanting hip-hop treated like contraband in the early 90s to the State Department hiring its first Hip-Hop Ambassador in 2013. Today, according to Forbes, hip-hop is a $10 billion industry; the results of a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study found that 65 percent of all American kids between the ages of eight and 18 are listening to rap on a daily basis.

The latest wave of post-black art is all about grappling with this new ascension of hip-hop culture and the realities of the black experience that are still mired in the struggles of the past—from police brutality to unemployment.

On top of the Hood by Air-MoMA collaboration, this kind of new artistic consciousness is exemplified in the work of artist Rashaad Newsome, a 35-year-old New Orleans–born visual artist who uses hip-hop to explore symbols of status and power. His most recent work is the video Knot, which is currently on display at the Brooklyn Museum show Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe." The video features straight, gay, and trans black people voguing, the freeze-and-pose dance style created by blacks and Latinos in Harlem in the early 80s that was famously documented in the film Paris Is Burning. Newsome's dancers do the stylized modern dance with pain and pride in expensive red-heeled Christian Louboutins, signifying the mixed emotions that come with fetishized objects of desire.

To open the Killer Heels exhibition, Newsome staged a live performance of Knot, during which men and women vogued, twerked, and held up signs with the names of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Islan Nettles—a black trans woman who was murdered in Harlem across the street from a police station last year.

Newsome's work bridges the gap between the generation of artists who were coming of age when hip-hop was just starting to become a mainstream genre and the younger generation who have only known hip-hop as a dominant commercial and cultural touchstone.

New York native Awol Erizku is one of those artists. His most recent show, " The Only Way Is Up," featured a mixed media sculpture, Oh, what a feeling, Fuck it, I want a Billion. The piece is comprised of seven regulation-sized basketball rims with gold chains and an official NBA game basketball sitting atop the seventh rim, unattached. The work embodies the hopes and economic plight of our generation and was named after a line from a verse of Jay Z's "Picasso Baby," a song Hov famously performed for six hours straight at the Pace Gallery in front of performance art legends like Marina Abramovic.

To accompany the show, Erizku collaborated with DJ Kitty Cash to release a hip-hop mixtape. "The majority of that mixtape was trap, because trap is hot in hip-hop right now," says Erizku. "Music is universal and I wanted to create a musical definition of my work that spoke to my generation about the issues and ideas my work represents."

Erizku's work draws heavily on the current trends of hip-hop. However, other black artists are taking the same cultural elements and coming up with very different results. Painter Cameron Welch, who used to tag walls around Indianapolis when he was growing up in the late 90s and early 2000s, draws on the tradition of graffiti in hip-hop to inspire his work.

"Graffiti is such a loaded material given its historical context—it's how a lot of people growing up in hip-hop culture left their mark and made themselves known," explains Welch. In Goddess Braids, the painter injects the history of graffiti into his work in an effort to disrupt the long history of the triangle in abstract art. The picture features powerful images of black women modeling hairstyles that Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown wore in the late 90s and early 2000s.

Although artists like Welch and Erizku embrace it, the incorporation of hip-hop can sometimes overwhelm the artist's intent. Creating post-black art is a dangerous line to walk, because the artist can appear to some to be only concerned with questions of blackness. And the loaded symbolism can strip the work of its relatability to people outside the culture. However, as Erizku says, artists of his ilk do not seek to isolate their work by race, but to use their work to "elevate blackness to the same level of universality as whiteness."


Goddess Braids by Cameron Welch

Painter Jordan Casteel latest work was born out of this paradox of representation. Her recent solo show Visible Man featured a series of figurative paintings of unclothed black men in different hues, a reaction to the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. The paintings explore the power of clothing and the black body at a time when hip-hop-related garments like the hoodie look malevolent in the eyes of some Americans when worn by black men.

"When I first started this body of work, I painted a figure who was clothed," explains Casteel. "The figure was wearing a fitted hat and a 'U MAD' Nike shirt. [However, the clothes] immediately became a block for people."

Despite the fact that Casteel's initial art drew on a long established line of historical portraiture, viewers of her early drafts couldn't get past the hip-hop clothes of the figure because it echoed a singular and familiar ideal of blackness. This kept the viewers from engaging in the dialogue Casteel wanted to have about humanity, sexuality, and subjectivity.

"Those reactions in my studio became a part of my decision to make these figures nude, reposition their penises out of the painting, and paint them at home," says the 25-year-old Denver native. "That way, I could challenge the current mix of history and popular culture that place these men on the street and remove their humanity."

Casteel's initial dilemma and artful solution isn't removed from hip-hop, it's defined by hip-hop's new era. But instead of embracing it as other artists in the post-black scene have done, she reacted against it and created something that was revelatory in its mundanity, if only because it bucked a familiar narrative.

"[These days,] hip-hop and post-black art share the same questions of how an artist of color deals with visibility," says Jeff Chang, who heads the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University and wrote Who We Be: The Colorization of America and Can't Stop Won't Stop."Now, in addition to the old questions of invisibility, such as How can we be seen? and Who controls what we see? we add new ones like How can we change what people see? and How do we change what they think about when they see the work?"

These questions that Jeff Chang raise will certainly be at the heart of next phase of post-black art movement. They go hand in hand with the modern black experience, which is both President Barack Obama and deceased Eric Garner, wealthy superstar Jaden Smith and murdered teenager Trayvon Martin. As creative young people of color in America continue to explore this dual identity, they'll also undoubtedly be vibing to the next permutation of that ever-evolving rhythm that has helped carry black art from John Coltrane to James Brown to Jay Z and beyond.

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