- The Washington Times - Friday, February 15, 2008

In commercial free fall and with black leaders like the Rev. Al Sharpton emerging as the sharpest critics of its misogynist, racist and violent lyrics, rap music has found itself facing deepening cultural isolation of late.

“No one, even in the name of creativity, should enjoy a large consumer base when they denigrate people based on race and based on sex,” declared Mr. Sharpton at a press conference held in the wake of the Don Imus scandal last year.

Tell that to the National Portrait Gallery.

Last week, the Smithsonian museum opened “Recognize! Hip Hop and Contemporary Portraiture,” an exhibition devoted to hip-hop-themed paintings and photographs, some of which idolize the most offensive rappers. Now hanging on the gallery’s walls are heroic portraits of Big Daddy Kane, known for such brazenly misogynist numbers as “Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy,” and Ice T, whose song “Cop Killer” caused such outrage among law enforcement organizations that it was eventually pulled from his album.

So why is a national museum glorifying these perpetrators of sexism and violence?

“There is darkness amid the joy and light of hip-hop culture,” says National Portrait Gallery curator Frank Goodyear. “We are not condoning the misogynist lyrics. This is an artist-centered exhibit and should not be seen as a comprehensive history of hip-hop.”

Mr. Goodyear organized the 41-piece show with Brandon Brame Fortune, curator of painting and sculpture, and guest curator Jobyl Boone, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Delaware.

It is easy to see why these curators are smitten with the portraits of the hip-hop stars. The oil paintings are based on high-art models with knowing references to famous images of white men from art history.

Pictured within the canvases are rappers dressed in contemporary street attire but posed with props in a way to recall masterpieces from the past. “Ice T” sits on a throne to imitate an 1806 portrait of Napoleon by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, while the cross-legged “LL Cool J” is shown from the side to resemble John Singer Sargent’s 1917 likeness of John D. Rockefeller Sr.

The obvious point of the pictures is to aggrandize the hip-hop celebrities by turning them into commanding figures associated with power and wealth. Heraldic crests in the corners of the canvases — invented from urban street iconography such as boom boxes, female pinups and Kanga hats — suggest aristocratic associations. Ornate gold frames complete the Old World-style look.

This appropriation of historical portraiture is gimmicky, but the New York artist responsible for the series, Kehinde Wiley, is clearly a virtuoso when it comes to his realistic painting technique. Since graduating from Yale in 2001 with a master’s degree in fine arts, the Los Angeles-born painter has enjoyed enormous success with museum and gallery shows. Celebrities, including Denzel Washington and Elton John, collect his work, and there is a waiting list for his newest paintings.

In 2005, cable music network VH1 commissioned Mr. Wiley to paint portraits of its hip-hop awards recipients, and some of those are featured in this exhibit. However, not all his work is celebrity driven. Some of the portraits in the gallery depict young black men from the streets of New York and Los Angeles whom Mr. Wiley pays to sit for him. Once in his studio, the subject selects an image from a well-known masterpiece and is photographed in the depicted pose. The artist then paints the figure from the photograph against a patterned background inspired by historical ornament, including Islamic and rococo designs.

In addition to Mr. Wiley’s paintings, the exhibit features photographs by David Scheinbaum, who teaches at the College of Santa Fe in New Mexico, and was inspired to create a hip-hop series after he attended a concert with his 13-year-old son. Mr. Scheinbaum’s candid black-and-white images of Mos Def, Public Enemy and other rappers onstage recall the 1960s-era photos of jazz musicians by Roy DeCarava, but without the same sense of camaraderie.

In another gallery, cryptic videos by Jefferson Pinder, who teaches art at the University of Maryland, draw on the hip-hop interest in mixing and remixing music, and Ralph Ellison’s novel “Invisible Man.”

Hip-hop culture is male-dominated, and so is this show, but the curators pay lip service to female artists by including a poem by the respected 64-year-old writer Nikki Giovanni, who teaches at Virginia Tech. Titled “It’s Not a Just Situation,” Ms. Giovanni’s rhythmic, literate ode to hip-hop is both presented on a gallery wall and through an audio recording. Inspired by Ms. Giovanni’s repetitive use of “just,” a messy assemblage of swirling calligraphy and found objects created on-site by Baltimore-born artist Shinique Smith attempts to create a visual correlative for rap music in a corner of the room.

Between the galleries, the exhibit shifts into another hip-hop expression of lawlessness, graffiti. Despite costly efforts by former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and others to erase the lettering from subways and streets, the museum actually commissioned local graffiti artists Tim Conlon and Dave Hupp to spray paint their personal “tags” onto 20-foot-long murals. By showing these self-indulgent creations, the curators seem to be sanctioning the practice of defacing public property.

There are better ways to attract younger, more diverse visitors to the National Portrait Gallery than this pandering to the more negative aspects of urban culture.

WHAT: “Recognize! Hip Hop and Contemporary Portraiture”

WHERE: National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets Northwest

WHEN: Through Oct. 26, 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily


PHONE: 202/633-1000

WEB SITE: www.npg.si.edu

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