Portrait Gallery Gets Hip

A New Exhibit Features Depictions of Popular Rappers

Posted February 6, 2008 at 5:12pm

Sandwiched between a permanent collection featuring the faces of Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, and another exhibition of contemporary figures such as Muhammad Ali and Jackson Pollock is the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s latest installation: a six-room ode to hip-hop music.

“This exhibit is about disrupting expectations,” said Assistant Curator of Photography Frank Goodyear, who, in a sport coat, glasses and loafers looked more soft rock than hard rap. “We’re trying to show not the history of hip-hop, but how artists use hip-hop for inspiration.”

Opening Friday, “RECOGNIZE! Hip Hop and Contemporary Portraiture,” is the museum’s latest attempt to draw a younger crowd, Goodyear said. Guest curator Jobyl Boone added that the exhibit also is designed to draw in more local Washington residents along with tourists and art aficionados. It “has [both] a broad fine-art feel and a more D.C. feel,” Boone said.

While Washington’s most notable musicians include jazz legend Duke Ellington and Chuck Brown, dubbed the “Godfather of Go-Go,” the portraits in the exhibit have an urban flair that museum curators hope will contribute to the local appeal. Dozens of established rappers are featured in the first-floor display.

A portrait of Common by David Scheinbaum captures the artist center stage, reaching for the audience. Rapper Akil of hip-hop group Jurassic 5 is shown leaning with a crowd of swaying fans, while Mos Def poses in a more subdued photo, donning a popped collar and facing the camera head-on. Portraits of Public Enemy and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, a throwback to rap’s earlier years, also are included.

The exhibit “demonstrates the myriad ways that hip-hop and portraiture have intersected,” said Carolyn Carr, acting director of the Portrait Gallery. “The works in this show use the hip-hop concepts of sampling and re-mixing.”

A series of paintings by Kehinde Wiley, another feature of the exhibit, highlight LL Cool J, Big Daddy Kane and Ice T in grandiose portraits that, bold colors aside, mirror the regal style of those portraits on the second floor of the museum dedicated to the nation’s presidents. A pair of Washington- based graffiti artists, Tim Conlon and Dave Hupp, contributed four murals that outline the overall exhibit, which is on display at the museum in Gallery Place though October.

[IMGCAP(1)]Leaders in Washington occasionally have attempted to censor rap music, fearing that its graphic lyrics negatively influence young listeners. From Tipper Gore’s successful crusade in the 1980s to require parental advisory labels on rap albums to more recent Congressional hearings on the industry’s depiction of women, the Beltway has not always been cool with hip-hop music.

But the Portrait Gallery’s latest display strives to sidestep all of that in the name of art. The museum will host several family events and a film series and will use its newly opened courtyard for a hip-hop happy hour with KRS-One, who is among those featured in the exhibit.

Radio One, the nation’s largest black-owned radio broadcasting company, is serving as the media sponsor for the gallery’s latest show. Russ Parr, the syndicated radio host on Radio One-owned station WKYS 93.9, likely will headline an event to promote the exhibit, museum curators said.

“RECOGNIZE! Hip Hop and Contemporary Portraiture” will run from Feb. 8 to Oct. 26 at the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, located at Eighth and F streets Northwest. The museum is open from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.