"RECOGNIZE! Hip Hop and Contemporary Portraiture," which opens Friday at the National Portrait Gallery, puts a uniquely modern spin on the age-old tradition of portraiture.
Visitors are greeted to the exhibit by bright graffiti art painted on a trompe l’oeil train, which was the subject of an article in the current issue of Smithsonian.
The exhibit also features spirited black-and-white concert shots by David Scheinbaum, who has photographed more than a hundred hip-hop performers.
Scheinbaum, in his 50s, was first introduced to the music when he took his teenage son to a Del, Tha Funkee Homosapien concert in 2000. He was hooked; "this was the first time since Woodstock that I had seen a community equally as bonded and identified through music," Schienbaum said in a statement.
He adds that he owes his inspiration to jazz portraitist Roy DeCarava, whose works include images of 20th century jazz icons like Lena Horne and Count Basie.
In addition to Schienbaum’s photos, the exhibit includes vibrant large-scale paintings of rappers like LL Cool J and Grandmaster Flash by New York-based Kehinde Wiley that are modeled after classic portraits by John Singer Sargent, Frans Hal and Ingres, among others. Jefferson Pinder, who teaches at the University of Maryland, produced several video self portraits set to a hip-hop soundtrack.
The show goes further into uncharted territory for the museum, which until recently only admitted portraits of people who had been dead for 10 years. Now portraits of John Updike and Lance Armstrong hang in the same building as classic paintings of the founding fathers.
But in the hip-hop show, the inclusion of a grittier culture has produced discussion. A recent newspaper editorial decried the glorification of graffiti art, and at least one woman at Tuesday’s press briefing asked whether it was right to include rappers who sing about violence and other unsavory topics.
Curator Frank Goodyear's response is that art isn’t always clean. "There’s nothing marginal about hip-hop," he said. "Hip-hop is at the very center of our culture… It is one of the key cultural achievements of the last 20 to 30 years."
And photographer Scheinbaum’s work hopes to show that the negative stereotypes "represent only a small part of the larger significance."
(Photograph of KRS One, Paramount, Santa Fe, NM, By David Scheinbaum, Gelatin silver print, 2002, courtesy of David Scheinbaum; © David Scheinbaum)