Portrait Gallery opens first hip-hop exhibit with LL Cool J, Ice T

By Brett Zongker

WASHINGTON – Legs crossed and fingers splayed, LL Cool J strikes the same regal pose seen in John D. Rockefeller’s 1917 portrait – though he wears a ball cap.

LL Cool J and dozens of other hip-hop artists are being catapulted into the National Portrait Gallery with the likes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Some of the artists, including Ice T and Big Daddy Kane, are portrayed with the same power and royalty as kings and presidents long passed.

The new exhibit, “RECOGNIZE! Hip Hop and Contemporary Portraiture,” will be on view through October. It’s the first Smithsonian Institution exhibit to examine the influence of hip-hop music and style on American art and culture. The show, featuring four large graffiti murals and galleries with paintings, photography and video portraits, sits in contrast to the museum’s nearby “American Origins” section, with portraits dating back to the 1600s.

The cable network VH1 originally commissioned the portrait of LL Cool J – born James Todd Smith III in the New York City borough of Queens – and others for the 2005 Hip Hop Honors. New York artist Kehinde Wiley took on the project and used his trademark style of having young, often anonymous black men select poses from old portraits of saints and monarchs, said curator Brandon Fortune.

“Basically Kehinde Wiley takes a black man – a subject who had only been on the margins of historical grand portraiture – and puts that man squarely in the center of the tradition and gives that visual power to his anonymous subject,” she said.

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For the portrait of LL Cool J, the artist and subject chose the same pose as Rockefeller’s portrait by John Singer Sargent. Fortune said LL Cool J had been reading a Rockefeller biography and thought of himself as a modern-day Rockefeller – an entrepreneur, making his own way as an artist. It’s one portrait from the hip-hop collection the museum would like to acquire, curators said.

Several other paintings by Wiley – on loan for the exhibit – portray musicians Ice T, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and others.

The hip-hop exhibit is the third in a series called “Portraiture Now,” which focuses on contemporary artists and new ways of producing portraits. The gallery plans to offer public programs, a family day and possible hip-hop performances linked to the show.

“This exhibition should not be seen as a comprehensive history of hip-hop from the 1970s to today, nor is it really a snapshot of hip-hop today,” said Frank Goodyear, a curator who helped organize the exhibit. “What this exhibition is trying to do is recenter hip-hop as one of the key cultural achievements of the last 20 to 30 years.”

Photographs by New Mexico-based artist David Scheinbaum portray other hip-hop groups and artists, including Public Enemy, Mos Def, Common and Supernatural. Scheinbaum was inspired to explore hip-hop culture after taking his 13-year-old son to a Del the Funky Homosapien concert in Albuquerque, N.M., Goodyear said.

Video portraits by University of Maryland artist and teacher Jefferson Pinder, such as “Car Wash Meditations,” ”Mule” and “Invisible Man,” reflect the hip-hop generation with some imagery of black history woven in, curators said. In “Mule,” Pinder is seen dragging a telephone pole chained to his back along Baltimore streets.

Four huge graffiti murals by regional artists – and commissioned by the museum – will greet visitors. Smithsonian fellow Jobyl Boone said Washington and Baltimore artists Tim Conlon and Dave Hupp used a lettering style from the 1980s in their colorful murals to show the history of graffiti and its place in hip-hop culture.

Even the murals – though they are not traditional portraits – tie in with the museum’s focus on depicting individuals through the unique signatures or “tags” that help define graffiti art, Boone said.

A poem by acclaimed Virginia Tech poet Nikki Giovanni and an accompanying sculptural installation by Shinique Smith – which Goodyear calls an “altar to hip hop” – help close out the exhibit. Giovanni’s poem, “It’s Not a Just Situation: Though We Just Can’t Keep Crying About It (For the Hip Hop Nation That Brings us Such Exciting Art)” was commissioned specifically for the exhibit.

Goodyear said the gallery didn’t want to “whitewash” over the negative and sometimes violent stereotypes associated with hip-hop, but it still wanted to recognize the artists’ positive influences.

Some have “tried to move hip-hop to the margins of our culture,” he said. “But there’s nothing marginal about hip hop at all. Hip-hop is at the center of our culture.”