Over the weekend, the Baltimore Museum of Art held an invitation-only preview celebration of its newest exhibition, “The Culture: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century,” which coincides with the genre’s 50th anniversary. Co-organized with the St. Louis Art Museum, the exhibit isn’t just focused on the musical components of hip-hop. Instead, it highlights how the music is but one element of a culture in which fashion, photography, literature and visual art all help expand on the stories told through sound and lyricism. And with that framing, “The Culture” takes you on an expansive, rewarding journey through the BMA’s Contemporary Wing. Considering that we’ll have a comprehensive take on the show’s execution in the coming days, I’d like to focus on a singular piece that spoke to me while shuffling through the halls eating complimentary crème brûlée with peppercorn topping.
That would be “Pelada: Chapter II,” from nationally heralded, Brooklyn-born photographer and artist Texas Isaiah. The photograph shows Brooklyn-born Afro-Latina rapper Ms. Boogie perched against a backyard gate, dressed in cut-off denim shorts and a plaid top. Her chin is held high, exuding a regal exuberance. It’s the type of photo you’d want taken of yourself when you’re feeling your most powerful, most ready to go out and face the world with confidence and assurance. This is the crux of Isaiah’s work, which often immortalizes queer Black artists with a refreshing level of intimacy. In the piece’s description, it mentions that the Spanish word “pelada” translates to “naked” or “peeled” and that the photo “bears witness to Ms. Boogie during the conception of her debut album ‘The Breakdown’ which celebrates the transformative and transcendent experience of the evolution of her personhood.”
But what really brings “Pelada: Chapter II” to life is an altar positioned directly under the photo of Ms. Boogie. This is where the viewer gets a real peek into Isaiah’s world and how his own experiences growing up within hip-hop culture inform his ritualistic practices. The altar is, in essence, a collage of New York’s hip-hop dominance during Isaiah’s upbringing. There’s an all-white New York Yankees fitted cap, the vinyl covers of Lauryn Hill’s debut (and only) album and Jay-Z’s “Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life” and the artist’s childhood photos. There are also offerings to Baltimore artists included, most notable is a greatest-hits CD from legendary local R&B group Dru Hill. What the altar does is to add a rewarding layer to the piece, and to demonstrate how art and the parts of our cultures that we regularly interact with can be incorporated into our spiritual practices as well.
“The Culture: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century” opens to the public on April 5 and will be on view until July 16 before moving to the St. Louis Art Museum.