Fotografiska New York is pleased to present a new exhibition that traces hip-hop’s origins—starting in the Bronx in 1973, as a social movement by-and-for the local community of African, Latino, and Caribbean Americans—to the worldwide phenomenon it has become 50 years later. Hip Hop: Conscious, Unconscious amplifies the individual creatives involved in the movement while surveying interwoven focus areas such as the set of women who trail blazed amid hip-hop’s male dominated environment; hip-hop’s regional and stylistic diversification; and the turning point when hip-hop became a billion-dollar industry that continues to mint global household names.
Hip Hop: Conscious, Unconscious is a major new exhibition of over 200 photographs, dated 1972 to 2022, traces the rise and proliferation of hip-hop through five decades of work from the trailblazing image-makers who helped codify hip-hop as the most influential pop culture movement of its generation. Ranging from iconic staples of visual culture (presented with new context) to rare and intimate portraits of hip-hop’s biggest stars, the works on view traverse intersecting themes such as the role of women in hip-hop; hip-hop’s regional and stylistic diversification and rivalries; a humanistic lens into the 1970s-Bronx street gangs whose members contributed to the birth of hip-hop; and the mainstream breakthrough that saw a grassroots movement become a global phenomenon.
Opening January 26, 2023
“It’s easy to forget that there was a time before hip-hop was an industry and before it made money,” said Sacha Jenkins, exhibition co-curator and Chief Creative Officer of Mass Appeal, who came of age in New York’s hip-hop scene of the 1980s (b. 1971). “It wasn’t conscious of itself. It was just existing with young people living their lives, dressing as they did, trying to entertain themselves with limited resources and creating an aesthetic that registered amongst themselves. It wasn’t for the world; it was for a very specific community. Then there was an exponentially paced transition where hip-hop culture became a conscious of itself as an incredibly lucrative global export. The exhibition’s lifeblood is the period before hip-hop knew what it was.”
The exhibition brings audiences through five decades of history, culminating in recent imagery of the biggest names working in hip-hop today. The show, which features archival ephemera to augment the contextualization of its photography, is principally laid out by chronology and geography. Focus areas include but are not limited to the early years, East Coast, West Coast, the South, and the newer wave of artists who have emerged since the mid-aughts.
In addition to world-famous photos like Geoffroy de Boismenu’s 1994 portrait of Christopher “Biggie” Wallace staring at the camera with an off-center blunt in his mouth (as well as a rare outtake from the same shoot), the exhibition features compelling early-career snapshots of hip-hop legends, such as Run DMC’s feet under the table at The Fresh Fest press conference (1985); a 20-year-old Mary J. Blige in New York (1991); Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean on an East Harlem rooftop while shooting the music video for Vocab (1993); a candid photo of Tupac and Biggie backstage together at a mutual friend’s concert (1993); Nas in a recording session for his debut studio album Illmatic (1994); The Roots outside of the studio while working on Illadelph Halflife (1996); Talib Kweli and Mos Def enjoying a meal in a Brooklyn diner while taking a break from shooting the album artwork for their critically acclaimed album Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star (1998).
Among other interwoven themes, the exhibition highlights the role of women in hip-hop. More than 20 of the female pioneers who trailblazed in various capacities amid a male-dominated environment are included in the show, such as Cardi B, Eve, Erykah Badu, Faith Evans, Foxy Brown, Lauryn Hill, Lil’ Kim, Mary J. Blige, Megan Thee Stallion, Missy Elliott, Nicki Minaj, Queen Latifah, and Salt-N-Pepa.
“We made a thoughtful effort to have the presence of women accurately represented, not overtly singling them out in any way,” said Sally Berman, the exhibition’s co-curator, who among other roles has helmed photo direction for Mass Appeal and XXL. “You’ll turn a corner and there will be a stunning portrait of Eve or a rare and intimate shot of Lil’ Kim that most visitors won’t have seen before. There are far fewer women than men in hip-hop, but the ones that made their mark have an electrifying presence—just like the effect of their portraits interspersed throughout the show.”
Alongside portraiture of formative names such as DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash, documentary images of the larger cultural climate (such as the Savage Skulls street gang, graffiti writers, and block parties) capture the zeitgeist of the Bronx that permeated as the first hip-hop artists innovated the musical style itself. Examples of bodies of work in the show include Jean-Pierre Laffont’s oeuvre of early-1970s Bronx street culture, with a focus on the Savage Skulls; Henry Chalfont’s early-1980s images of Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, and Downtown Manhattan, with a focus on graffiti writers, breakdancing, block parties, and youthful shenanigans; and Janette Beckman’s late-1980s to early-1990s street-style portraits of hip-hop’s living legends.
The early work in the show is “more reportage or documentary-style,” says Jenkins. “People were just trying to be local celebrities and superstars at their high school gym or in a park outside. As time goes on and the industry evolves with it, you start to see how things change. You start to see that photo shoots get more fancy. The attire gets fancier; the settings change; you get mainstream signifiers ofluxury like private jets and nice cars and iced-out chains and swagger-filledposes. The photographic chronology itself mirrors the evolution of hip-hop,from documentary-style to full on productions.” For younger hip-hop artists from similar neighborhoods and socioeconomic means as the original superstars, this sequence became the model for success
Also key to the show is gang culture, which Jenkins explains “was the precursor to hip-hop in terms of creating an identity for yourself,” especially regarding hip-hop’s core philosophies around selfidentification. “When you’re a gang member, you can call yourself ‘Bozo five-oh-five’, right? And that became your identity separate from the identity that your parents gave you. And so hip-hop was the same idea. You came with a name for yourself as a rapper, you came with a name for yourself as a graffiti artist, and you took that name and you tried to make something of yourself and something of the name. So that idea of people who typically were not recognized by society, finding a way to make a society for themselves by creating an identity that they can own. Because ownership is really the key with hip hop. Young people were able to create something that they owned. If you were a break dancer and your name was Frosty Freeze and you were really good, you own the Frosty Freeze brand and people respected you for that.”
Well-represented across Hip-Hop: Conscious, Unconscious are the “four elements of hip-hop” (rapping, DJing, breakdancing, and graffiti) as well as several debated “fifth elements” including fashion and beatboxing. Alongside dozens of vibrant images of anonymous subjects engaged in these elements of grassroots hip-hop culture, the subjects of the photos on view in the exhibition include but are not limited to:
Tracing the cultural genre’s collective trajectory over five decades, the exhibition spans photography by hip-hop’s earliest documentarians of the 1970s to younger hip-hop photographers who are furthering the proliferation of the genre’s aesthetic. Artists in the exhibition include:
Jenkins is sure to emphasize that hip-hop has a culture – which is very much alive and flourishing – and a commercial industry that is independent of the spirit of the culture. “50 years later, hip-hop culture is something that’s still going that people around the world can relate to as a form of expression. I mean, break dancing in Korea is huge. People don’t break dance in South Bronx anymore, but in Korea it’s a big thing. Different parts of the culture took shape in different places around the world, and it’s a beautiful thing.”
Hip-Hop: Conscious, Unconscious at Fotografiska New York was created in partnership with Mass Appeal and is co-curated by Sacha Jenkins (Chief Creative Officer, Mass Appeal) and Sally Berman (Visuals Director, Hearst; Formerly Director of Photography, Mass Appeal). In-house support comes from Amanda Hajjar (Director of Exhibitions, Fotografiska New York); Meredith Breech (Exhibitions Manager, Fotografiska New York); Johan Vikner (Director of Global Exhibitions, Fotografiska) and Pauline Benthede (VP Global Exhibitions, Fotografiska).
Hip-Hop: Conscious, Unconscious will be on view from January 26, 2023 to May 21, 2023 at Fotografiska New York.
In related programming, Save the date, Thursday, February 2nd for In Conversation: Hip-Hop: conscious, Unconscious.
Join us for a panel discussion featuring Hip Hop: Conscious, Unconsciouscurators Sacha Jenkins and Sally Berman. The pair will discuss their vision and ideas around focusing areas that include but are not limited to the early years, East Coast, West Coast, the South, and the newer wave of artists who have emerged since the mid-aughts.
Save the Date, February 13th for the Film Screening ‘Fresh Dressed‘. Fresh Dressed is a fascinating chronicle of hip-hop, urban fashion, and the hustle that brought oversized pants and graffiti-drenched jackets from Orchard Street to high fashion’s catwalks and Middle America shopping malls. Director Sacha Jenkins’ music-drenched history draws from a rich mix of archival materials and in-depth interviews with rappers, designers, and other industry insiders.
Be a part of Scratch DJ Academy in a Hip Hop Workshop on February 26th. Founded in 2002 by Jam Master Jay of Run DMC, Scratch has taught over 500,000 aspiring DJs and producers worldwide. Instruction tailored specifically for kids of all ages now available!
While you’re there, don’t miss Elizaveta Porodina: Un/Masked, Opening January 27, 2023 and on view to April 30, 2023.
Fotografiska New York is located in the historic Church Missions House located at 281 Park Avenue South at 22nd Street, in the Flatiron District of NYC.
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