Lezley Saar:

Paintings from the Rap Series
In cooperation with the Bronx Museum of the Arts
One Planet Under a Groove: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art

Gallery Talk:
Julie Maybee:"Rappers' Paradox: Delighting in the Light of the Dark"
Wednesday, November 28th from 12:30-1:30 pm


October 16-January 4, 2002

Eve, 2000

Offered in cooperation with the Bronx Museum of the Arts exhibition One Planet Under a Groove: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art in acknowledgement of their 30th Anniversary Year.

Lezley Saar's Rap series features mixed media portraits that celebrate rap artists as modern day urban storytellers—among them Lil' Kim, Eve, Snoop Dogg, Tupac, and Bone Thugs-in-Harmony. These works mix images and symbols that allude to lifestyle and lyrics. Painted surfaces are combined with album covers, fabric, and photographs. In these portraits Saar examines the complexities of popular hip hop icons.


Lezley Saar considers today's rap stars on par with Africa's legacy of griots, the oral storytellers who preserved tribal heritage in the absence of written languages. These portraits offer compassionate interpretations of particular rappers' personalities, yet represent neither African-Americans nor the rap genre. Though only seven paintings are presented here, Saar’s series includes Southern rappers Ghetto Twinz, Gangsta Boo, Juvenile and Yukmouth, East Coast rappers Lil' Kim and Eve, West Coast rappers Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg and Cleveland natives Bone Thugs-n-Harmony for their tough reality-based poetry and innovative tunes. The painting Rapper's Delight, which portrays various rappers, borrows its title from the Sugarhill Gang song that first popularized rap. Self-described thugs and dimes (independent women), such rappers are mostly associated with Gangsta rap, a subset of the rap genre.

Gangsta raps' raw power, poetic language play, polyphonic musical structure and running commentary concerning life's every day trials have intrigued Saar since its inception in the early-1980s. Rap is sometimes a scapegoat for youth violence. However, it would be more apt to compare its role to that of 1970s folk songs, whose messages of peace were deemed threatening, and even unpatriotic, when viewed as disrespectful of those serving in Vietnam. Not surprisingly, Saar deejayed as a member of the Souls of Black Folk Collective, while studying broadcasting in the early 1970s.

Saar is best known for painting on such diverse surfaces as books, texts, fabrics and restretched thrift-store paintings. Here, Saar transforms album covers, money, gold lamé and traditional African fabrics into “canvases.” Each background evokes a different attitude. Gold lamé and images of fantasy vacations characterize glamour's allure. Johnny Mathis albums contrast Yukmouth with an earlier era's musical legend. Cheesecake poses from 1950s' record albums offer historical antecedents for today's sexy chanteuses. Curious objects are adhered to several paintings. Wigs evoke Lil' Kim's evolving persona, boxing gloves reflect the Ghetto Twinz's struggles and a skull recall death's proximity. Gold chains and jewels express society's stress on status, an Erkel doll with the “not” symbol painted over it belies this nerdy television icon's popularity and graffiti graphics link rap lyrics to graffiti motifs

According to the Nation magazine, hip-hop is not only the lifeblood of the American music industry, but it enjoys the most racially and economically diverse audience of any popular genre. Almost ten industry magazines are dedicated to hip-hop music and culture, of which rap music is a subset. Just as poetry is not always responsive to literal interpretations, rap lyrics are often ironic or satirical, sometimes bordering on the ridiculous, which is why rap is ripe for misinterpretation. Thus, rap is often the focus of cultural inquiry. “One Planet Under a Groove: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art” is currently on view at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. Seattle's Experience Music Project has a permanent hip hop display and “roots, rhymes + rage: the hip-hop story,” organized by Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, traveled to the Brooklyn Museum of Art last fall. Last year, both Oberlin College and the University of Wisconsin held conferences to explore hip-hop as a force for social change. The Prison Moratorium Project's “No More Prisons” hip-hop tour hit 40 cities this year.

Sue Spaid
The Contemporary Arts Center
Cincinnati, Ohio


Lehman College Art Gallery

Bedford Park Blvd. West • Bronx, New York 10468 •

(718) 960-8731

Ghetto Twinz, 1999