The National Portrait Gallery in downtown Washington has definitely changed since its reopening in 2006.
The formerly staid cultural fixture has moved into the 21st century with exhibits such as Recognize! Hip Hop and Contemporary Portraiture, which explores the world of hip-hop.
The multimedia display is a far cry from the gallery's permanent portrait collection of U.S. presidents and military figures. This exhibit includes images of LL Cool J and Ice T; videos with urban themes; an installation that combines sculpture with poetry; and colorful graffiti, a pillar of hip-hop along with DJs, emcees and break dancing.
The museum's radical refocus to include present-day subjects arrived after a six-year shutdown for renovation. When the gallery reopened, it abolished its rule that required the subject of any portrait to be dead at least 10 years, said Frank Goodyear, the museum's curator of photographs.
With the Smithsonian Institution's first exhibition to examine the influence of hip-hop music and style on American culture, "we decided to emphasize contemporary lives, to hold up a mirror to our audiences so they can see themselves and America today," he said.
Recognize is the third exhibit in the museum's series titled "Portraiture Now."
"We want to demonstrate to visitors that portraiture as an artistic genre is alive and well, and has expanded," said Goodyear. "There are lots of possibilities of what a portrait might be."
Although the Smithsonian is a national museum, it's also a hometown museum, Goodyear said. Because rap and hip-hop are often place-specific, Recognize includes artists who are natives of the Baltimore-Washington area.
A perfect example of locale-specific art is graffiti - an art form considered to be self-portraiture because the graffiti artists tag, or self-identify, by claiming public space.
This exhibit showcases the collaborative work of graffiti artists Tim Conlon of Washington and David Hupp of Baltimore, whose four, 20-foot-long murals contain the bold and colorful old-school lettering distinctive to the Baltimore-Washington area during the 1980s.
Another local artist, Jefferson Pinder, contributed three audio-video self-portraits to the exhibit. The most powerful, Mule, is a montage of Pinder, dressed in suit and tie, dragging a telephone pole through the streets of Baltimore. The weight of his struggles and those of the African-American urban community as a whole come to mind.
In another room, former graffiti artist and Baltimore native Shinique Smith, who uses found objects to create mixed-media sculptures and installations, has mounted the three-dimensional collage No Thief to Blame, inspired by Nikki Giovanni's poem "It's Not a Just Situation."
Giovanni recites her poem on tape while patrons gaze at Smith's intricate, textured collage of photos of dead hip-hop artists, including Tupac Shakur, pieces of blue jeans, roses and yellow police tape.
Recognize, of course, also includes portrait paintings, but without the traditional treatment.
Painter Kehinde Wiley retools who and what are considered culturally important by blurring the boundaries between illustrious, historical figures and hip-hop notables. A majestic Ice T, sitting on a throne and holding scepters, channels Napoleon, while Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five posture as a 17th-century Dutch civic guard company.
By way of the Portrait Gallery, these artists are exposing the softer side of hip-hop.
Find a link to the National Portrait Gallery's online version of the Recognize exhibit at baltimoresun.com/recognize
If you go
Recognize! Hip Hop and Contemporary Portraiture runs through Oct. 26 at the National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets Northwest, Washington. Hours are 11:30 a.m.-7 p.m. daily. Free. Call 202-633-8300 or go to npg.si.edu/exhibit/recognize/