With over two hundred photographs spanning over 50 years which feature famous rappers such as Tupac Shakur, Missy Elliott, Public Enemy, Salt-N-Pepa and many more, shot by various photographers, the Hip Hop: Conscious, Unconscious exhibition tells us the history of hip-hop using only photographs and it depicts how it defined the genre as the pop culture movement of their generation, which is now on view until 21st May at Fotografiska Gallery in New York.
The exhibition, which showcases photographs and portraits relating to hip-hop culture from 1972 to 2022, explores simply via visual imagery how the hip-hop genre was developed and what makes it so popular among us. The curators, Sacha Jenkins and Sally Berman have developed this exhibition to show us what the time was like before hip-hop became one of the mainstream genres that introduced a lot of artists we know and listen to.

Sacha Jenkins, the co-curator of this exhibition and the Chief Creative Officer of Mass Appeal who discovered New York’s hip-hop scene of the 80s during his youth says about the purpose of this exhibition: “It’s easy to forget that there was a time before hip-hop was an industry and before it made money.” He continues: “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.” Part of this is true as there was a period where hip-hop was more relatable and expressive for certain communities and how it resonated with them.

The gallery shows us various rare and unique images of some influential hip-hop artists in the first stages of their careers for example a 20-Year-Old Mary J. Blige in New York (1991), Cam’ron posing for XXL magazine (2006), Salt-N-Pepa hanging out in the Lower East Side (1986), Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean on an East Harlem rooftop while filming a music video for their song Vocab (1993), etc.

Other than the portraits and photos of famous rappers, the exhibition also displays documentary-style photos of hip-hop culture, including Jean-Pierre Laffont’s gallery of the Bronx culture in the early 70s and Henry Chalfont’s presentation of photographs that shows parts of New York such as Queens and Brooklyn in the 80s, depicting various block parties and youthful high jinks.

One of the most important highlights of this exhibition is the role of women in hip-hop and how they flourished in an earlier male-dominated industry. The female rappers who are shown in the gallery include Queen Latifah, Cardi B, Missy Elliott, Lil’ Kim, Megan Thee Stallion, Erykah Badu and many more.

Talking about representing women in hip-hop in the gallery, Sally Berman, who other than being the exhibition’s co-curator alongside Jenkins has also helmed photo direction for Mass Appeal and XXL, says: “We made a thoughtful effort to have the presence of women accurately represented, not overtly singling them out in any way.” She then mentions: “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.”

Despite the fact that there are some elements of the hip-hop culture that has faded in the coming years, they are still immortalised through the images displayed in the gallery to make sure that the hip-hop genre is more than what we see it as today. Especially now some people from various countries are inhabiting and reintroducing the elements that defined hip-hop culture as a whole today. Jenkins even emphasises this well: “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 is now on view at Fotografiska, New York, 281 Park Avenue South until 21st May.
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