Hip-hop, rap, cartoons combine for unique pair of exhibits at the August Wilson Center
Two exhibits currently on display at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Downtown Pittsburgh focus on pop culture: "Robert Hodge: For The Culture" is a hip-hop and rap-inspired contemporary art exhibit; and "Funky Turns 40: Black Character Revolution" celebrates 40 years since the first appearance of positive black characters in Saturday morning cartoons.
The former focuses on the work of Robert Hodge, an artist from Houston, Texas, who collects posters that he finds on the streets of his neighborhood in Houston's historic 3rd Ward and converts them into layered artworks with socio-political messages, which he literally carves or has laser cut into the layers.
Here, pieces like "Dem No Know" and "What Rhymes With Gentrification," the titles of which are as much the message, become metaphors for racial bias, as well as history in general.
"Using glue, I layer and layer the posters, which I've ripped into pieces," Hodge explains.
In this way, Hodge says, "It's just like history. It's there, but you can only see the surface. You only get what you are going to get. You never get the full view of what you are trying to understand. You just get pieces of it."
In similar fashion, Hodge has done this with music too, by producing his own album, "Between the Devil & the Deep," which is a musical collage of sorts based on history. More specifically, the Robert Johnson (1911-38) song "Cross Road Blues," more commonly known as "Crossroads."
The song has become part of the legendary blues musician's mythology as referring to the place where he supposedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his musical talents, although the lyrics do not contain any specific references.
The record, which includes covers of blues songs by various contemporary musicians, was recorded over Thanksgiving weekend in San Antonio's Sheraton Gunter Hotel 80 years to-the-day in the same room where Johnson recorded "Cross Road Blues" and "Ramblin' on My Mind" in 1936.
An artwork of the same title is in this exhibit, and it is the same artwork that graces the cover of the album. A collage, it includes images of a variety of iconic figures relative to San Antonio, such as musician Neil Diamond, actor Robert Roundtree (a.k.a. Shaft), comedian Flip Wilson and Pope John Paul II.
As for the addition of the pope, Hodge says, "San Antonio is a very religious city."
The show culminates with the mural "Jesus Piece," which Hodge, along with a team of local artists, completed over the first two weeks of the exhibit.
A colorful rendition of a COOGI sweater popularized by Christopher George Latore Wallace (1972-97), better known by his stage names The Notorious B.I.G., Biggie, or Biggie Smalls, an American rapper who is consistently ranked as one of the greatest and most influential rappers of all time, the focal point of the piece is a black Jesus medallion.
"It pays homage to the hip-hop music of the 1990s," Hodge explains. "I use the COOGI sweater not only because it's colorful, but it puts you in the zone of the time period. It's iconic hip-hop imagery. But I also wanted something that was about colors and pattern, and was bright and energetic."
As for the Jesus medallion, Hodge says, "It's a status symbol that strayed away from religion. It became an iconic hip-hop symbol, which is weird, because it's not really (seen as) a religious thing."
Hodge likens the mural to the kind "old school hip-hop airbrushed murals" that rappers once posed in front of for album covers. In that regard he says, "I'm thinking this is a wall where people can take photos and interact with my work in a different way."
The latter exhibit, "Funky Turns 40," is a retrospective of the first positive black animation characters in television history and highlights the historic significance of the appearances of these characters in Saturday morning cartoons and specials during the late 1960s through the 1970s.
This traveling exhibit is presented by the Museum of Uncut Funk, a virtual museum found at museumofuncutfunk.com . It first appeared at the Toonseum in 2012, but has since traveled to numerous institutions around the country.
Like in it's original iteration, not only does the show contain original production cels from such classic cartoons as Fat Albert and Josie And The Pussy Cats, here visitors can follow a timeline of the first appearances of positive black animation characters in television history and the historic significance of these appearances, beginning in the late 1969 with Peter Jones, who was a main character in the Hardy Boys.
A year later, Valerie Brown, of 'Josie and the Pussycats was introduced. She was the first positive black female character in a Saturday-morning cartoon series.
The exhibit features a variety of other Saturday morning cartoon "firsts," such as cels from:
"The Jackson 5ive"
• "The Jackson 5ive" (1971), which was the first positive black cast featuring musicians.
Schoolhouse Rock "Verb"
• "Verb" (1974), which featured the first black male superhero. It was the second "Schoolhouse Rock!" episode to feature black characters.
• "Space Sentinels" (1977), which featured Astrea, the first black female superhero.
• And of course, "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids," which first appeared in 1972 and became the longest-running Saturday-morning cartoon series featuring a positive black cast.
Its worth noting that "Fat Albert," which was animated by Filmation from 1972 to 1985, was produced by Pittsburgh native Lou Scheimer (1928-2013), a Carnegie Tech grad (1952) and co-founder of Filmation.
Fat Albert was unique in that he imparted a life lesson to impressionable viewers in each episode. It was based on a character created by comedian Bill Cosby.
Kurt Shaw is the Tribune-Review art critic.