Interview: Rashaad Newsome
Harmoniously blending the dichotomy of Urban Baroque and Propaganda, artist Rashaad Newsome takes the grandiose aesthetics of urban African American culture and renders it into Pop Royalty.
Utilizing the devices of Art History, technology and music, Newsome secretly weaves an enigmatic tale of “How to Go Rogue on Aesthetic Elitism,” then, valiantly shows up in museums to exhibit/perform it. Commenting on the cultural appropriation of Vogueing, the artist reclaimed the marginalized history of the underground, competitive, gay ballroom dance scene from its mainstream counterpart, Madonna’s 1990 “Vogue” music video, and rendered it into art history at the 2010 Whitney Biennial.
Championing the outsider aesthetic, Newsome assumes the roles of a DJ, futurist, and engineer by re-mixing, re-imagining, and re-coding aesthetics. Boundless in his approach of deconstructing art and culture, Rashaad Newsome chatted with Saint Heron on limitations, outlets, Ray Charles and more
ON OUTLETS + LIMITATIONS
In the past 5 years, what has creating art via multiple outlets afforded you the opportunity to do—that you may have never imagined?
In preparation for my solo booth during Armory this year, I was researching ways to chrome elements of my frames in order to further reference the automobile. I was met with lots of obstacles, as the elements were too large for the usual chroming process, [so] I opted for spray chroming.
After chroming the elements, I discovered that because the elements were made of so many different materials they were too contaminated to appropriately take on the chrome patina I was hoping for. However, that failure yielded a fantastic reward.
The patina that did take was a sort of a pewter color. I added several gold and candy pearls to the surface, which turned it into a sort of gold chrome-pewter hybrid that I could never have imagined. At the moment, I’m further developing this finish and I’m quite happy about the direction it’s going in.
You have dedicated years to mastering the arts: what limitations in the art world, have you faced in your pursuit to becoming a professional multidisciplinary artist?
Well, trying to juggle daily life expenses and having a studio practice was quite hard.
“Shade Compositions SFMOMA” , embodies the call and response narrative of African American culture, while traversing through African American urban gender coding–via Black female body language: smacking of lips, head rolls, finger snapping and eyes bucked. These body language dialects have also been re-mixed into a sort of queer subcultural language too.
The outsider aesthetic is then paralleled with chamber music, and performed by multicultural, gender bending, male and female performers. What statement are you making with “Shades Compositions” as a performance piece in an art museum?
“Shade Compositions” is a minimalist piece of music, a performance, an anthropological study, as well as a celebration and critique of Black vernacular. For me, what’s most interesting about the piece is how this particular vernacular has become an open source for people to present themselves from a position of power.
Jewelry has a reoccurring cameo in your collages. What conversation is being had between jewelry and urban culture?
My work plays a lot with the language of the Baroque, as well as the design formulas of heraldry, which is essentially a collection of images that represent social power and rank.
In my collages, I use images from popular culture that communicate that today. Through image repetition and manipulation I try to achieve color, form, depth and abstraction.
How has being a native New Orleanian and being immersed in its rich and eclectic culture affected your work as an artist?
In so many ways! I’m sure the local traditions of pageantry and street theater have informed the importance of sound and performance in my practice.
Also, the New Orleans style brass bands, which has played a significant role in the development of traditional jazz, has informed my work. Improvisation is consistently regarded as being one of the key elements of the language of jazz and in a lot of ways this lingua franca is the underpinning of a lot of the notions explored in my performances, “FIVE”, as well as, “Shade Composition.”
You have re-coded the historical European 16th-18th century coats of arms by placing a re-mixed homage to it at the center of your collages and rendering 21st century American/pop culture propaganda in the background. If you were to decode the “Herald”  series concept for us, what would be the achievements depicted and status or position in society being deconstructed?
RN: My interest in heraldry is not a literal one. I use the language of heraldry as a design formula and its language of power as material. For me, the pieces have roots in heraldry, but as well play with the design formulas inherent to Baroque architecture. Using contemporary status symbols of wealth and power, I try to create works of abstraction that speak to fantasy, human impulse, and America’s capitalistic sensibility. My hopes are that the works will encourage a conversation about the complexities of popular culture and the emerging global mainstream. As well as, how its language of power is an institution that continues to dominate.
If you could take a blast from the past, what artist, and what song would you most like to create a music video for? Why?
RN: That is a hard question because there are so many, but at this moment I will say “Sunset” by Ray Charles. I just really like the song and it leaves so much room for abstraction so I think it would be fun to bring it to life visually.//
A Social Commentary: Juvenile, “Ha”
Cash Money Records taking over for the 99 and the 2000. Indeed, they did. However, it was in 1998 that something special happened. In a reactionary response to the East Coast vs. West Coast pandemonium, the south planted legs firmly rooted in success. Cash Money Records’ own, Juvenile, solidified New Orleans as an integral part of southern rap landscape. Prior to, a little known treasure trove for absurdly talented rappers equipped with unique rhyme schemes and regional flair, New Orleans birthed unparalleled beats and bars that revealed, unabashedly, the intricacies of Nawlin’s living.
A style that was in stark contrast to that of their Atlanta counterparts, Outkast and Goodie Mob who, at that juncture, accounted for much of the southern rap acclaim. Juvenile’s socially illuminative track, “Ha” is enveloped in uncut truth. The Mannie Fresh produced track, unveiled the good, bad, and the ugly of what it meant to be poor in the N.O. Touching on social nuances from style of dress to drug choice, normalization of statutory rape to lack of proper familial structure. This is not just another hood anthem.
No, I have never been to New Orleans. I’ve yet to taste of proper king cake, muffulettas, or jambalaya, and I’m not sure if a triple beam is as hard as it seems. Never had existential moment of mediation on the bayou, or been to Magnolia projects when it was dark, but Juvenile sonically brought me there. The track, seasoned with cajun colloquialisms, has transportive qualities.
Visually, director, Marc Klasfield presented us with a documentary more than a music video. Taking you through a time stamped series of events in a seemingly typical day in the N.O. Typical during a period where New Orleans averaged annual per-capita homicide rate (59 per 100,000) ranked highest of large cities in the country from 1990–2010 based on Bureau Of Justice Statistics. Tactfully avoiding the glamorization of the hood, Klasfield just keeps it real. This mature approach punctuated the magnitude of the content Juve delivers.
Cue, “Ha”. The mini doc opens with scenes of Juve shirtless and oiled against the destitute of the notorious Magnolia Projects. Row after row of boarded up apartments planted in dusty lots are contrasted with the opening line, “That’s you with that big ass benz ha“. Hood rich exemplified. Not to be confused with coincidence, the contrast was done purposefully. Yes, we, we being Magnolia residents are impoverished, however still glorifying monetary success exonerated by white mainstream media and perpetuated by the poor. Juvenile continues with, “You spent 70 on your benz ha, That ain’t yours that’s for your friends ha”. This is stunting broken down. We’re not just talking big body benzes, but the relatable urge to acquire the freshest gear (Girbaud being uniform of choice) all for the sake of saying you have it. Spending money to say you can. Again, the curse of hood rich.
A montage of neighborhood folks, fighting, congregating, and making seedy drug deals in alley ways are sonically illustrated with talks of finding “fire green”, using triple beam scales that are typically used to weigh out dope, and having partners that are actual dope fiends. This is a long departure from the now commercialized bars rappers today spit glorifying drug abuse. There’s no catch or gimmick here. In comes the hypnotic chorus,
“You a paper chaser, You got your block on fire, Remaining a G until the moment you expire, You know what it is you make nothing out of something, You handle your biz and don’t be cryin and suffering”
Continuing with themes of self-preservation, Juvenile poetically emphasizes the importance of survival by any means necessary. Survival that is haunted by an inevitable untimely demise. In the interim? Lyrics allude to the common act of young girl being preyed upon by older men and domestic abuse. A tongue and cheek approach to portraying the power struggle between men, women, and poverty,
“That dick got hard ha, When you were looking at them little broads ha…That hoe don’t know when to shut up her mouth ha, You gonna knock that hoe teeth out ha”
This is reality. The video casually presses on despite it’s heavy content, again showing the unfortunate commonality of these not so subtle subtleties of poverty are. The montage of neighborhood fixtures: cops, crackheads, toothless children, make-shift basketball courts, and abandon cars. Shots of the Cash Money team garnishing their chains mimics the duality in theme of the impoverished seeking societies ideals of wealth. This ongoing social issue, the have-nots (the 99% being such) constant turmoil of survival whilst still seeking validation in materialism is eerily relevant today. In turn, Klasfield and Juvenile legitimize the marriage of aesthetics and lyrical content. Therefore, making “Ha” so much more than just another hood anthem.
Rick Owens’s SS14 Stepping Out of Line?
Yves Saint Laurent once said that the use of Black models on his Parisian runways some forty years ago–when such an anomalous practice flummoxed the stoic and pallid couturier audiences–was a thing of “modernity.”
That word makes my eyebrow furrow a bit, seeing as Blackness is hardly a novel invention but an unyielding constant…but I’ll simply reason that it’s perhaps a fuzzy French translation for what Saint Laurent saw as progression within a racially homogeneous and hostile industry.
It was 1971, after all; just years shy of the Civil Rights legislation of 1968 and the advent of the Black Power Movement, and the designer had cast Detroit’s Pat Cleveland and Martinique’s Mounia as muses to an European luxury design house. Racial inclusion within society was only eking its way to fruition. Saint Laurent’s casting most certainly signaled the times.
Perhaps it is why then not a month ago, with snarls, “mean mugs”, and laser-tailored leather, Rick Owens made a similar proclamation of the times with his Spring Summer 2014 collection. Set upon a similar Parisian backdrop as Laurent’s, Owens solely featured four groups of competitive step teams as his models: they almost entirely made up of women of color; they almost entirely made up of women of ample bodies and might. This, on the tails of fashion vet, Bethann Hardison’s, fight for more diversity inclusion in an industry swathed in sameness.
With the measured precision of battalions, these women treaded across an industrial-like set of iron steps and concrete floors to the tick and tock of a relentless beat. Gesticulating in unison while bedecked in Owens’s signature conceptual designs (think: directional glamour-meets-grunge) these talented performers brought to life a Black Greek tradition that is largely unknown outside the historically Black college fraternities and sororities that spawned the practice. It was an unlikely presence here in Paris, as just a handful of people of color could be counted in the show’s attendance (although growing in number, Black editors and fashion executives are few and far between), let alone storming the catwalk.
After viewing the footage of the fashion show, I was overwhelmed by not only the inclusion of Black participants in this largely exclusionary industry, but at the recognition that these women were not only commercially viable brand ambassadors but plausible luxury consumers. The social capital of these young women, which often eludes people (and especially women) of color, was underscored in an entirely enlightening way. I hate to suggest that social power derives from market value solely, but it is rather powerful to gauge the implications of the commingling of a Black performance tradition and the luxury fashion market (a $226.6 billion dollar enterprise); how such a show could potentially alter both body and financial economies for the better.
In that same breath, of course, I would be remiss not to consider the faddish nature of such a show. While revolutionary a stance on Owens’s part, it begs the question of whether this was a one-off display for the designer? A display devised to shock, rather than problematize the fashion industry’s myopic standards of beauty.
To be sure, the use of the Black female body to titillate and shock White audiences has a long-twisted history within Western culture. From the exhibition of Saartije Bartman’s (a.k.a. “The Hottentot Venus”) curvaceous form in early 1800 European circles, to Josephine Baker’s celebrated but arguably controversial “La Danse Sauvage” of the 1920’s, the Black female has continuously been positioned as a source of spectacle and pleasure, primarily existing outside the canonized idea of femininity. Owens’s use of these steppers as models tows this precarious line, with the designer certainly underscoring these young women’s strength, skill, and passion, but equally using their unexpected presence (racially, physically, spatially) to stir. As Owens was quoted of saying after the show, “I was attracted to how gritty [stepping] was, it was such a ‘fuck-you’ to conventional beauty. [The steppers] were saying, ‘We’re beautiful in our own way.'”
Just as he used the hardcore Estonian metal band, Winny Puhh, at his Spring Summer 2014 menswear presentation to blow little more but dissonance at the unsuspecting fashion crowd, Owens’s love for the provocative often confronts the status quo, but yields little active conversation on how fashion can definitively challenge norms. In this instance, one can only hope that Owens will continue to nourish the careers of Black talent within the fashion industry, just as Yves Saint Laurent did most famously for Naomi Campbell in 1988 when he championed her trailblazing French Vogue cover.
Of course, the Black hipster in me believes Rick Owens’s relationship with Harlem rapper, A$AP Rocky, could prove influential to this suggestion. After all, the mutual affinity that the stylish hip-hop artist and designer maintain for one another is well-known, with Rocky constantly modeling Owens’s designs in fashion spreads, and rapping long of his love for the brand (“I get the freshest/Raf Simons and Rick Owens, usually…”). But even more, Rocky spares no opportunity to speak on the dichotomy to which his personal style works under: the street stylings of his native Uptown versus his penchant for downtown high fashions. With aspirations of fashion icon status, Rocky and Owens could easily work together to manifest a collaborative relationship with advertisements, ambassador roles, and capsule collections: all of which could directly tap a ripe but largely ignored Black luxury shopper.
For diversity within fashion is much more than mining subcultures for inspiration or making shocking casting decisions, but instead, it is a concerted effort to speak to a new consumer and privilege their business. But even more importantly, it is a substantiation of otherwise cursory statements of defiance towards fashion’s racial status quo.
That, for me at least, would be the most shocking thing out of luxury fashion in the last forty years.