Left: Rashaad Newsome, Baaaaaaam!, unframed, collage on paper.
Five years ago, multidisciplinary artist Rashaad Newsome marked his presence silently yet expressively at the 2010 Whitney Biennial. Back then, Newsome presented two silent videos ‘Untitled’ and ‘Untitled (New Way)’ to draw light to the ambiguity of past and contemporary voguing gestures. The video work was later accompanied by an evidently audible performance named ‘five’ – set within the parameters of a voguing contest. Both the video work and performance seemed to clarify that voguing is not just a dance that has its origins in Latin- and Afro-American gay-culture, but is also a cultural tribe with its own history and language.
A focused interest in dance might have been one of Newsome’s earliest artistic orientations, taking into consideration that his New Orleanian father Blanch Newsome was a dancer in a travelling circus from the age of 17. He competently enhanced this early interest during his first years in New York, gaining practical work experience in hip-hop video productions and assisting on several fashion design jobs.
Newsome’s current practice still focuses on moving gestures – addressing dance in video works to a large extent. However, in the last few years, the artist has been focusing on collages, which incorporate elements of his earlier work. In the collages on display, the artist uses corporal features alongside elements of bling. Evidently, they result in a figurative composition with a dynamic set of gestures that seem to spread into various dimensions, drugged perhaps by the purity of their expressive strength.
The source of these characteristics can be found in Newsome’s all-encompassing dedication to heraldry, which is probably most known in respect to historical Anglo-Norman ruling methods. Newsome does however also include contemporary variations of heraldry by using symbols that are common in hip-hop culture and are best known under the term ‘bling’. This so-called bling includes symbols such as fur coats, rings, gold chains, high-end fashion brands like Louis Vuitton and fast cars, such as Ferraris.
The bling phenomena is widely considered as a status demonstration in Afro-American hip-hop culture and can be compared to heraldic hierarchies and rituals. A well-known example is ‘Chaining Day’, a term used by hip-hop producer Jay-Z when an official celebration announcing an artist’s new signing with his record label ‘Roc A Fela’ takes place. In the celebration, the artist receives a diamond-encrusted platinum chain with the ‘Roc a Fela’ emblem, chaining him as an official member to the label in question.
In much the same way as ‘bling’ justifies a status validation in hip-hop culture, the voguing field acclaims its own set of beliefs and celebratory rituals. Whilst it developed a diverse variety of dance gestures, it also created its own syntax, its own slang. Relevant here is the fact that the conventions and fashions of voguing – be it physical gestures or verbal articulations – are constantly reinventing and re-establishing themselves. Although there has been a moment of public recognition through the film “Paris is Burning”– the rules and habits of the then-voguing scene are considered out-dated and in need of alteration (1). The film should indeed be understood as an illustrative overview of the history of voguing; however, amongst today’s protagonists in the New York scene, the insights and exemplifications in the film require a revision to render it more appropriate to its time.
One subject that has definitely transformed today’s voguing culture regards the subject ‘hyper-femininity’ – an attitude that dedicates its attention to essentially female gesticulation. Newsome recognises this type of femininity in the recent transformation of some hip-hop vixens, noticing that their roles may have changed significantly. Nowadays there are examples of vixens who demonstrate their sexual power consciously and are seemingly in control of their own affections. This powerful demonstration of sexual control has the potential to play a valid role in shaping a new kind of feminism that fully respects femininity without objectifying its sexual features or qualities.
Newsome skilfully combines these parallels in his collages, playfully accumulating the contrasting elements of heraldry, hyper-femininity and bling. His attentiveness towards diversity and historical significance of ritualistic gestures in Afro-American popular culture allow enough space for contextualisation. There is something very musical about the figurative elements in his collages, entailing an expression of female confidence that is unique, thought-provoking and intense.
(The Article above is a contribution for the exhibition catalogue of Performance & Remnant, Group Show with Rashaad Newsome, other artists include Andy Goldsworthy, John Giorno, Ori Gersht, Michael Petry, Justin Davis Anderson, Jo Broughton, Geraldine Swayne, and Shen Wei .Fine Art Society, Oct 2015, London UK.)