From Salt-N-Pepa to Lauryn Hill, from Missy Elliott to Megan Thee Stallion, women artists have for decades proven a formidable creative force in hip-hop music — and for just as long, they have been overlooked or misrepresented. An exhibition co-organized by the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Saint Louis Art Museum consciously addresses how women have served to shape, shake up, and reinvigorate the hip-hop realm at large.

On view in St. Louis through January 1, The Culture: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century explores hip hop’s influence beyond music, from contemporary art and fashion to technology and social justice movements, and challenges both US-centric and masculinized conceptions of the genre. While also featuring work by men and recognizing the genre’s many diverse contributors, however, the show shines a special light on women, revealing the layered ways in which they have played active roles as both creative players and subjects.

A display of wigs worn by Lil’ Kim along with her covers in a May 2000 issue of XXL Magazine and a November 1999 issue of Interview Magazine (photo Eileen G’Sell/Hyperallergic)
Installation view of The Culture: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century at the Saint Louis Art Museum (photo courtesy SLAM)

The work of nationally renowned visual artists, like Carrie Mae Weems and Lauren Halsey, is on view alongside that of local talent such as Yvonne Osei and Jen Everett. Beyond visual art, the exhibition also includes Lil’ Kim’s logo and zipper wigs hand-crafted by Dionne Alexander and a velour tracksuit designed by Kimora Lee Simmons of Baby Phat. The Culture also highlights the global nature of hip hop as a diasporic system of signs and references. In Ghanaian artist Yvonne Osei’s video EXTENSIONS (2018), for instance, a striking village woman glances down at a smartphone as two stylists braid her hair into yards of magnificent cobalt blue. 

“Hip-hop isn’t limited to the United States,” Osei emphasized in an interview with Hyperallergic. “Ghanaian musicians, fashion designers, and hairstylists have been influenced by hip-hop artists and culture, and this influence is reciprocated as well in direct collaborations between Ghanaian and international artists, like Shatta Wale and Beyonce, and fashion designers like Christie Brown creating looks for music tours.”

Yvonne Osei, “EXTENSIONS” (2018), single-channel video, 6 minutes 4 seconds (© Yvonne Osei; image courtesy the artist and Bruno David Gallery)
Installation view of The Culture: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century at the Saint Louis Art Museum (photo courtesy SLAM)

Other works on display more abstractly evoke hip hop’s connection to Black female identity. “Unheard Sounds, Come Through: Extended Mix” (2022), Jen Everett’s sculptural installation of wooden speakers, cassettes, and transistor radios, is part of a larger series that, in her words, “is concerned with the conceptual and formal notion of a Black Interior … exceeding the boundaries of flattened representations.”

Stacked to eye level, the piece includes tapes of MC Lyte and Queen Latifah. “I wanted to acknowledge and celebrate the Black women who have been architects of Hip Hop and its culture,” Everett said.

Before exiting the final gallery, Baltimore painter Monica Ikegwu’s bold diptych, titled “Open and Closed” (2021), depicts a young woman in a red puffer jacket posing before an electric crimson background. Meeting our gaze with narrowed eyes, her blood-orange acrylic thumbnail gleaming on her left hand, the woman shrugs off the puffer in “Open” to reveal her tank-topped torso on her own terms.

“Even if you don’t actively participate in the culture of hip hop, you can’t deny its strong influence,” Ikegwu told Hyperallergic. “It is ingrained into our lives, down to the clothing we wear today.” The Culture reminds us that women have made their mark on hip hop from its inception — and are unapologetically here to stay.

Eileen G’Sell is a poet and critic with recent contributions to Jacobin, Poetry, The Baffler, and The Hopkins Review. Her second volume of poetry, Francofilaments, is forthcoming from Broken Sleep Books....

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