If there is one thing that defines the contemporary condition it is
an individual’s ability to define one’s self. The historically
located idea of permanence, relating to place and culture, have shifted
to a fluidity previously impossible. Whereas one was previously defined
by their national or regional origin, social class, race, etc. even
these impermeable ideas are malleable. In the work of Iona Rozeal
Brown and Nikki S. Lee, this openness is utilized to blur the lines
between the individual and her culture; in their work the notion of
cultural authenticity is toyed with and challenged.
Hip hop music found in Moscow, Paris, Buenos Aires and Tokyo, as well
as graffiti fashion trends make it clear that contemporary black culture
is one of America’s great cultural exports. Yet in each place
it is transformed and made somehow authentic, while never retaining
one of its truly identifying features: its blackness.
For Iona Rozeal Brown black culture without the blackness represents
a strange new breed. She addresses specifically the Japanese version
of Hip Hop, called anything from Nip-Hop to J-Hop. Through the traditional
style of the Japanese woodblock print, Ukiyo-E, Brown’s work
plays with the ideas of blackface and the the idea of transformative
cultural gestures. In either case the result is hybrid of culture
made up of equal parts Japanese and Hip Hop Black Culture.
In the Nikki S. Lee’s ongoing project the artist plays the cultural
and social Zelig, transforming herself to blend in with the broad
spectrum of American cultures. In the Hip Hop Project she has not
merely aped the Hip Hop cultural norms but has ingested them and become
In the case of both artists the link between America’s Black
culture and Asian culture links to a long cultural fascination. Ever
since the 1960’s, at least, Asian Culture has been a source
of fascination for African American cultural endeavors, most in groups
like the Wu Tang Clan.
The point of central interest in both Artists work is the ambiguous
relationship to the original. In the case of Brown it is clear that
she is not mocking Japanese style; nor is Lee comic. Instead, both
immerse themselves in the vestments of the other to explore more deeply
something truly felt and understood about the contemporary condition.
While they take on the trappings of another culture, and do so with
all sincerity, it is not in a false voice they speak. It is, more
so, that they articulate a looseness a distance from a fixed idea
of the self, the culture and the meanings of both.