Iona Rozeal Brown

a3 blackface #50

Nikki S. Lee

Hip Hop Project #1


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 them.

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.

  Nikki S. Lee