Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the birth of hip hop, the SCHIRN dedicates a major interdisciplinary exhibition to hip hop’s profound influence on our current artistic and cultural landscape, from February 29 until May 26, 2024.

Hip hop first emerged in the Bronx, New York, in the 1970s as a cultural movement among Black and Latinx youth. It quickly proliferated through large-scale block parties to encompass an entire culture that focuses around four pillars: MCing (or rapping); DJing; breaking (or breakdancing); and graffiti writing and visual art. From its inception, hip hop critiqued dominant structures and cultural narratives and offered new avenues for expressing diasporic experiences and creating alternative systems of power—which lead to a fifth pillar of social and political consciousness and knowledge-building. Hip hop has now evolved into a global phenomenon that has driven numerous innovations in music, fashion, and technology, as well as the visual and performing arts.

Grounded in the origins of hip hop in the US yet with a focus on art and music, the exhibition “THE CULTURE” features over 100 artworks mainly from the last twenty years, including paintings, photographs, sculptures, videos, and fashion, by internationally renowned contemporary artists such as Lauren Halsey, Julie Mehretu, Tschabalala Self, Arthur Jafa, Khalil Joseph, Virgil Abloh, and Gordon Parks. “THE CULTURE” illuminates hip hop’s unprecedented economic, social, and cultural resources that have made hip hop a global phenomenon and established it as the artistic canon of our time. 

El Franco Lee II, DJ Screw in Heaven, 2008, Private Collection, Houston, © El Franco Lee II

The exhibition is structured around six themes: Pose, Brand, Adornment, Tribute, Ascension, and Language.


The works in this section explore what one’s gestures, stance, and mode of presentation can communicate to others. Artists like Michael Vasquez, Nina Chanel Abney, and Tschabalala Self explore and explode stereotypes of gender and race, examine the line between appreciation and appropriation, consider the relationship between audience and performer, and ask which bodies are considered dangerous or vulnerable—and who decides. For some, self presentation is a means of survival, for others a way to claim space in a hostile world, and for still others a tool for changing dominant narratives about what can be communicated through the body.

Monica Ikegwu, Open/Closed, 2021, Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Myrtis, © Monica Ikegwu

The concept of a brand is not limited to differentiating and marketing commercial goods but extends to how an individual uses available communication technologies—including social media—to position oneself in the public sphere. In previous decades, hip-hop artists have functioned as unofficial promoters of major brands that aligned with their style and desired public persona. The borrowing of luxury brands to create something unique questions the notion of the “original,” as in the fashion by the legendary designer Daniel R. Day, better known as Dapper Dan—in turn underlining the uneasy relationship between symbols of luxury and those that brands deliberately exclude. Whether designing fashion, recording music, or making art, artists blur the boundaries between these art forms, between being in business and being the business. The exhibition presents works by Kudzanai Chiurai, Larry W. Cook, and a video produced in a collaboration between Arthur Jafa, Malik Sayeed, and Elissa Blount Moorhead, which address consumerism, the ostentatious flaunting of luxury goods, and the complex and entrenched notions of masculinity that are common among many hip-hop stars.

Zéh Palito, It was all a dream, 2022, Courtesy of the artist, Simões de Assis and Luce Gallery, © Zéh Palito

While style often signifies class and politics, almost no culture dresses as self referentially—or as influentially—as hip hop. From Lil’ Kim’s technicolor wigs to the exuberant, excessive layering of gold chains by Big Daddy Kane and Rakim, some of the most important and unique styles have originated in hip hop. Artists such as Miguel Luciano and Hank Willis Thomas use imagery of jewelry flashing, grills glinting in smiling mouths, and iconic Air Force One sneakers. Works by Murjoni Merriweather, Yvonne Osei, and Lauren Halsey celebrate synthetic hair as a confident means of adornment in Black communities, as well as hairstyling as an art form in its own right. Adornment in the culture of hip hop can resist Eurocentric ideals of beauty and challenge concepts of taste and decorum.

Hank Willis Thomas, Black Power, 2006, Barret Barrera Projects, © Hank Willis Thomas

From name-dropping in a song to wearing a portrait of a deceased rapper on T-shirts, tributes, respects, and shout-outs are fundamental to hip-hop culture. These references proclaim influence and who matters, honor legacies, and create networks of artistic associations. Elevating artists and styles contribute to hip hop’s canonization—as certain artworks, songs, and rappers are collectively recognized for their artistic excellence and historical impact. Carrie Mae Weems photographs the musician Mary J. Blige wearing a crown for W Magazine, the non-fungible token (NFT) "Heir to the Throne" (2021) by Derrick Adams is inspired by Jay-Z’s debut studio album, "Reasonable Doubt" (1996), and Roberto Lugo creates the ceramic work "Street Shrine 1: A Notorious Story (Biggie)" (2019). Hip hop as a global art form has become a touchstone for artists of the twenty-first century. As visual artists trace hip hop’s conceptual and social lineage through tribute, they engage with the idea that the art historical canon—previously homogenous, white, and stable—is fluid depending on your own background and preferences, questioning what is beautiful, who is iconic, and whose histories are valued.

Derrick Adams, Heir to the Throne, 2021, Non fungible token, Private Collection

Death—or the specter of it—along with notions of ascension and the afterlife frequently appear in hip-hop lyrics, from pouring one out for a friend who has passed, to the precarity of being Black in an urban environment, to meditations on the kind of immortality conferred by fame. The exhibition features works inspired by themes of ascent in the culture, such as "Ascent W(2018) from the "DuRags" series by John Edmonds. Kahlil Joseph’s video work "m.A.A.d." (2014) paints a lush, contemporary portrait of Compton, California, the hometown of Pulitzer Prize-winning hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar. A song title by Lamar also provides the title for the collage "Promise You Will Sing About Me" (2019) by Robert Hodge. Hip hop is a cultural form that artists use to process, grieve, and remember those lost.

Roberto Lugo, Street Shrine 1: A Notorious Story (Biggie), 2019, © Roberto Lugo. Photo: Neal Santos, courtesy Wexler Gallery

Hip hop is intrinsically an art form about language: the visual language of graffiti, a musical language that includes scratching and sampling, and, of course, the written and spoken word. Call-and-response chants, followed by rap rhymes and lyrics overlaid on tracks, form the foundations of hip-hop music. In addition to the poetry of music, one of the most recognizable markers of hip hop is graffiti. Since the 1970s, graffiti writers have colored city trains, overpasses, and walls with vibrant hues of spray paint. Many writers sign their works with recognizable “tags.” Their explorations take the recognizable shapes of letters and numbers, pushing their forms to— and beyond—the limit of legibility. The SCHIRN is showing works by, among others, Jean-Michel Basquiat, RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ (Rammellzee), Adam Pendleton, and Gajin Fujita, who implement core elements of graffiti on paper, canvas, or large-format wooden panels. Some messages are meant for anyone to understand, while others are coded in references, technologies, or forms that require insider knowledge—asserting the right to not be universally understood.

Rammellzee and K-Rob, with Jean-Michel Basquiat, Beat Bop / Test Pressing, 1983, reprinted 2001 © Rammellzee Estate. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY


FEBRUARY 29 – MAY 26, 2024

More Information on the Exhibition