Today marks the opening of “Yo Fight My Mans,” a multi-dimensional art and media event that for five weeks will take over the impossible-to-define Babycastles space near Manhattan’s Union Square. Ashok “Dapwell” Kondabolu, formerly of the rap group Das Racist, is curating for the project, which is presented in tandem with his collective-cum-radio show crew Chillin Island.
The exhibition features a lot of moving parts. Thematic art instillations sit next to murals and video, and throughout the run there will be a series of DJs and panel discussions featuring a laundry list of NYC pan-media heavy hitters. There’s even a New York–centric fighting videogame created for the event—think Street Fighter, Mortal Combat, or even Shaq-Fu—appropriate considering Babycastles reputation for being a hub in the New York indie gaming community.
Kondabolu is quick to clarify that he doesn’t identity as an artist. “I don’t even think about what I consider myself, I never call myself an artist if anybody asks me what I do because that word is so loaded,” he said in an interview. “People are so proud of the word, like it’s this incredible profession that they took on. Like they are fucking Doctors Without Borders or something like that. Like [affects voice], ‘I am an artist.’ It’s like, ‘Good for you man, who cares?’ “
With that said, Kondabolu told me that over the years he has accrued a bevy of ideas that would indeed make sense in the context of a gallery space. The Babycastles show is an attempt to “express a lot of the things that I’ve always wanted to express if I ever had an art show, but I never actively sought to have an art show,” he said. “Because I’m not a visual artist and no one’s ever presented me with the opportunity.”
The show’s many components were created with the help of Kondabolu’s friends, notably Jacob Reinstein, the brother of the rapper Despot, one of Kondabolu’s Chillin Island co-hosts. There are two fish tanks filled with ceramic cityscapes that attempt to convey the duel narrative of progressively gentrifying New York neighborhoods. There is a re-creation of Kondabolu’s childhood living room, complete with a television playing the 45 hour, 78-part 1986 Indian miniseries Ramayan, intercut with American advertisements from the early 1990s. There is a mural that Kondabolu is calling Dead Rappers, which doesn’t refer to the actual deceased, but rather MCs who tried to go full-on mainstream and flopped (Kondabolu offered up Mims, of “This Is Why I’m Hot” fame, as an example). There are mannequins adorned with Kondabolu’s actual parents’ clothing, alongside audio of his folks describing the first time they saw snow. There is the aforementioned fighting game and a lofted re-creation of a depressed teenager’s bedroom. There is even more!
The content in “Yo Fight My Mans”—a melding of New York native nostalgia, immigrant experience, and American pop and rap culture—feels intuitive to Kondabolu’s own story. “Something that unites the show is trying to re-create the experience of being an Indian-American child of immigrants in New York City, but that necessarily wouldn’t define my interactions with the city,” Kondabolu said. “I was just as much at ease being that Indian kid at home being an Indian-ass kid then I was being an Indian kid on the street doing stupid-ass shit.”
To go along with the exhibition will be a six-part series of panel discussions inside of the space, each tethered to a broad topic. The first one tackles art (title: “Art: What It Is?”) and features Aaron Bondaroff, Andrew Kuo, Z Behl, Zahira Kelly, Sam McKinniss and Venus X. The upcoming weeks will see the panels tackle music (Matt Sweeney, Malcua), journalism (Jon Caramancia, Rembert Browne), nightlife (Max Fish, Trans-Pecos), Film (Alia Shawkat, Carlen Altman), and even Chillin Island’s own parents. “I didn’t want it to devolve into shop talk,” Kondabolu explained, hoping to keep things more tongue-in-cheek and less insider. “I think it will be entertaining and mildly informational,” he joked.
Taken along with the panels, the show offers a view of contemporary New York that is at once positive and critical. “Everybody knows that shit sucks and is getting worse,” Kondabolu said. “I don’t need to have you come to the second floor of a gallery on 14th Street to be like, ‘Yeah the city that this gallery is in does suck and is full of assholes,’ that’s not a vibe that I want people to leave with, and I don’t think that kind of energy is the type of energy I’m trying to instill in people. The whole point of the panel is the instill a bit of community and purpose around these issues that I can hopefully raise with people if the art is good enough, which I think it is.”