Rashaad Newsome knows a thing or two about heraldry, the medieval system of devising coats of arms. “It’s essentially a collage of things that represent social status, economic status, status as a warrior,” he says at his eighth-floor studio in New York’s Chelsea gallery district. The Royal College of Arms in London has even dubbed him an honorary pursuivant, a junior officer in the heraldic hierarchy. But Newsome’s symbology strays far from the knight’s helmets, coronets, fleurs-de-lis, and battle-axes found in conventional emblems. Instead his collages teem with Rolex watches, gold-capped teeth, Cristal champagne, and Italian sports cars—the stuff of hip-hop music videos. And while the 31-year-old artist incorporates these icons of status and wealth into the symmetrical format of traditional heraldry, he says, “I’m also taking a piss on this history.”
The worktables in Newsome’s studio are strewn with cutouts of garish jewelry and gesturing hands plucked from catalogues and magazines to be pasted in his latest collages. There are also piles of imitation fur, a sheath of fake Louis Vuitton leather, and rhinestone medallions, all meant for his sculptural shields. On the floor and walls are ornate antique frames, to which Newsome seamlessly attaches little carvings of deep-dish wheel rims, gold chains, and other flashy accoutrements. He then takes the frames to a Long Island auto-body shop, where they are sprayed with colorful, sparkly “candy paint,” the kind used on tricked-out cars. “It’s luxury on top of luxury,” Newsome says, laughing. “I’m trying to pump as much excess into it as possible.” The framed collages and shields will go on display at the nearby Marlborough Gallery for his solo show “Herald,” starting October 20, the third installment in a trio of exhibitions devoted to his brand of hip-hop heraldry. (The first two were held at Galeria Ramis Barquet, also in New York.)
Newsome says he’s interested in combining “so-called high arts and low arts.” He considers all his pursuits—deejaying, frame-making, video, performance, sculpture—to be forms of collage, taking snippets of European tradition and 21st-century African American pop culture and putting them together in new configurations.
Music has been integral to Newsome’s life since his childhood in New Orleans. His father, Blanch Newsome, was a singer and dancer in a traveling circus from the age of 17 and later joined a bebop group called Jules Carlos and the Bop-A-Deers. When Newsome was young, he and his brother, Blanch Jr., sometimes sang with their father. His dad still plays piano and sings blues and funk numbers at clubs in New Orleans.
In junior high school, Newsome met his “first real artist,” a sculptor of large-scale works named Madeleine Faust, who taught him how to weld and make ceramics through a program called Talented Arts. As a high-school student, he continued to assist Faust in the afternoons and entered the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, where he could spend half the school day making art. By the time he went to Tulane University, however, Newsome had shifted his focus to art history. “The public-school system in Louisiana doesn’t give African American kids much history about themselves, so I became really obsessed with history,” he says. Two of his favorites subjects were African art and Baroque art.
Soon after graduating, in 2001, Newsome headed to New York “to be an artist,” he says. “I had no clear plan. I just felt like I needed to be here.” He deejayed at underground parties and began experimenting with sound and video. A roommate told him about the now defunct school Film/Video Arts, and he enrolled there in 2002 to “learn how to use the tools” of digital-video postproduction, laying the groundwork for what would become a large part of his practice.
One alcove of Newsome’s studio is dedicated to high-tech gadgetry, with two silver MacBooks connected to a big-screen television. Next to the computers is a customized Nintendo Wii controller that has been hacked to do the artist’s bidding. On a laptop, Newsome pulls up a screen showing a sassy woman with her head tilted to one side. He picks up the Wii controller, and with each flip of his wrist, the woman moves her head and says, “Baby. Baby.” He motions the apparatus in another direction and a high-hat cymbal emanates from the speakers.
The Wii controller serves as a conductor’s baton for Newsome’s performance piece Shade Compositions, in which he leads a choir of up to 25 women who purse their lips, roll their eyes, swivel their heads, put their hands on their hips, and say things like “uh-uh” and “tsk” and “pfff.” Newsome considers these nonverbal forms of communication to be “cultural signifiers of African American and Latina women,” and he arranges the motions and sounds into a live chorus, recording and playing back bits of audio in real time with his Wii baton. Since 2005, Shade Compositions has been performed in Paris, New York, and Moscow, and next spring it will travel to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to be enacted by local drag queens.
Similarly, his ongoing video series The Conductor mixes clips of gesticulating hands and beats from rap videos with the music of Carl Orff’s epic cantata Carmina Burana. To select the hip-hop videos, Newsome surveyed New York radio stations Hot 97 and 105.1 to find out which rappers the stations’ employees and listeners considered to be preeminent. “I feel like that piece is a collaboration between me and New York City,” he says, “or at least people who listen to hip-hop in New York City.”
The footage shows luminaries like Busta Rhymes, Rick Ross, Dr. Dre, and Notorious B.I.G. pouring champagne and waving their fingers—which appear, by virtue of Newsome’s editing, to be conducting Orff’s composition. Like Carmina Burana, the video will have six major segments. The first two parts played in MoMA PS1’s “Greater New York” exhibition in 2010 and in Newsome’s solo show at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, earlier this year. He has been commissioned to finish the remainder of the suite.
In collaboration with the performance-art biennial Performa, Newsome’s Marlborough Gallery show will include a live tournament that harks back to the original duties of medieval heralds as announcers and tally keepers of knightly competitions. But rather than have contenders joust on horseback, Newsome’s tournament will be a “rap battle,” a “verbal joust” with amateur rappers vying for a $1,000 prize and time in a recording studio. Newsome says he looks forward to his expanded role as herald: “I’ll be the master of ceremonies and keep the score.”
Trent Morse is associate editor of ARTnews.