By Doug MacCash
Artist Rashaad Newsome's exhibit "King of Arms" brings bling to the New Orleans Museum of Arts' Great Hall this Friday (June 24). It's a colorful, upbeat, endlessly bejeweled interpretation of 21st century pop culture, but it has its roots way back in the Middle Ages.
In the days of Robin Hood, members of the ruling class symbolized their wealth, family ties and battlefield prowess with sometimes-complicated coats of arms that they used to decorate flags, shields and the architecture of their castles. The process of producing such symbols is called heraldry and 33-year-old Newsome is fascinated by it. So fascinated that he paid a visit to the College of Arms in London, where the study and creation of heraldry is still taken seriously. There, he poured over scads of official family crests, seals and such.
Rashaad Newsome: King of Arms
Heraldry is now at the center of his art. But Newsome doesn't stick to the daggers, crowns and griffins that comprise classic medieval coats of arms. Instead he's adopted the symbols of the pop urban aesthetic: cash, gold, gems, hip hop music and beautiful people.
"There are all these different mythical creatures and characters that represent different things," he said of traditional heraldry. "So, I would replace, like, … two unicorns with two Rolex watches, because in American culture, when someone makes their first million, they get a Rolex."
Newsome composes his big city coats of arms from snippets of photographs that he overlaps into dizzyingly complex collages – imagine looking into a kaleidoscope loaded with gold chains, tattooed flesh, rolls of money, custom hubcaps, wigs and diamonds, diamonds, diamonds.
If there wasn't enough ostentatiousness in the collages themselves, Newsome extends the excess to the abundantly ornamental frames, spray-painted with glittering hot rod paint.
"I started out gilding them, but I wanted to go beyond gild and basically create my own gild. So, being from the south, the home of candy paint, I thought that was the appropriate material."
Despite the fact that traditional heraldry often includes weapons, it's interesting to note that Newsome's take on contemporary urban symbolism does not include any evidence of violence – none that I noticed anyway.
Newsome said that he could have easily replaced the swords in old coats of arms with modern weapons, but he chose not to. First, he explained, guns are such simple symbols they don't really bring much depth to the meaning of the art. Secondly, who needs to be reminded?
"I mean, there's enough violence in the world," he said.
Newsome said that the intricate graphic style of heraldry popped up in the design and decoration of Renaissance architecture. That's why you find cathedral domes here and there in his collages. He pointed out that there's a decorative coat of arms at the top of the frame of NOMA's huge 18th-century portrait on Marie Antoinette (talk about ostentation). Marie will be listening to a blend of Baroque choral music and rap for the next few weeks from Newsome's soundtrack installed with his artwork in the same gallery.
Newsome said he was born in Boutte Louisiana and lived in several neighborhoods in New Orleans, before heading off to New York 14 years ago. He's achieved considerable success there. His electrifying vogue dancing videos were included in the 2010 Whitney Museum of American Art Biennial exhibition – a coup for any American artist.
Speaking of video, Newsome will be shooting one at NOMA on Sunday (June 23) at 5:30. He said that his interest in heraldry and medieval custom dovetails nicely with New Orleans’ penchant for crowning Carnival royalty. He plans to stage a small Mardi Gras-style parade down Lelong Drive (the road leading to the museum entrance). The parade will feature the McMain high school marching band, Mardi Gras Indians of various groups and Newsome’s custom-wrapped car – reminiscent of the New Orleans’ post-Katrina sticker car craze.
Inside the museum’s Great Hall, Newsome will be crowned “King of Arms” in a mock ceremony. He showed me a cellphone photo of himself in the strange but stylish, symbol-laden costume he plans to wear. The parade is open to the public; the ceremony inside is by invitation, because of space. In case you miss it, I’ll be there shooting video.
“King of Arms” is the third in a series of summertime Great Hall exhibits meant to harmonize with the New Orleans landscape. It follows Swoon’s swoon-worthy graffiti/sculpture installation in 2011 and Katie Holten’s ambitious art-as-science installation in 2012. Newsome’s multi-faceted collages achieve a perfect poetic match with the Crescent Cityscape, if you consider that the term “bling” came into popular use – in part anyway — via New Orleans.
I hadn’t heard that choice piece of trivia until NOMA contemporary art curator Miranda Lash mentioned it during the installation of Newsome’s show. She said I could look up the details on Wikipedia; which I did. According to the online encyclopedia entry, the term “bling” existed earlier, but it first went viral 14 years ago because of the song “Bling Bling” by Crescent City rapper B.G. and the Cash Money Millionaires (including Lil’ Wayne), which made Billboard’s Top 40.