Correction to This Article
The article incorrectly said that artist Shinique Smith was raised by her grandmother. She was raised by her mother.

Shinique Smith's Street Art, Taking the High Road

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 16, 2008

Shinique Smith is as fine a mixture of street and salon as any artist could be.

For decades, her family lived in the genteel Baltimore neighborhood of Edmondson Village. Except that by the time Smith was growing up, she says, that gentility was lost and by now it's "totally the 'hood."

She was born to a teenage single mom who left Shinique (rhymes with "Clinique") behind to be brought up by her grandmother. This young mother, however, had "abandoned" her daughter to study fashion in New York and Paris, then came back to push culture and education on her kid.

Smith went to storied public schools in Baltimore: The Baltimore School of the Arts and later Frederick Douglass High. In between those two schools, she got arrested, for what she calls "ridiculous" graffiti crimes, and was bounced to Southwestern High, where metal detectors were de rigueur. Smith says she lucked out when her failing transcript from Southwestern was lost on its way to Frederick Douglass. Douglass sent Smith off with a scholarship to the Maryland Institute College of Art.

The old Brooklyn building Smith now lives in has its rougher edges, and there are crumbling projects within a few blocks. But the scruffy drugstore downstairs has been splendidly rehabbed as a trendy trattoria. Smith's apartment on the second floor has lovely hardwood floors, a marble fireplace and its original 1930s black-and-white bathroom -- and could use a second mortgage's worth of renovations. When a critic visits, it's also full to bursting with all the trash and scrap and found objects Smith uses to make art.

And now, as a kind of cap to all those contrasts, at the age of 37 Smith has made it into a new show at the august National Portrait Gallery in Washington, home to pictures by Gilbert Stuart, John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt. Yet the exhibition she's in, called "Recognize! Hip-Hop and Contemporary Portraiture," includes spray-painted murals by real street artists as well as concert photos and oil portraits of hip-hop's greatest stars, alongside Smith's own manic agglomeration of rap ephemera and found objects.

All along, this has been what Smith has had to reckon with: A complex negotiation between the "high" culture of the art world, for so long steeped in whiteness, and the black "street" culture of the city she grew up in.

Smith is proud of her brief flirtation with graffiti as a member of TWC, The Welfare Crew. "For a minute, I was the only girl writer in Baltimore," she says. But press her for details about her teenage arrest, and she just laughs it off as youthful foolishness, long since scrubbed from her record. That was more than 20 years ago, she points out. Her street-art past may be something "people like to glom onto," but she has spent decades moving on from it.

"My work isn't graffiti," she insists, explaining that the swirling letter forms on the walls in her Portrait Gallery piece, and on canvas in other recent work, owe as much to her study of Japanese calligraphy in college as to her long-ago painting in alleys. At the Portrait Gallery, her letters' swoops are done in Japanese sumi ink rather than Krylon spray.

Anyway, the unusually explicit "street" themes in Smith's Portrait Gallery installation, titled "No Thief to Blame," partly stem from the circumstances of this new work's birth. The installation was commissioned as a response to a new poem by Nikki Giovanni, the 64-year-old Godmother of Rap, that was also created for the hip-hop show. The poem is called "It's Not a Just Situation: Though We Just Can't Keep Crying About It (For the Hip-Hop Nation That Brings Us Such Exciting Art)," and it's broadcast over speakers and printed on one wall in the gallery Smith's work shares with it.

Giovanni's verses include such phrases as "You are Just / If there is any / Justice / Trying to find a way of not / Just surviving but living" and "You are just / trying to say 'I'm Alive.' " They inspired Smith to include the following in her assemblage, which cascades from one corner of the room: A torn Tupac Shakur T-shirt, collaged photos of dead hip-hoppers such as Aaliyah, Jam Master Jay and Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes (along with similar homages to dead fine artists Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Harding), images of roses torn from a movie poster for "Youth Without Youth," a cardboard-cutout butterfly, a plastic "Heavyweight Wrestling" trophy belt, gold plastic beading hanging from the ceiling, swirls of illegible writing done right on the wall (in that sumi ink), lengths of red ribbon, blue shoelace and yellow caution tape stretched across a window embrasure as well as a pair of high-heel pink mules that sit demurely in the middle of the mess.

For the Portrait Gallery's more traditional visitors, all this street-inspired art, with its street-sourced supplies, is bound to come across as absolutely up-to-date. But the installation's street-smart maker sees it differently. Smith feels the piece is full of "nostalgia and romance for the past" -- for the era when she, and American culture at large, first began to feel hip-hop's impact.

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