Robert Hodge may best be described as a keeper of history—American history, urban history, black history, the experience of black people in America. Hodge makes art, and he produces music. Everything he creates feels like hip-hop, coming out of a multimedia tradition that rose up from ruins to give voice to lesser known truths. We see all of this playing out in his current show at Freight + Volume, Rhythm for the Suffering.
As an artist, Hodge has become known for his collages, a technique he likens to the Hip-Hop practice of sampling. And just as graffiti artists use the streets for their canvases, so too does Hodge. His pieces are often created with multiple layers of event or movie posters that he finds pasted around his hometown of Houston, which he then glues and sews together. Hodge may then carve words into these layered bases or place additional images on top of them. With Robert Rauschenberg’s aim to “work in the gap between art and life” in mind, Hodge creates pieces to remember, to question, to bring light to artistic and societal realities.
From titles to content, Rhythm for the Suffering is rooted in the lineage and power of black music and entertainment, while not seeing it beyond reproach. With Poundcake—a word that not only refers to a particular type of cake, but serves as a slang term for a woman’s behind, and even at times a term of endearment—Hodge questions the deeper knowledge of today’s newest Hip-Hop artists.
The piece presents symbolically positioned figures of black history and music within the outline of a slightly misshapen layer cake. On the bottom layer of the cake are Zulu warriors carrying weapons and shields, as well as some stereotypical images of nearly naked African men with exaggerated posteriors. On the layer above are images of political figures including Martin Luther King, Jr and Louis Farrakhan—fittingly facing in opposite directions—Angela Davis, Malcolm X with book in hand, a Black Panther with weapon in hand, recalling the Zulu warriors below him. These figures are repeated on the next layer with the addition of Jay-Z on the right side and wife Beyonce on the left in a dance pose that prominently features her behind. The center of the top layer is reserved for Lil Wayne from whose cap sprouts an Uncle Sam hat, which in turn sprouts a large african mask which tops the cake. To the left and right of the african mask blaze the words “New Black” in neon light.
In an interview with Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Hodge stated, “. . . History is just not being discussed on any level—as far as music history, art history. People are doing things, and they think they brand new.” Poundcake represents his concerns and reminds us that today’s music can be traced back through protest movements and slavery to African warriors and communities. Poundcake also recognizes the black body as a source of strength, while intimating that it can become a site of exploitation as well. In her song “Flawless,” Beyonce—a Houston native herself—boldly proclaims, “You wish I was your poundcake”, a line which, given the emphasis on a single body part, may leave one feeling both empowered and reduced in one breath. By following a straight diagonal across and down from Beyonce’s image, one reaches the men with unrealistically large behinds, a placement which may bring to mind both bloodlines and minstrel-type portrayals of black people.
Opposite one another are The Revolution Will Not Be Televised and the works from which the show derives its title, Rhythm for the Suffering in blue, red, yellow, and green—all created using Hodge’s signature process of layering reclaimed paper. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised takes its name from the title of a Gil Scott-Heron poem originally spoken to the beating of a few drums, released in 1970. In the poem, Scott-Heron lists all that the revolution will not be, including various elements of mainstream white American culture. The multi-colored piece is a rendering of the symbol that comes up when a television has lost its signal, directly speaking to the lines: “You will not be able to stay home, brother / You will not be able to plug in, turn on, and cop out.”
Rhythm for the Suffering visually and conceptually picks up where The Revolution Will Not Be Televised leaves off, the same primary colors reconfigured, gradient. The words of the title have been carved into the pieces’ many layers sourced from the street, creating a blatant connection to everyday people. The stitching—a technique that Hodge began to use as part of his Amnesia Project in Nairobi, Kenya and which can be seen throughout his work—perhaps takes on even greater meaning with these pieces. Made out of hemp, these stitches are anything but synthetic. They are real like wounded, broken skin sewn back together. They are made out of the same stuff as the tuning ropes of African drums that call warriors to battle and communities together. Rhythm for the Suffering is a mirror and response to society and artistic expression and a recognition of an ancient beat that has sustained and empowered black people throughout history.
Robert Hodge: Rhythm for the Suffering at Freight + Volume Gallery, located at 97 Allen Street, New York , NY 10002 April 29th – July 2nd, 2017.