SLAM exhibition featuring St. Louis hip hop and visual artists heads to Germany

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ST. LOUIS — Andréa Purnell was still searching for the words to describe her feelings about bidding farewell to the Saint Louis Art Museum’s presentation of The Culture: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century, which enjoyed a sold-out final day on January 1.

“Sometimes it becomes more powerful than you can explain to see your likeness bedazzled and represented in such a magnificent way – and respected,” Purnell said. “I have all the feelings.”

One of the primary emotions she associates with her experience is perfectly aligned with the type of energy that the masses seek to absorb at the start of a new year. 

“How do you tell someone to proceed with a radical yes,” Purnell said. “To find a way to do it afraid.”

She has spent several years as an Audience Development Manager for the Saint Louis Art Museum, but The Culture was her debut within the curatorial space.  She and Hannah Klemm represented St. Louis as co-curators for the collaborative exhibition between SLAM and the Baltimore Museum of Art. The show set the visual arts scene ablaze when it opened in Baltimore this spring. The fire became an inferno when The Culture made its way to St. Louis in August. 

And that “radical yes” was a collective one that echoed from all parties involved with growing the idea to execution – participating institutions, artists, community partners, advisory boards and museum visitors – like a chorus. 

“I think of words like mind bending, earth shattering in the sense of the true magnitude in the way we have seen an evolution – not only in the museum space, but in the way in which a typical museum goer is forced – and I mean that in the best possible way – to reimagine what art is, what art means and who gets to decide what art is and what it means,” Purnell said of The Culture’s St. Louis run. “We stretched ourselves as an institution, but we didn’t break. Someone said the other day that the code has been broken and I don’t know if we will ever be able to go back.”

The exhibition is traveling to Frankfurt, Germany in late February – where it will be housed at the Schirn until the end of May before it returns stateside for a run at the Cincinnati Art Museum this summer and ends the year at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Through the show, St. Louis’ role in the global footprint of hip-hop continues. 

“Being the first region to ever play it on the airwaves, we are in the connective tissue of the origins of this movement,” Purnell said. “And to think of ourselves in such a way, in celebration – and then adding another layer of bringing our visual artists in the mix and having them in conversation with the classics – has been amazing. You have Khalil Robert Irving literally holding space with a Basquiat. I hope that the [local] artists see themselves as equals and not in any way less than. It is the quality of them all in conversation together that truly makes the story. St. Louis’ part, Baltimore’s part and all of the artists from all over the world are included in truly telling this global story of how hip hop has influenced contemporary art over these last fifty years.”

The phenomenon is particularly evident in artist Aaron Fowler’s “Live Culture Force 1’s, 2022.” The enormously scaled replica of designated St. Louis hip-hop footwear made internationally famous by hip-hop star Nelly’s “Air Force Ones” was a focal point in the SLAM Sculpture Hall. The work sat across from Anselm Kiefer’s Breaking of the Vessels – a work Fowler more than likely saw while visiting the museum as a youngster. 

“I would love to be somewhere 20 years from now and it is a motivator for why a young Black woman becomes a curator, or a young Black man becomes a museum director or visual artist,” Purnell said. “I think through this we are creating the power of, ‘yes you can.’”

It’s a “yes” to the little Black girl from North County who will forever reside within with Purnell especially appreciates. 

“I surely couldn’t bask in it by myself, because it took all of us to get here,” Purnell said. “And I hope it feels good to all of us to have this light shine on our city in this way, because we deserve it. Our hip hop community deserves it. Our visual arts community deserves it. Our cultural institutions deserve it. It has been powerful – and I don’t know if we can ever be the same again.”

Purnell is also an actress – which she said informed her work within the curatorial space in ways she could have never imagined. She likened the work to writing and performing a play – and sees The Culture’s next chapters as writing a play as similar to what happens when a production is handed to another company to create its staging. 

“[There is] the legend of leaving the ghost light on as holding the memory for the actors and the work that was performed on the stage,” Purnell said. “I am confident that The Saint Louis Art Museum will find ways to keep the ghost light on for the culture as we look to 2024 and beyond and we further engage with community in nontraditional ways – and that is exciting.” 

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