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McMichael gallery showcases archive of Canadian hip-hop culture

visual art

McMichael gallery showcases archive of Canadian hip-hop culture

With …Everything Remains Raw, Ontario's McMichael gallery scrapbooks the history of hip hop in the north, from the eighties through the aughts

Juno Rise of Hip Hop, 1998, 35 mm colour negative, reproduced from original darkroom print.

When you visit the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, before you spot a canvas, before you even touch a door handle, you'll pass by a small cemetery where six members of the Group of Seven are buried. That is to say: There are expectations about the kind of art you'll find there. And a paean to homegrown hip hop likely doesn't count first among them.

A photo by Demuth Flake Konspiracy at The Concert Hall, 1993, 35 mm black and white negative film. Courtesy of The Digitally Explosive Art Collection 1990-1998

But if the gallery is committed to its mission, the new exhibit …Everything Remains Raw is exactly the sort of art it ought to showcase. Part of the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival, it is an archival photographic and video survey of the evolution of Toronto and Canadian hip-hop culture told through album covers, magazine shoots and behind-the-scene documentary – some images already iconic, some never before seen.

As a gallery, the McMichael is a purveyor of Canadiana. Its mandate, explains director of curatorial and collections Sarah Stanners, is to collect and exhibit the art of Canada. And a year-long show, titled The Art of Canada: Director's Cuts, currently occupies prime real estate there. The works included in that show were selected personally by executive director Ian Dejardin, fresh from England's Dulwich Picture Gallery, as an exercise to become more familiar with the collection. It provides plenty of what you might consider McMichael crowd pleasers – wall space dedicated to Emily Carr, Norval Morrisseau and David Milne; the Group, naturally – but does little, if anything, to broaden the field of Canadian art.

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Beyond its final gallery, though, emanating a faint boom-bap, …Everything Remains Raw endeavours to refresh that Canadiana. The spray of a Krylon can, it argues, is every bit as Canadian as the hues of Algonquin granite. Tom Thomson couldn't windmill. But if the McMichael is serious about telling contemporary Canadian stories, it'll learn to.

Working with the artists and photojournalists who were on the scene during the hip-hop boom of the 1990s and 2000s, curator Mark V. Campbell of Northside Hip Hop Archive documents a burgeoning underground creative community before the time when Toronto's Weston Road might get referenced in a Billboard Hot 100 chart topper. "These works can finally be put in conversation with the canonical art that influences how Canada imagines itself," Campbell says.

Michie Mee, 1993, 120 mm colour transparency.

There has been much recent artwork about the erasure and exclusion of black and racialized peoples from the country's written and visual records: the video work of Jessica Karuhanga in The Sunshine Eaters, the sculpture of Tau Lewis, the Royal Ontario Museum's Here We Are Here exhibit. The Group's mythologized terra nullius – the wild, unpeopled landscape – is in some part to blame for our exclusionary self-image.

But the subjects of …Everything Remains Raw defy and claim the space as theirs. In dramatic shots by Patrick Nichols and Sheinina Raj, Toronto duo Ghetto Concept pose against the towers of the Toronto-Dominion Centre and the Casa Loma steps. Another photo by Nichols has Michie Mee mugging in an alleyway. In his short-film series Moments of Movement, videographer Mark Valino's freestyle dancers make a stage of public spaces: the financial district, the subway, Rouge Park.

"The Group of Seven were famed for celebrating place," Stanners notes. Hip hop champions the same.

Ghetto Concept, 1994, 35 mm B/W negative film. Courtesy of Patrick Nichols

The largest display, and something of a centrepiece in the exhibit, is a banner-sized photo print by DeMuth Flake of the Toronto group Konspiracy performing at the Concert Hall. "Our Apollo," Campbell calls it, referring to the venerable Harlem theatre that played a major role in the birth of jazz, soul and R&B, among other popular genres.

Known in decades past for early shows by Led Zeppelin and as a pretour rehearsal space for the Rolling Stones, by the mid-eighties, the Concert Hall had become an important proving ground for Canadian and American hip-hop acts, including Rakim, LL Cool J and Queen Latifah. Long before OVO Fest, it was symbolic of the scene's rise to prominence. "If you could make it in Toronto, with all the young Caribbean people there," Campbell explains, "then you knew you had the material."

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…Everything Remains Raw is a celebration of precisely that soft infrastructure: the venues, the campus radio shows, the graffiti contests, the turntable competitions, and the print publications. "Everything it takes to make a world-class hip-hop scene," Campbell says. Everything it takes for these young artists to make terra nullius feel like their own.

… Everything Remains Raw is at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont., until Oct. 21 (mcmichael.com).

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