UIMA Exhibition Features Photographs of Hip-Hop’s Early Years

A group of young, black students at New York’s Adelphi University looks into the camera, each with an individual intensity in his eyes. It is 1983, and a shared passion draws these men together in the name of a new form of cultural expression: hip-hop.

This scene from hip-hop’s early years describes one of the photographs in the University of Iowa Museum of Art ( UIMA ) multifaceted on-campus exhibition, “Two Turntables and a Microphone: Hip-Hop Contexts featuring Harry Allen’s ‘Part of the Permanent Record: Photos from the Previous Century.’”

The exhibition opens Saturday, March 27 and remains on view through June 27 in the Black Box Theater at the Iowa Memorial Union ( IMU ). The show features 40 large, black-and-white photographs by Harry Allen ( photo, right ), hip-hop activist and media assassin with the seminal hip-hop group Public Enemy.

Allen’s images, which document hip-hop’s origins, gained public attention after a 2007 exhibition at the Eyejammie Fine Arts Gallery in New York City. Through the collaborative efforts of co-curators Deborah Whaley, UI assistant professor of American studies and African American studies, and Kembrew McLeod, UI associate professor of communication studies, the photos are on display alongside additional archival materials, including audio clips, album covers, hip-hop flyers and a digital display of the work of pioneering graffiti artist Lady Pink. As a whole, the exhibition seeks to immerse viewers in the story of the multiple origins and growth of hip-hop in the 1980s.

Several free public events augment “Two Turntables and a Microphone”:

– April 1, 7 p.m., Englert Theatre in downtown Iowa City: University Lecture Committee program with artist talk by Allen and a panel discussion moderated by McLeod with Public Enemy members, including front man Chuck D and co-founders Hank and Keith Shocklee ( members of the group’s original production unit, the Bomb Squad ).

– April 21, 7:30 p.m., Van Allen Hall, Lecture Room 2: Artist talk by Sandra Fabara, better known by her graffiti name, Lady Pink.

– April 29, 7:30 p.m., IMU Black Box Theater: Gallery talk by “Two Turntables” exhibition co-curators Whaley and McLeod.

“The UIMA is especially proud to present ‘Two Turntables and a Microphone,’ which promises to be a lively and popular exhibition showcasing the cultural phenomenon that is hip-hop,” said Pamela White, UIMA interim director. “As an exhibition curated by UI professors, the project underscores the UIMA’s commitment and involvement in the UI’s mission of education. We are also happy to open this as the first exhibition in the UIMA’s newly renovated space in the Black Box Theater, where we will be regularly bringing exhibitions in upcoming semesters.”

With “Two Turntables and a Microphone,” Whaley and McLeod highlight the cultural and political work of the hip-hop movement. “We’re not interested in repeating the same hip-hop narrative,” Whaley said. “One of our largest tasks is to represent an era — the 1980s — and also complicate that memory in ways it has not been done, using a broader genre and regional framework.”

Showcasing Allen’s photographs, the co-curators connect both an academic and popular audience to the deeper cultural and political significance of hip-hop. Allen worked with Public Enemy, a group that would later be recognized by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the 100 greatest artists of all time and whose 1990 “Fear of a Black Planet” album was named one of the top 25 most significant albums of the century by The New York Times. Serving as Public Enemy’s “Media Assassin and Director of Enemy Relations,” Allen sought to mediate between Public Enemy and the public when the group’s lyrics and the public’s perceptions of their habits as confrontational made headlines in the popular press.

“He was really the first member of a hip-hop crew to fill the role of a writer at a time when hip-hop was completely misunderstood or ignored,” McLeod said.

As Public Enemy evolved as a group, Allen traveled with them and captured the budding hip-hop scene in photographs, documenting the emerging street culture and the lives of big names in the young movement.

“I started taking the pictures because of the effect that meeting the people in them was having on me as a person,” Allen said. “It had to do with my affection for hip-hop culture, my deep passion for it then, something I still have now, and also with my belief that it was necessary to document. I definitely had a sense that this would in some way be valuable one day. I had to record this.”

Today, Allen writes for several publications, including Vibe, the Village Voice and Spin. He also hosts the radio show “Nonfiction” on WBAI-NY/99.5 FM and continues to advocate for the preservation of hip-hop’s history.

“He’s almost working as an archivist,” McLeod said. “He’s interested in documenting hip-hop culture for the permanent record.”

The Black Box Theater, located on the IMU’s third floor, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday; and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Entry is free and open to the public.

Scheels All Sports, the UI Department of Intercollegiate Athletics, Barbara Kirk and the Ida Cordelia Beam Distinguished Visiting Professorships Program are sponsors of “Two Turntables and a Microphone.”

The UIMA, University Lecture Committee, International Programs, Office of the Vice President for Research, Department of Communication Studies, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Mission Creek Festival and the Harry Oster Folklore and Folk Fund have provided additional support for the exhibition and programming.

University of Iowa Arts Center Relations, 300 Plaza Centre One, Iowa City, IA 52242-2500

For more information on the UI Museum of Art, visit http://uima.uiowa.edu or call 319-335-1727.