Welcoming NMAAHC with “Kung Fu Wildstyle”

Fab 5 Freddy's portrait in the National Portrait Gallery
Fab 5 Freddy’s portrait in the National Portrait Gallery

The opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is such a major event that fellow Smithsonian museums will spend the next year celebrating it. Here at the Freer|Sackler, we are cooking up, in collaboration with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, a month-long celebration of the deep—and sometimes surprising—connections among African American, Asian American, and Asian pop culture. These connections formed when the rappers and break-dancers who pioneered hip-hop in New York started incorporating moves from Hong Kong martial arts movies they had binge-watched in Manhattan theaters—and they continue to flourish today.

One of those pioneers is the incomparable Fab Five Freddy. As the first graffiti artist to have his work exhibited in commercial galleries, Fab was a bridge between the uptown hip-hop scene and the downtown art and new wave music scenes in the 1970s and ’80s. (As a tween growing up in rural Pennsylvania obsessed with Blondie, I first heard of him in the band’s megahit “Rapture.”)

Since those early days as a fixture in New York, Fab has been, among other things, a television star (as the host of Yo! MTV Raps) and a music video director. In fact, his impact on the hip-hop and art worlds is so impressive that the Smithsonian itself has recognized it: a portrait of him currently hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, and the iconic boombox that was always by his side back in the day is now in the collection of the National Museum of American History.

Fab's boombox at the National Museum of American History
Fab’s boombox at the National Museum of American History

A few years ago, Fab reconnected with an old buddy, Sean Dinsmore, who now lives in Hong Kong. Dinsmore told him about a street artist there named MC Yan, whose work was inspired by what Fab and his friends had done three decades earlier and half a world away.

Amazed and flattered, Fab struck up a friendship with Yan, and Kung Fu Wildstyle was born. A dialogue between these two artists in the form of paintings of the legendary movie star Bruce Lee, this pop-up exhibition has already popped up in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and New York. In 2017, it comes to the Freer|Sackler, along with a plethora of film screenings, discussions, and performances exploring these long-running cross-cultural connections.

Fab and Sean
Fab and Sean

In September, Fab, Sean, and I convened in Fab’s studio for a brainstorming session that resulted in what I think will be some truly amazing, fun, and informative events to be held at the Freer|Sackler, NMAAHC, and possibly elsewhere. I can’t reveal the details now, but be sure to mark your calendars for what we hope will be an entirely new Smithsonian experience welcoming an entirely new kind of museum to the fold.

Tom Vick

Tom Vick is curator of film at the Freer|Sackler and the author of Time and Place are Nonsense: The Films of Seijun Suzuki and Asian Cinema: A Field Guide. Follow him @tomrvick.

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