Exploring power and status through heraldry

“When you’re dealing with systemic forms of oppression, you can fight that by showing up in groups.”

In 2019, Absolut Art invited twenty-two artists to pay tribute to one of the greatest hip-hop groups of all time: the Wu-Tang Clan, the legendary outfit that blazed new trails for the genre. Curated by Oliver “Power” Grant, the co-founder of Wu-Tang Productions and Wu-Tang Brand, and independent curator Diya Vij, the collection brought together established and emerging contemporary artists that have been inspired at some point in their lives or careers by the group’s legacy.

In this interview, New York-based artist Rashaad Newsome explains that his first exposure to Wu-Tang Clan came via the Five-Percent Nation, a religious group he was involved in early on. For Newsome, Wu-Tang Clan’s huge membership suggested a way of countering racist, sexist and homophobic aggression simply through strength in numbers. The artist also describes how feminism bubbled up in the work via popular images of trans women and black models, as well as the ways that African masks signify both heraldry and a legacy of colonialism.

What was your first experience of the Wu-Tang Clan’s Music?

The way I came to know them was when I was living in New Orleans and I got involved in the Five-Percent Nation. I don’t regret it because I learned a lot, but like any other extremist religious group they have a lot of issues, especially as it relates to being queer, and there wasn’t much space for thinking critically. So naturally I phased out of it. But I found brotherhood and a sense of community in that group. Most of the members of Wu-Tang are Five-Percenters, so that was a personal connection to the music.

The Wu-Tang Clan made some of the best music in the nineties. My connection to it was in the production. RZA would experimentally collage different sounds to make a track, and used a voice as a sample to create the beat before many people were doing that.
The first Wu-Tang song I heard was “Can It Be All So Simple,” on Yo! MTV Raps. It was sonically different, with all the kung fu references, and I was into those movies.

Was there anything that you took from the Wu-Tang Clan for your own work?

There was a community aspect to Wu-Tang. The Five-Percenters play a role in the community and look after their own. You saw that on stage. There was a bunch of people, and that was really dynamic. When I saw them on television playing at the Apollo Theater, I saw the way they flooded the stage with people.

I’ve tried to bring that aesthetic into my own work, and bring a sense of community into the visual. When you’re dealing with systemic forms of oppression, you can fight that by showing up in groups. Racist and homophobic attacks happen in secret. If you show up collectively, it’s harder to do those things. People don’t want to be seen doing it.

Tell us a little bit about the work you’re contributing and its relationship to Wu-Tang.

It’s in a way in contradiction to them. The piece is part of a series of works from my show “Stop Playing in My Face” at De Buck Gallery, in New York. I was trying to find the feminist voice in the work. I had developed a way of creating images using images from popular culture that communicate the culture of domination, like advertising, which tells us that we need things to have value in life.

Women’s bodies come into play, so I had to resolve how they were being used in the work, in a conversation around agency. Trans women were inspiring the forms in the works via the shapes and forms that the dancers I was looking at were making, but the image library I’m working from didn’t have those trans women in it, so I would use figures from sources like King magazine, Excel, Dons and Divas, and Black Lingerie, lifestyle magazines that cater to girls in the “urban” modeling industry. I was looking at people like Black China and Amber Rose, women that make an industry in selling their own image, which to me is a radical and even a post-feminist approach. So I’m asking how these trans women I’m looking at for inspiration navigate agency in the world.

Explosions became part of that library as a way to visualize the way certain forms of oppression have to be detonated. The earlier ones did not have the African masks, which are luxury objects in certain contexts. How are these objects even in the market? That happened through the legacy of white supremacy and imperialism and colonialism. I was looking at African masks and I went from making these images to heraldic symbols as faces, and then actually putting the masks into the works. The Wu-Tang work is a step in that direction.