Between black and white

During an artist talk at LeSo Gallery, at the closing of her exhibit Compromi$ed, local artist Sam Barton discussed the 1990's hip-hop group The Fugees. Barton attributes her inspiration to pursue art to a lyric in the song “Zealots,” rapped by Lauryn Hill: “And even after all my logic and my theory / I add a muthaf**ker so you ignint  ni**as hear me.” Barton's art, like that lyric, is profound and controversial,  demanding attention.

Realistic and detailed, well-rendered pieces in oil, watercolor and graphite, Barton’s signature shows in her subject matter: Barton, a young caucasian woman, is obsessed with hip-hop music and the images surrounding it. “The subject matter since 2007 has always been about, or circling around, hip-hop culture, in the realm of how things get exploited […] and how that informs the general public,” Barton said.

It seems like the general population looks at pop-hip-hop culture to inform their decisions on black culture, which is ridiculous," Barton said. She is interested in the glamorized way hip-hop is presented on television and the radio — typically displaying enormous sums of illegally-begotten cash, ridiculous jewelry and the objectification of women. 

Retracing the American dream

Hip-hop storytellers have made something out of nothing— and that story inspires Barton. There are the struggle, the ghetto, the rising above, and the heroism that comes with that, which I think is amazing and beautiful, she said. That story is reflected in her work. One of her pieces in the Compromi$ed exhibit depicts Abraham Lincoln sitting on a Doberman as if it were a throne, flanked by gold. The piece remembers not only that Lincoln abolished slavery, but also that he went from cutting wood in rural Illinois to being a national leader.

Barton's background is not stereotypical of someone involved in the hip-hop community—she graduated from Ottawa Hills High School, received a BFA in 2D studies from BGSU, and has attended the University of Georgia's Fine Arts masters program. She has weathered negative feedback for her approach to the subject matter. There are people who have told me if you haven't struggled through that life, then you can't appreciate [hip-hop] to the fullest extent,” she said.

Privately, Barton feels that hip-hop is a part of her identity, friction included. Hip-hop was always something that everyone I knew listened to, and that's something that I've always struggled with—who is allowed to listen to what, what is or is not authentic,”  she said.

Today’s headlines

People on both sides of race and class divisions might find Barton's work inflammatory. Her art deals with black-white relations and class at a time when those topics have returned to the forefront of national conversation with recent events in Ferguson, MO. "We need to talk about this now. Some people really think racism is dead. As if, because Obama is president, that's all gone. I think that's incredibly naive.” 

While the struggle of African Americans in America may not have noticeably improved since the genre's inception, the popularity of hip-hop has skyrocketed, and Barton's illustrations explore the gap between those trends.  Her work raises questions without providing answers. I'm ok with not knowing certain parts of where I stand. I think people deal too much in absolutes, especially when it comes to cultural identity.

Sam Barton will be the Toledo City Paper’s featured artist at the last Art Walk of 2014,
6-9pm Thursday, September 25, at Wesley’s Bar & Grill, corner of Adams and 12th Sts.