Manarat Al Saadiyat's 'Contact High' exhibition presents hip-hop through a new lens

Curator Vikki Tobak says the showcase is a tribute to the genre’s photographers

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Jay-Z's lawsuit against the photographer behind his 1996 photo shoot in New York has reverberated in Abu Dhabi.

The motion, filed this week in a Los Angeles court, claims that Jonathan Mannion, the copyright holder, went on to profit from the images from that session, Mannion's first major commission – which formed the cover of Jay-Z's 1996 debut album Reasonable Doubt – without the rapper's consent.

While the case is essentially a commercial dispute, its ramifications raise larger questions about the role of photography in documenting popular culture – the impact of which is on display in the Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop exhibition in Manarat Al Saadiyat.

Running until Wednesday, June 30, in partnership with cultural organisation Sole, the exhibition takes us through 40 years of hip-hop history, told through the lens of some of the genre's most esteemed photographers.

Often unrecognisable names buried within liner notes of albums and magazines, they provided hip-hop with memorable and candid images of stars such as Jay-Z, Nas and Lauryn Hill, before all the fame and acclaim.

Candid collaborations

Mannion’s photos from that Manhattan shoot feature in the exhibition – and curator Vikki Tobak is watching the case closely.

"There ultimately needs to be a balance in the way that artists view photographers and those people who document them," she tells The National, before her curatorial talk at the exhibition on Tuesday, June 29.

“Photographers need to also understand that artists are in a place where they need more agency surrounding their image.

“We need to figure it all out together because ultimately the artist and photographers want the same thing, which is a truthful telling of history.”

When both parties are aligned, the results are vibrant, and often moving, photographs of young artists on the up. Hip-hop careers are often rags-to-riches tales, so the images in the exhibition are gritty, taken in local neighbourhoods and underground studios, and feature everyday clothing.

That extra resonance is found through the display of corresponding contact sheets: the photos that didn’t make the cut.

With the official images placed beside the written testimony of the photographer's recollections of the shoot, the exhibition provides not only an insight into the state of mind of a young and hungry Tupac Shakur and Notorious BIG, but into the collaborative spirit essential in photography.

The contentious images of Jay-Z, wearing a suave suit, fedora hat and scarf, were taken on the roof of Mannion's apartment building.

Mannion says in the accompanying notes: “Jay really wanted the people to discover things for themselves. At the time, stylistically, guys were rocking Versace suits and linen, all the fly guys were rocking that. And I was like, let’s do this different.

"Think Brooklyn. True bosses that move in silence, a sort of mafia vibe ... that was the mentality I applied to the album."

For one of Tupac's most recognisable photos, shirtless, with "thug life" tattooed across his torso, Danny Clinch captured the rapper's brawn and vulnerability in 1993, after spotting the tattoo during a costume change.

“I saw his tattoos and said: 'Wow, we should shoot one with your shirt off. Those tattoos are awesome.' And he agreed. He was a real pro,” Clinch recalled.

Women also feature strongly in Contact High. From Salt-N-Pepa's colourful 1987 group pose taken by Janette Beckman and Al Pereira's 1991 shot of a regal Queen Latifa in Afro-centric clothing and jewellery, to more sensual images featuring hip-hop's latest stars Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, the images are as bold as they are eclectic.

"The takeaway here is that there is no right or wrong way to be a woman in hip-hop," Tobak says.

"So if you put a Queen Latifah next to a Cardi B, what you get is two strong women being who they are, and that there is no right or wrong way to go about it."

A shout-out long overdue

The fact that these conversations are being had in museum spaces such as Manarat Al Saadiyat (and previously the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit and Washington's National Gallery of Art), represents a growing institutional recognition that hip-hop is a culture worth documenting.

"And you are seeing this more now with big universities like Harvard having a hip-hop archive and the Smithsonian museum also starting to collect hip-hop works," Tobak says. "Hip-hop was initially thought of as just a fad.

"What people didn't understand was this popular song on the radio is a product of this long tail of culture that intersects with sociopolitical issues, race, gender and many other serious topics."

Ironically, with the cultural and academic sectors finally coming to the table, the biggest threat to preserving hip-hop culture now comes from the artists themselves.

With the genre peaking commercially, Tobak hopes the stars of today will allow photographers space to document their stories for future generations. The result of the Jay-Z and Jonathan Mannion court battle could indicate the potential challenges facing future exhibitions like Contact High.

“In order to now work with someone on a level like Jay-Z you have to give up all your rights as a photographer. So in 20 years’ time, if a photographer wants to show some of that work in an exhibition like ours, the decision is no longer up to them,” she says. “Look, I totally get that artist agency is super-important and there needs to be some control on how you are portrayed in the media.

"But photographers as documentarians and journalists are also practising an important art form, to try and take that away from them as storytellers is a shame for the whole culture."

Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop runs at Manarat Al Saadiyat until Wednesday, June 30. 10am to 8pm. Tickets cost Dh30 from Vikki Tobak will appear at the exhibition for a Curators Closing Talk session on Tuesday, June 29 at 6.30pm.