The work of artist Rashaad Newsome is colorful, opulent, and eye-grabbing, but that doesn't mean it lacks depth. In fact, there are layers of meaning that connect to his roots as a house godfather of the ballroom scene and his inspirations within today's gay hip-hop scene. In addition to having a video piece titled Knot in the Brooklyn Museum's upcoming “Killer Heels” exhibition (alongside work by Steven Klein, Nick Knight, and Marilyn Minter), he notably designed the artwork for Solange’s Saint Heron record label last year (including the exterior of a Lamborghini Murciélago he used for his King of Arms procession and the Saint Herons trunk sale). The New Orleans-born artist’s new work Knot will be revealed at "Killer Heels" during fashion week, on September 10 (on view through February 15), and explores the connection between black culture and Christian Louboutin red soles.
Knot combines heraldry and hip-hop to provide an exploration of the black body through powerful queer images. In the version that will be on view, MC Kevin Prodigy raps over scenes of queer black men and women voguing in all kinds of red soles. In the process of all the ducking, walking, dips, sips, and hand performance, the piece questions how we define gender and sexuality.
Here, Rashaad talks about the meaning of Knot and the history of ballroom culture. He also gives us a sneak peek of the piece before it gets shown in its entirety at the Brooklyn Museum.
Working with baroque architecture, you are working with the body without the body being present. I realized I still wanted the body in the work.
What can you tell us about Knot?
After my show in New Orleans, I was thinking a lot about how much my work is concerned with the language of the baroque. So I wanted to go back to the beginnings of baroque. I was thinking about how much religious architecture is related to the body. I use the body in my work a lot, so I wanted to work with the body without formally using the body. Working with baroque architecture, you are working with the body without the body being present. But after doing it, I realized I still wanted the body in the work. I wanted to use the Vitruvian Man, because it represents the perfect figure. But I played with the imagery and used a trans woman and a gay man doing floor performance as a kind of modern queer black "Vitruvian Man."
How else did you play with the imagery?
The ribs you see in cathedral ceilings, I replaced them with cubic-linked chains and had the kids duck walk in Louboutins on the ceiling of the church. I used very specific baroque architecture environments, but I queered them. The work queers all the things that we know, because everything converges at some point anyway.
Heraldry is essentially a collection of images and objects that represent rank and position in popular culture. When they asked me to do this show, I was thinking about how heraldry relates to shoes.
Is the ballroom scene ever problematic?
The ballroom scene is problematic. It came out of a need for queer people of color to express themselves at a time when they did not have those spaces, but any space like that isn’t real life. And you can’t retreat into one space and expect that everything is going to work out in real life when you are living in a bubble. The real world is extremely problematic and fucked up; you need to confront it so you can deal with it accordingly.
A lot of the kids who used to hang out at my studio, like Shayne and Ian from Hood By Air, DJ Mike Q, Mykki Blanco, and Le1f are now blowing up.
How did you get involved in the ballroom scene?
I was really blessed. I became a part of this black creative community when I moved to New York in 2000. A lot of the kids who used to hang out at my studio, like Shayne and Ian from Hood By Air, DJ Mike Q, Mykki Blanco, and Le1f are now blowing up. I look at them like my children, even though I don’t have a house. The community can be problematic, but there is real talent in the community.
Did any of those people you mentioned influence the Knot piece?
Yes, they have initiated this gay hip-hop movement. There is a stereotype surrounding this community, but I thought, "What would happen if I pulled all of them together and made this 'we are the world' or 'we are all in the same game' mix?" The song in Knot is a truncated version of a much longer version that includes most of them.
Why do you think it was important to bring gay black hip-hop creatives together to work on this piece?
I think we are all involved in hip-hop in some way, and that we all know each other, but we don’t get to work together very often. I thought, in a hyper masculine world, it is something that could make a statement. Gay people are very active in hip-hop from the stylists to the hairdressers. This song is a great way to shed the curtain and allow us to be seen.
How many pairs of Louboutins did you use in the making of the video?
It had to be over 100 pairs.
What does putting men in heels mean to you?
I’ve been putting men in heels, make-up, and weaves for years. The whole idea of masculinity and femininity in the work always disappears, because sometimes what you see as a woman isn’t actually a woman, or what you see as a man isn’t actually a man. In my work, I’m not interested in pulling from that old image library of blackness. The Sambo or the Mammy archetypes are all relevant depictions of black folk, but they aren’t depictions that were created by us. I’m interested in working from a new image library that was created by us for us. There are more images of power in my work. There aren’t any weak images in my work. It’s all about power or perceived power. I don’t create work that is present in a gaze of how society sees me. I present how I see myself and how my community sees itself. And you can either get in or not get in.
Does Beyonce wear a lot of Louboutins?
Yeah! But Nene Leakes was my main source of inspiration, because she wears almost exclusively Louboutin.
What happened to the shoes when you were done with them?
I gave them back. If they would have let me keep them, it would have been a dream. I love shoes, so if I were a woman, I would wear Louboutins, because the brand turns it. I think you can tell a lot about a person by their shoes.