Old and new collide in viral magic on Azikiwe Mohammed's hip-hop tapestries. Working in a traditional form that was popularized during the Middle Ages, the New York-based artist surrounds incarcerated rappers with pizzas, dollar bills, flying doves, and dolphins—tokens of the Internet age. Mohammed's works address our obsession with rappers who have been locked up. Through the Internet, we make them into mythical creatures (like the unicorns in the tapestries at the Met), completely disconnected from their true identities.
Mohammed's work is currently on view at the SPRING/BREAK Art Show, one of the many fairs open for Armory Week. We had a chance to talk with the artist about his tapestries, which he says he orders from an online site, again engaging with the Internet. Check out our interview: Hip-Hop Tapestry Artist Azikiwe Mohammed Talks His "Free Max B," "Free Bieber," and "Free Boosie" Pieces.<strong></strong>
The Internet has turned those two guys in particular into these giant celebrities where nobody has heard any of their music or knows who they are.
How did you come up with the idea for these tapestries? What you’re inspired by?
I came up with the idea because I spend a lot of time on Twitter and the Internet in general. I just had a show that’s called “Black Internet.” It’s a place I like to think, not just me hangs out. And you see two names that float around a lot. You see Max B, and you see Boosie. People saying, "Free Max B. I just had some pizza! Free Max B.” You have no idea who this human is. The Internet has turned those two guys in particular into these giant celebrities where nobody has heard any of their music or knows who they are. These are real people who are in jail.
When people used to do really historic or legendary things, they would make a tapestry to commemorate them. Max B and Boosie, having become these super, super famous people, I wanted to make something that was a physical item, that was a traditional item, but that still somehow spoke to the place that they came from, which is the Internet. So in these, you’ve got dolphins, you’ve got your outer space, you’ve got pizza, kind of your spirit animals of the Internet. I get them manufactured, so I use the Internet to make them.
By taking people that were made from the Internet, where they’re surrounded by the things that they also live with, which is other Internet things, and then putting it back out into the physical world, I'm hoping to start a conversation about these guys, who are still real humans. You know, Max is gone for a long time. Boosie is supposed to be coming out soon. I also happen to be a big fan of Max B and Boosie, personally.
If it wasn’t for these people that the Internet needed to have, and made, then we wouldn’t have Miley, and we wouldn’t have Justin.
Can you explain the Bieber rug, since Bieber’s not in jail right now?
There are these people that built this city for us, Max, Jim Jones, The Diplomats... Now, who is capitalizing off of this city that has been built? We look at Macklemore, we look at Justin Bieber, we look at Miley Cyrus, especially now with the Bangerz tour. If it were a dude doing any of that stuff, nobody would be blinking an eye, but it’s a white young woman that broke out from her original image using rappers—Juicy J and French Montana, I think that was one of the first pictures she showed up in.
If it wasn’t for these people that the Internet needed to have, and made, then we wouldn’t have Miley, and we wouldn’t have Justin, at least the Justin that we have now. Why the "Free Justin"? He’s not in jail, but at the time that I made this, it looked like that might not have been the case. I made this pretty recently. He was really fucking up. It seems like he’s cooled down a little. Somebody tapped him on the shoulder and was like, “Yo, you need to slow down, buddy, or you'll get that petition passed to get you kicked out.”
Traditional tapestries are usually about mythical stories, like unicorns or King Arthur. Do you think there’s something mythic about the rap world that you’re capturing here?
There’s a reason that I chose the people that I chose, especially Max B and Boosie. They have become so much more famous since they’ve been in jail than they were when they were out. Everybody’s saying, “Free Max, free Boosie,” but again, they’re not the people that they’ve been turned into, without even having any input. They’ve kept moving up and up and up, but they’ve actually been in the same place. They’ve been locked up. They haven’t been able to make any moves. They are these complete mythical creatures that we’ve made, but they’re also kings of their own domain. Their kingdom is the Internet, but they didn’t choose to take the throne; they were just put there.
Do you think your work contributes to making them into myths?
I don’t believe so. If they weren’t already what these things are pointing them out to be, then I wouldn’t have been able to make this. I’m also hoping that this opens up a conversation to, “Hey, maybe I’ll go check out some Max. Maybe I’ll go see what’s up with Boosie.” These are also real humans. These are real humans that are in jail. That sucks. Period. Think about them as men that are having a tough time. They’re not just a hashtag. They’re real humans.