Exhibition speaks to the value of popular culture icons to black community

David Butler, Eric Jefferson and I are sitting around a table in an Olde Towne East coffee shop talking about the video for Lionel Richie's 1983 chart-topping hit “Hello.” As bad as the song is – and we allow that, at the time, we thought the song was great — the consensus is the video, in which Richie portrays a college professor who falls for a blind student, is worse.

“First off … she looks really young and [Richie] looks really old, with the Jheri curl, and he's creepily stalking her,” Butler said. “I want to have been in the meeting where they decided this was a good idea.”

“That's weird, man,” Jefferson said. “Like the LL [Cool J] video ‘I Need Love,' where he hugs the girl like 157 times. Stop hugging her, man.”

Later, the conversation turns to Bill Cosby as seen via Cliff Huxtable, and whether it's possible to still idolize the character from “The Cosby Show” while recognizing the obvious issues with the man behind it.

Butler and Jefferson envision their exhibition “50 Pieces of Black Gold” to be akin to having this kind of conversation. The show celebrates icons of popular culture while at the same time recognizing these icons' deeper importance to the black community.

“We're looking at the idea that black popular culture is always sought after in the zeitgeist of broader popular culture, and we always have to hold onto our icons [because] they are like gold to us,” Butler said, comparing this seeking out of black popular culture to mining gold. “It means so much because you don't see yourself a lot. So you see a rapper flossing a nice watch in front of you, saying, ‘This is a symbol of my wealth. This is what you want to aspire to.' Or maybe a ball player good at sports, or a Bill Cosby, you attach yourself to that. I always wanted to grow up just like Cliff Huxtable. You lift that up to a certain degree.”

“There's a mental value. That's where the gold comes in. … Those symbols are something special to you,” Jefferson said.

“When Michael Jackson died, we all cried. When Luther Vandross died, we all cried. Whitney Houston, Prince — these people are precious to us, like family,” Butler said. “That's the thing I love about those moments. When I'm in a black environment with my friends, we can access that right away, relating different parts of culture together.”

To that end, Jefferson said, the work in this show is like a visual pop-culture conversation. “Like us hanging out and the art being our backdrop,” he said. “Because it creates that conversation in a fun way, with these little golden thought bubbles that pop up.”

That conversation is likely to include hip-hop stars, actors and even meme culture, sparked by Butler's and Jefferson's work in graphic design, woodcutting, painting and more.

“As a whole, the room will become like an installation more than just single pieces,” Butler said.

Both artists allowed that the theme leaves open the door for a deeper conversation about gold and black culture, including how the gold rope chains worn by many black icons can be metaphorically connected to the ropes from which black men once hung from trees. Gold is also a top natural resource in Africa, and so there is a literal and figurative connection to Butler's “mining gold” statement. Then there's also gold as a symbol of the blatant materialism that threatens some parts of black culture.

“[Gold is] a symbol that can be investigated on a deep level, but it's also a symbol that just means something that's really cool, a symbol of having something fancy or that's of value,” Butler said. “We're just trying to celebrate those connections and remembering some good times and having some fun.”

“You can create your own story,” Jefferson said, adding that the intent of “Black Gold” is to “be a celebration, a gold moment, and let's live for a while in that moment.”

The exhibition is also held in conjunction with the Creative Control Fest. The sixth annual event geared to creatives of color will be held later this year, but the organization holds these “pep rallies” to show people that “we're here together … working all the time,” as Butler explained.

“We hold these events to let people get to know us, so when they come to the conference they have an idea of what we're about,” he said.

Later, the discussion turns to the longevity of black artists and, in particular, whether it's possible for hip-hop to age well.

“When's the last time you went to a Sugarhill Gang show?” Butler asked.