Decades ago, a local stylist created wigs for hip-hop royalty, from Lil’ Kim to Lauryn Hill. Now her work is in a traveling museum exhibit.
Mary Carole McCauley | Baltimore Sun
The Maryland-born stylist Dionne Alexander’s favorite hairpiece is the wig she created for the rapper Lil’ Kim to wear to the 2001 MTV Music Video Awards. Long, straight and the color of egg yolk, it is bisected horizontally by a giant and completely unmissable black fabric and rhinestone zipper.
When the singer wanted shoulder length hair, she unzipped the wig with a flip of her wrist. When she preferred longer locks, she re-attached the bottom tresses.
The broadcast’s nearly 12 million viewers couldn’t stop talking about that wig — and even 20 years later it’s easy to understand why.
Now, Baltimore fashion fans can check out Alexander’s unabashedly over-the-top creation for themselves. The zipper wig is one of four iconic hairpieces she designed for Kim and then recreated for “The Culture: Hip-Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century,” a ticketed exhibit opening this week at the Baltimore Museum of Art — though the zippered hairpiece on view in Baltimore is an iridescent cobalt blue.
“Kim was so much fun,” Alexander said. “She merged fashion and hip-hop, and she was very open to trying things as an artist.”
Alexander, now 55, was the hottest hair stylist of the 1990s, even if few people outside the entertainment industry knew her name. She created iconic ‘dos worn by hip-hop royalty Mary J. Blige and Lauryn Hill — looks still copied today.
She is finally to beginning to receive long-overdue recognition, now that her designs will be shown in four North American museums. After leaving Baltimore in July, “The Culture” will travel to St. Louis, Cincinnati and Toronto. Her wigs will be on view alongside paintings by such acclaimed artists as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Julie Mehretu.
“To have my styles treated like art and not just as hairdos is amazing,” Alexander said.
“The Culture” was co-organized by the BMA and the St. Louis Art Museum and is among dozens of exhibits and festivals nationwide this year celebrating hip-hop’s 50th anniversary.
New York, where hip-hop originated in the Bronx in 1973, will hold 50 events in 50 locations. Philadelphia has a year-long slate of activities, PBS is streaming a four-part series, and Showtime has mounted a three-year film and video celebration wrapping up this fall.
“Fifty years ago, a small neighborhood party filled with joy and dancing became the predominant cultural influence in the world,” Asma Naeem, the BMA’s director and exhibit co-curator, said at a recent preview of the exhibit.
“The culture ignited creative powerhouses across the globe, bringing together the best examples of visual art, fashion and material culture in the world.”
The BMA exhibit doesn’t attempt to document hip-hop history — though the show includes the MacArthur Award-winning artist Joyce J. Scott’s portrait of Baltimore rap legend Tupac Shakur. Instead, the exhibit focuses on the contributions hip-hop has made to visual culture. The 90 pieces on display include paintings, sculptures, basketball shoes, do-rags — and wigs.
“The idea that there was ever a real separation between the street and the gallery, between the street and fashion, is a fallacy,” said Gamynne Guillotte, the BMA’s chief education officer.
“The Culture” argues that a direct connection exists between visionary hair stylists like Alexander and art world superstars like Mark Bradford, whose larger pieces sell for millions. Bradford creates collages from the rectangular end papers used in hair salons, a technique he uses in “Biggie, Biggie, Biggie,” a painting included in this exhibit.
There’s also a link between established creators such as Alexander and Bradford and the upcoming Baltimore sculptor Murjoni Merriweather, who is among a dozen local artists showcased in “The Culture.” Merriweather’s “Z E L L A” is a striking sculpture of a long-necked woman covered entirely with cornrows. She hand-braided hundreds of strands of hair, applied them over a ceramic base, and then burnt the edges to set the cornrows in place.
“All of my pieces are about celebrating Black culture,” Merriweather said.
Though the overall mood is celebratory, the exhibit includes a handful of artworks that tackle tough topics.
“Moby Dick (for Oscar Wilde, Oscar Romero y Oscar Grant)” by Peruvian artist William Cordova takes aim at police brutality. A decommissioned squad car has been sawed in half and put up on blocks. Cordova filled the interior with books and albums. Beneath the chassis burns a circle of white candles, similar to those used in memorial services.
Though graffiti covers the car’s exterior, the words “to serve and protect” remain faintly visible on one side.
Artist Robert Pruitt uses the gold box chains ubiquitous in hip-hop and gang culture to decry the violence afflicting some Black communities. In “For Whom the Bell Curves,” 12 chains hang from a fabric panel and trace the trans-Atlantic slave route between Africa, Europe and America.
In another gallery, the artist Michael Vasquez depicts a complicated humanity in “Chain Strangle,” his painting of three street gang members flashing hand signals. These young men are not stereotypical villains, but specific, complex individuals.
“That sense of mortality and vulnerability is something we heard over and over again in our research,” Naeem said.
And the artist Abbey Williams’ video “Overture” mocks misogyny and the myth of the ideal woman by splicing together music from the 1964 musical “My Fair Lady” with the exuberantly foul-mouthed lyrics by female rappers Princess Nokia and Khia.
Alexander has her own ideas about what the ideal woman might look like.
Though she has styled hair for such stars as Iman, Rosie Perez, Faith Evans and Aretha Franklin and worked for Blige full-time in the 1999, her muse was Lil’ Kim, who allowed the stylist to flex her creative muscles.
Alexander grew up in Prince George’s County. Even before she entered kindergarten, it was obvious she had a gift. Her mother owned three hair salons in Suitland, and by age 4, Alexander was learning the basics of cut and color.
The fledgling designer drew inspiration from women she saw in the Baltimore clubs where she came to dance, and on the streets of Europe, where she spent four months after graduating from high school.
“Something just clicked for me visually,” Alexander said. “Inspiration began to just come to me. As soon as I touched someone’s hair, I knew what to do.”
Alexander had always wanted to style hair for celebrities. After returning from Europe, she moved to New York and talked her way into a stylist job on the 1993 film, “Fly By Night.” On the set she met the rapper and actress MC Lyte, who became Alexander’s first celebrity client.
What set Alexander apart from other designers was that she realized that hair was a fiber like cotton or wool.
“Hair is a textile, and I treat it like one,” she said. “I learned how to manipulate and reshape the fibers.”
Each of the four wigs at the BMA is more unabashedly theatrical than the next: the lavender mane Kim wore to the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards that matched her sheer lavender one-shoulder jumpsuit and pastie; the brown and turquoise wig with the Chanel logo painted onto the bangs (”Chanel was Kim’s favorite designer,” Alexander said), the long flaxen wig that Kim wore to the Versace fashion show in Paris with a Greek key design on top and down one side.
“I made it overnight in my hotel room with a stencil and magic marker,” Alexander said. “Kim called me later and said, ‘Girl, all anyone wants to talk about is that wig.’ ”
Alexander retired from celebrity styling in 2003 because the frantic pace was taking a toll on her health, and moved to Dallas. Last week, when she saw her wigs displayed in the Baltimore museum, she teared up.
“In my field we were always considered artists but never like this,” she said. “I always say to people, ‘Dreams do come true.’”
If you go
“The Culture: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century” runs through July 16 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive. Tickets cost $5-$15, though the exhibit is free on April 16, May 21 and June 18. For details, call 443-573-1700 or visit artbma.org.
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