What initially started out as an underground street fad expected to wither off into the wind, rap eventually proved its worth as a subcultural mainstay significant enough to stand the test of time. Since its inception, the genre has served as a voice for those living in underserved communities, continuously echoing what plays out in the streets. For this reason, hip-hop as a communal culture acts like a microphone for societies striving to incite change.
British-born artist, Amar Stewart, is someone who understands this dynamic and has even found a way to harness its raw power to feed his creative itch. For those unaware, the conceptual oil painter carved out a niche sketching legendary rap artists guised as 17th century aristocrats. However, before we explore his awe-inspiring series, let’s first get to know that man behind the murals.
We had the opportunity to go one-one-one with Amar to find out more about his journey as an artist and what influences motivate him to create.
How did your journey as an artist begin?
In my twenties I ran a franchise in London that originated from San Francisco called Upper Playground. The brand focused heavily on collaborating with artists from the graffiti and contemporary art scene. There were big names liked Saber, David Choe, Sam Flores, Estevan Oriol, N8 Van Dyke and so many other inspiring artist’s work that I was surrounded by on a daily basis. I always had a passion for drawing as a kid, but to see these guys doing something they love and be successful at it, it gave me the motivation to learn how to paint. The next several years would be me sitting at a table in my apartment lounge after work learning how to paint. It was tough and frustrating at times, but I’m happy that I stuck with it.
Did you originally gravitate towards oil paint? What was it about this medium that spoke to you as an artist?
I actually went through so many mediums before I got to oil. Earlier I mentioned that I taught myself to paint. I didn’t read any books or go to any classes because I wanted to take this journey by myself. I explored different parts of it using different mediums, use different subject matters etc. I painted with acrylic, watercolors, aerosol, and eventually oil. For me, oil is perfect. You can work with the paint and push it around for a while as it takes some time to dry. I like how forgiving it is.
So much of your work revolves around hip-hop. Are you listening to music when you paint, and if so, who? Are you inspired by melodies and beats or by lyrics?
I can’t paint without music. It’s such an important part of my process. I like to go to a different place in my head when I work, but I can’t get there without music. It’s funny because a lot of people assume I must only listen to Hip-Hop if I’m working on a Hip-Hop portrait. At times, I will, and when I do I listen to mostly beats. Dilla, Nujabes, George Fields, Fushou and Jay Alpha are my go to’s. But I like to explore all kinds of music and all genres. I like to deep dive into the samples that Hip-Hop artists use within their music, which can come from rock, pop, jazz, blues, funk….. the list goes on.
What was it about Frans Hals’ work that drew you to paint in his style? Who else are you influenced by?
I think it was all about the fun aspect of his work I was drawn to. If you look at the facial expressions, poses and coloring of the paintings, it almost seemed like he was just having a jolly old time painting, but at the same time creating such beautiful work. My early Hip-Hop Royalty collection was heavily influenced by him. I was then drawn to De Goya and Rembrandt who used a darker palette which I felt was more the direction I wanted to go in at the time. Rembrandt is still my favorite painter. Living artists like Conor Harrington, Seamus Conely, Robert Standish, Axel Void, and Mister Cartoon are just a few that I respect in the game.
Contemporary pop-culture has uncovered the budding relationship between art and hip-hop over the past few years, what are your thoughts on this dynamic? Where do you see it going?
It’s great. It’s good to see that Hip-Hop can inspire artists to create a body of work like I have done myself and that art is being incorporated into album artwork. It’s great to see artists being celebrated by such big names in the Hip-Hop world. As for where I see it going, who knows? This year has been a wild one!
The intersection between art and fashion is another subcultural pairing we’ve been witnessing lately, can you explain this fascination behind this?
Having worked in the “art and fashion” sector for some time, I found that a lot of people are die hard fans of artists and they want to rep them 24/7. Be it on an item of clothing, a coffee mug, homewares and even shower curtains. This happens in every subcultural pairing, be it in sports merch or band merch. The difference here is that we are talking about real art from real artists putting out work that you aren’t really going to see on the high street. It’s refreshing and different. No more are the days where you will walk down the street and bump into someone who is wearing the same boring graphic shirt or Abercrombie and Fitch button up. People want to wear something that has a story and looks dope at the same time. It’s accessible, wearable art which is great for the person rocking it because they get to look fresh and it’s more eyes on the creators work.
Can you single out any specific pieces in your catalog that are your favorites? Why?
I’m always critical of my work. There are paintings that I’m pleased with and then it changes, so this is a tough one for me to answer.
What can we expect from you in the near future?
I’m currently exploring a more abstract approach to Hip-Hop portraiture. I like to experiment with new concepts every few years. I’m excited about this series. In fact maybe I can answer the question above now and say my favorite from my catalog is my most recent piece.
Landing upon Dutch painter, Frans Hals’, time-honored catalog provided Stewart a window into his professional future, and is credited with being the main catalyst to his infamous “Rap Royalty” collection. What started out as a love letter to his adopted home of New York City, Stewart began painting some of the area’s most revered hip-hop artists decked out as ancient historians.
His work resembles a pop-culture time machine in that the subjects he chose to paint were rendered in a style that predates them by over 300 years. Where else can you find a portraiture of Tupac posing eerily similar to the subject captured in “Portrait of a Man Holding a Skull”? Or JAY-Z sketched with his hand positioned upright like the bloke in Hals’ “Young Man Holding a Skull” masterpiece?
Amar Stewart’s work shines a light on the genre’s brightest stars, presenting them in a way that stirs the imagination while uncovering some of art’s earliest influencers. In teaming up with Urbancoolab, Stewart’s collection sits somewhere between a rapper greatest of all time list, renaissance art history lesson, and a streetwear capsule collection.