New East Digital Archive

Modern icons: from Notorious B.I.G. to Earl Sweatshirt, a Russian painter pays homage to hip-hop

An interview with Russian artist Alexander Chursin, who paints famous rappers using traditional techniques

6 August 2015

In 2014, the artist Alexander Chursin was sitting in his studio in Krasnodar, southern Russia, preparing a canvas. “I was preparing a gesso — a primer made of organic glue and chalk. It’s a really time-consuming process which takes a lot of effort.” It occurred to him that the techniques he was using were centuries old, dating back to “the titans of Renaissance.” And with this in mind, the artist, now 27, began to think of how he could make a painting that looked back to history while referencing the modern world. “I wanted to experiment by creating something that would reflect that epoch in technique but would look absolutely unexpected,” Chursin recalls.

For inspiration Chursin turned to his other great artistic love apart from the Renaissance — hip-hop. “I am truly a big fan of both Renaissance and hip-hop culture,” says the artist. “I used photos from the internet to draw my favourite hip-hop artists from LA. They seemed to be the apostles of modern culture for me and I had been keen on their music for a long time.” The result was The Renaissance Portrait of Tyler, The Creator, a striking painting of the leader of LA’s Odd Future rap collective.

The portrait was a marked departure from Chursin’s usual work. A college dropout, he’d worked in the funeral business since the age of 14 engraving headstones. He maintained his own practice on the side, painting images that depicted a view of human life as harsh and raw and unlovely. And he thought little more about the portrait of Tyler. “I was just having fun, and I had no plans to continue the experiment.”

But six months later Chursin was invited to take part in an exhibition by the influential Krasnodar-based art group ZIP. He suggested including the portrait of Tyler. ZIP were enthusiastic and asked him to make more works in the same vein. This time, Chursin looked to Dutch realist paintings of the 17th century as the model for his rap portraits, even going so far as place some of the paintings in gold and carved wood frames reminiscent of the era. His subjects included Tyler’s Odd Future bandmate Earl Sweatshirt, Ice Cube and B-Real of Cypress Hill and other stars including Notorious BIG and Faith Evans and the enigmatic masked rapper, MF Doom.

“Hip-hop culture truly has a great influence on the whole world,” says Chursin. “It contains a rebellious spirit of fighting injustice and it stands for exploited people. Hip-hop is quite popular in Russia. The mentality of those in the southern cities of Russia has something in common with people who live in inner cities in America.”

While many young, contemporary artists have eschewed painting, Chursin has taken to reviving a near-obsolete technique — oil painting — with the help of a popular music genre. The series has been received positively in Russia by both the art world and the general public as a result. Since Hip-hop Renaissance, the artist has continued to paint, and is interested in bringing social issues, including the restrictions of rights and liberties, to the forefront.