Is “Mumbo Sauce” Guilty of More Than Swagger-Jacking?
"Pump Me Up" may have recently closed at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, but the show and some of the issues it raised still reverberate. A satellite exhibit on view at a pop-up gallery on H Street NE has fanned the flame wars that "Pump Me Up" sparked.
"Mumbo Sauce," which is showing at 906 H Street NE, closes on Sunday after an abbreviated run. It was curated by "Pump Me Up" impresario Roger Gastman and Contemporary Wing gallery founder Lauren Gentile. The show only opened a week and a half ago, but "Mumbo Sauce" has already kicked up an uproar on Facebook, where D.C. rapper and City Paper contributor Head Roc asks whether go-go artists are being properly credited and compensated for the Globe Posters on view—and for sale—in "Mumbo Sauce."
On Facebook, Head Roc points to Sidney Thomas' recent "Mumbo Sauce" post for Examiner.com, which criticizes both "Pump Me Up" and "Mumbo Sauce" for allegedly exploiting go-go artists. "I asked the Corcoran officials if any funds generated by the [Pump Me Up] exhibit would go back to the go-go musicians who actually made the music and contributed to the advancement of the culture," Thomas writes. "The Corcoran people seemed irritated by my inquiry, but eventually they did respond and claimed, 'The Pump Me Up exhibit itself makes no profit.' They also said the go-go bands had donated the pieces on display and they weren't for sale."
The Globe posters on view at the Corcoran weren't for sale, but viewers can buy the real deal at "Mumbo Sauce": authentic go-go promotional posters, priced between $75 and $150, or $500 for rarities. But Rosina Teri Memolo, one "Pump Me Up" artist whose photography is on view in "Mumbo Sauce," pushed back against the notion that anyone was making money hand over fist as a result. "I understand being fixated with the money, it sure does look slick," Memolo offers, in a contentious exchange with Thomas and Head Roc on Head Roc's Facebook wall.
Maybe it's the move from the street to the gallery that has some go-go fans bristling; looming large over both exhibits are questions about authenticity, class, and race. But whether a white Bethesda native like Gastman is sufficiently "credentialed" to curate a show related to go-go is almost beside the point, because any move from the street into the gallery potentially degrades the work's character regardless of who put it there. It's also worth considering that while go-go is unique to D.C., these questions are hardly specific to go-go. The same questions plagued "Art in the Streets," the street-art show that Gastman curated for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 2011. The same questions plague any street-art show anywhere.
What's happening specifically at "Mumbo Sauce" is even less unusual. Co-curators Gentile and Gastman bought the posters last summer from Globe, and now they're re-selling them. "A group of Globe posters like this have never been available before and we made a point of keeping the prices accessible," Gentile writes in an email. "Roger and I profit from the sales and so did Globe. It is just like any used poster, record, book, secondary market art sale, eBay, etc."
Go-go promoters could argue that they deserve a cut from sales. For the most part, it was the people who promoted go-gos, not the artists who performed in them, who commissioned Globe to print the promotional posters. But that's not how secondary-market sales work, or no one would ever be able to make money commemorating an event. (Imagine President Barack Obama asking for a cut from every piece of inauguration swag.) While these Globe posters inherit their nostalgic value from legendary D.C. acts like Rare Essence, Trouble Funk, Chuck Brown and many others, the posters are themselves works made by Harry Knorr, the graphic artist responsible for the wood-type behind the Globe hype.
If "Pump Me Up" was susceptible to claims of swagger-jacking—and sure, it is—it would make sense that "Mumbo Sauce" would garner the same criticism and worse. After all, the H Street NE pop-up show is explicitly cashing in on go-go posters in a way that the Corcoran show didn't. But "Mumbo Sauce" comes by it honestly.
Ethics aside, the show is a strong exhibit of visual artists whose works were largely glossed over in "Pump Me Up"—one of my criticisms of that show. A wall of Cynthia Connolly's letterpressed photos of roadside signs is one of the best presentations of her work that anyone's ever put on. There's new work by Borf and old stuff by Clark Fox, two names familiar to two very different generations of people who love D.C. graffiti-inspired pop art. With "Mumbo Sauce," Tim Conlon gets an opportunity to redeem himself for the shameless tape drawing of a body outline that greeted viewers at the entrance of "Pump Me Up."
Some items on sale in the pop-up show seem like they might be there to troll D.C. natives. The limited-edition jars of mumbo sauce—yes, that's right—read like a salvo in a culture war. Yet these were packaged by Memolo, who grew up in D.C. She bought three gallons of "homemade hot orange mumbo" at Gourmet Express at 13th and Pennsylvania avenues SE near her home. The labels feature her photos from the carry-outs and counters where mumbo sauce can still be found. "I often shoot corner stores and carry-outs because I feel like they are disappearing," Memolo says. Can a D.C. artist making D.C. work be guilty of swagger-jacking?
As for the Globe posters, there's another way to think about what they offer in "Mumbo Sauce"—besides a sincere bargain. This show helps to put Knorr in the context in which he belongs: as an important graphic artist with a significant footprint in D.C. That's the opposite of swagger-jacking.