Evolving through the course of Living Like Kings, Pieces and Placement features a series of large-scale works inspired by the game of kings.
Each month, a new artist will create a work based upon a single chess piece, beginning with the pawn and ending with the king. Selected by Daniel Burnett, the group of artists includes Ruben Aguirre, Christopher Burch, Stan Chisholm, Nice-One & Lucx, and Benjamin Pierce, each of whom has a personal connection to hip hop culture. While the artists represent its multifaceted elements and diverse makeup, their scope is much larger than any genre or catch-all label. Each also has a relationship with chess—some through a passion for the game, while others feature related elements in their work, such as a strong sense of line, grid, or pattern. Together, the artists will act at the intersection of chess and hip hop, exploring the rich history and symbolism of the two cultures.
The pawn has been a part of chess for 1500 years, since the creation of its predecessor, chaturanga, and has gained some additional abilities over the game’s evolution. These include the ability to move two squares forward on its initial move,en passant, and promotion, in which a pawn that reaches the opposite end of the board may be transformed into a piece of the player’s choosing. The pawn has achieved special symbolic resonance, often used by writers as a metaphor for a person manipulated by another individual or forces beyond their control.
The Pawn features a composition of exuberant colors and geometric patterning, which references pawn structure and wild style graffiti. Disguised within the work are patterns that mimic the 16 major pawn formations, reflecting the practice of camouflage and abstraction of letterform found in wild style graffiti. Hiding in plain sight, it challenges the viewer to identify the pawn configurations embedded within the composition. The result is a work that can be appreciated in a purely aesthetic sense, which also explores the veiled language and structure of a game of chess.
A Chicago native, Daniel Burnett has called Saint Louis home since 2009. Since moving, he has been honing his craft on canvas as well as on the street. A passion for blue collar/lowbrow arts, such as sign painting and graffiti, make up the cornerstone of his ethic.
In the past, chess sets sometimes included knights that were depicted as mounted fighters bearing weapons, preparing to charge into battle. In the mid-19th century, the Staunton set, now the standard for use in tournament play, was developed. This set features a representation of the knight based upon a sculpture from the east pediment of the Parthenon, which shows horses exhausted after a long night of pulling the chariot of the Grecian moon goddess, Selene.
One of the most unique characters in the game, the knight is the only chess piece that is able to leap over its opponents in all directions, unobstructed by the pieces surrounding him. This mural depicts the abstract journey of one knight through initiation, battle, and self-sacrifice as he makes his way across the board to save the queen. The gestural marks and textures pay homage to the essence of graffiti, while the dizzying layers of patterns and bold colors are visual references to the improvisational natures of both hip hop and chess.
Chicago duo Nice-One and Lucx have been creating street art for over a decade. Their collaborative installations are fantastic and imaginative—Lucx’s somber characters and neutral color palette temper Nice-One’s whimsical and vibrant illustrations. Together their works are balanced by a strong sense of counterpoint rooted in contrasting color palettes and illustrative styles.
The title of the ancient game that was a forerunner to chess, chaturanga, translates to four parts or limbs, referring to the four divisions of the Indian army represented by the game’s pieces. These included infantry, chariots, cavalry, and lastly, elephants, which were the predecessors to the bishop. The elephants could move two spaces diagonally, leaping over the first square.
Courier chess, an 11th century chess variant, introduced a piece called the courier. Able to move any number of squares along a diagonal, this piece had the same movement as the modern bishop. As new cultures played chess, the piece formerly known as the elephant gained new identities: in England, it became known as the bishop, while other European cultures called it a runner or messenger. In France, it was known as the fou, or fool, and in some Indian sets the piece was represented as a camel rider. The familiar Staunton chess set, created in the mid-19th century, features bishops topped by mitres, the peaked hat worn by their namesakes.
The parallel between chess and the combative nature of hip hop culture can be found in the dying art of the ‘battle.’ Within the four foundational elements of hip hop, battles are a crucial yet fading aspect of the culture. They have historically been a method of establishing hierarchy and settling disputes in a comparatively non-violent way. In The Bishop, Pierce has created a character that embodies this parallel. In the work, the bishop flips the opposing king. Graffiti writers sometimes flip or invert an opposing writer’s name as a sign of disrespect, an opening salvo in a battle or declaration of war.
Benjamin Pierce attended Washington University where he received his BFA in illustration and graphic design. He was born and raised in Saint Louis, Missouri and now lives on the city’s South Side.
“My paintings are the resolutions of my daydreams. These images are hodgepodges of people I’ve seen on the street and the background stories that I’ve created for them. My attentions are drawn toward those people and places whose stories are perhaps forgotten or ignored.
For many people, imagination is their only escape from circumstance. When one lives in a world quick to snuff out wonder and promise, it becomes necessary to create your own.
These images are the world as I choose to see it.
‘We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.’”
The most powerful piece in the game before the transformation of the queen, the rook has had the ability to move any number of squares vertically or horizontally since the origins of chess. In early Indian and Persian versions of the game, the rook was represented by a war chariot, a swift and powerful military unit. When chess reached Europe, the iconography of the piece changed. Perhaps inspired by siege towers, medieval military devices that specialized in breaching the walls of cities, or the strength of fortified castles, the rook soon came to resemble a tower.
As chess reached new audiences, the rook also earned a new ability—that of castling. This both helped players develop the rook earlier in the game and offered more protection to the king from the newly powerful queen and bishop.
Christopher Burch is an artist, events organizer, and educator. A Saint Louis native, he now lays his head in San Francisco, though he maintains his St. Louis ties and often exhibits in his hometown. Currently, he is preparing for the upcoming exhibition, Oh Yea of Little Faith, at the esteemed White Walls SF and has exhibited in a range of galleries. His art focuses on the documentation of an ever-expanding library of characters that explore the intersections of Blues music and culture, Native American and southern mythology and folklore, and personal insights. Burch’s most recent works are narrative paintings based on the classic southern trickster, Br’er Rabbit.
“The works of Christopher Burch report from the interstices of identity and history, depicting bodies, acts and ideas within a process of co-emergence, slippage, and simultaneity. Burch’s aesthetic, fully realized as a resistant personal language, employs the abject and grotesque as accomplices: both hinge upon empathy as the locus of their power. Through drawing, sculpture, installation, and other desperate materials, Burch exposes the artifice inherent to the practice of self-definition through exteriority.
Surface is an illusion of protection-a false border”
Read an interview with Chris Burch about The Rook in our February blog post >
Known as the counselor (mantri) in the Indian chess predecessor, chaturanga, the queen’s original manifestation was little more than a diminished king, limited to moving a singlesquare diagonally. The once-diminutive counselor became much more powerful upon the arrival of chess in Europe, where players experimented with extending the counselor’s power. First simply allowed a two-square move, then a knight’s leap, the queen’s capacities crystallized into her present combination of the rook and bishop by the sixteenth century, reflecting the rise in prominence of European queens in that era.
Chaturanga’s mantri, or male counselor piece, later became known as a firz in the Arabian game shantranj. The piece was feminized in medieval Europe, owing perhaps to the similarity in sound between the word firz and the French word vierge (virgin, implying ‘the Holy Virgin’). Once she became a member of the royal court, the queen’s design began incorporating sovereign attributes, such as an orb, scepter, or robes. Later, the modern Staunton set endowed her with today’s familiar coronet.
Inspired by “Mad Queen Chess,” or the 16th-century evolution of the queen into a more powerful piece, Stan Chisholm’s The Queen’s Coverage illustrates how the movement of the piece gives it dominance over the board. The heavily patterned fabrics of the queen’s robe dramatically drape and transform into a distant landscape, complete with an arching golden path and ghostly forms in the sky. A tangled narrative is formed, which represents imagined historical instances of cultural exchange created through travel, technology, and hardship caused by war and royal leaders.
Stan Chisholm is a multi-disciplinary artist in the truest sense, creating work that can exist independently or connect to his over-arching web of projects. In addition to visual arts, he is a local DJ and producer of music for which he has received a number of accolades and awards.
“18andCounting is an excuse to do as much as necessary.
Installation/Illustration + Rap/Text Art + Events/Graphic Design + DJing/Collage.
The ultimate sovereign, the king is both the most vulnerable and invaluable piece. Reflecting the power of the crown, the king can move in any direction; reflecting the high price on his life, he is constrained to one square movements. Born of the days before long-range warfare, when royalty was closely associated with military might and battle was a highly personalized experience, it is natural that the monarch piece joins his army into battle, and that his entrapment is the ultimate victory.
The piece was known as raja in the Indian game chaturanga, which spread to Persia in the 8th century. There the king was translated as shah. It became customary for players to warn an opponent of the king’s peril by calling out “king” (shah) or “helpless” (manad), forming the respective terms “check” and “mate.” While a cross-topped crowned became the standard designation for the king in the 19th century, earlier sets often denoted its importance through either the height of the piece or the inclusion of other regal symbols, such as an orb, scepter, or full throne.
In The King, Ruben Aguirre represents the titular piece by portraying the ride to battle. The king is illustrated by his crown, an attribute that is symbolic of divinity, light, and the connection to a higher form of life. The king is sturdy in appearance but also vulnerable. The asymmetrical design of the mural reflects the imbalance between the king’s great power and his limited mobility. He is surrounded and supported by all of the other pieces, which are represented by their own iconic features and arranged in a chaotic yet rhythmic movement. A large semicircular shape symbolizes the sun, a marker of time that records the days, and nights, and minutes of the battle.
Ruben Aguirre is a Chicago-based painter who has transitioned from graffiti writing to abstract painter/muralist. He has produced a number of murals in the Chicago land area, and recently exhibited in Paint, Paste, Sticker: Chicago Street Art at the Chicago Cultural Center, and in The National Museum of Mexican Art exhibit, Outside In: The Mexican-American Street Art Movement in Chicago. He received a B.A. from Columbia College Chicago with a concentration in painting in 2002. Ruben was born in 1979 in Chicago, Illinois.
“My work has evolved from the ego-based, quantity driven Graffiti mind set, to public mural work that embraces the communal and contemplative. Being a Graffiti artist mandates incessant exploration of new and different spaces. This motivation will always be an aspect of my work. In my journey to push my work beyond letter based Graffiti, Chicago neighborhoods became my studio space and taught me the ability to use painting to re-contextualize existing structures. The unexpected beauty and intention of murals have the power to change the perception of ignored neighborhoods and spaces. My work is an abstraction of traditional Graffiti letter-forms that create organic shapes and line work that integrate with preexisting lines of buildings or surfaces. While graffiti was all about making myself known as an individual, my current work embraces contemplation on a space’s use, history and people to create visual work that enhances communities.”
3/17/15 Living St. Louis — Black Art Exhibts by Ruth Ezell
10/15/14: ALIVE Magazine — World Chess Hall Of Fame “Living Like Kings” Opening Night