Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition (on view March 14–July 8, 2012).

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Byzantium and . . . Hip-Hop?

Grace Labatt, Editor, Voyageur Press

Posted: Thursday, May 31, 2012

«Fourteen centuries after the works on display in Byzantium and Islam were created, Byzantine art is flourishing where you might least expect it: the streets of New York. That's where artist Manny Vega displays his large-scale mosaics of saints, heroes, dancers, and conga-drumming angels, all made using true Byzantine techniques.»

Vega may be the world's first "Byzantine hip-hop" artist.

"I'm on a campaign to get people to appreciate history again," he said recently. "The art provides an invitation for people to welcome history and innovation in the same voice."

Born in the Bronx in 1956, Vega has been making art since the 1970s. His work—which includes not only mosaics, but also paintings, drawings, and mixed-media creations incorporating shells, beads, fabrics, and other objects—is inspired by what he calls the "saturation of images" that permeates daily life. In a series of mosaics commissioned in 1996 for the subway station at 110th Street and Lexington, Vega depicted scenes of kids playing in the street, a Yankee-cap–clad snow-cone maker mixing ice and syrup, and a woman juggling a pumpkin and grapes while chatting with a fruit vendor. Each work is vividly detailed—for instance, in one mosaic, unbeknownst to a regal, turban-wearing woman leading a child, a tiny tiled lizard is scurrying across the wall behind her.


Un Sábado en la Ciento Diez (A Saturday on 110th Street), by Manuel Vega (1996). Photo by: Robbie Rosenfeld, 2005

The works are also meticulously crafted. Vega was initially attracted to the mosaic style by the "work ethic, which called for the straight-up devotion of a poet." He read books to teach himself mosaic techniques, and took a course in Ravenna, Italy, which was, for a time, the seat of the Byzantine governor. Once he comes up with a concept for a new work, Vega creates a maquette, or small-scale model, and selects the color palette. He then draws the image on the surface of a wooden panel and begins fabricating a section of the image, using stones he gets from vendors around New York. Like Byzantine artisans, Vega spends days at a time on a piece; unlike them, he listens to samba while he works.

Another reason Vega was drawn to Byzantine art was its reverent and direct spirituality. He grew up in a Catholic community, surrounded by paper icons not unlike the iconography of Byzantium, and he gained an early understanding of how these images become living, unifying art. While visiting the 2004 exhibition Byzantium: Faith and Power at the Met, Vega recalls, "I was inspired by the concept of creating art that served to cultivate a spiritual aspect in our lives. My love for tactile fabrication of objects and images that celebrate spirit became a venue of expression."

Ewer   Statuette

Left: Ewer with dancing females within arcades, ca. 6th–7th century A.D. Iran, Sasanian. Silver, mercury gilding. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Mr. and Mrs. C. Douglas Dillion Gift and Rogers Fund, 1967 (67.10a,b); Right: Statuette of a Woman Playing Crotales, 500-1000. Made in Eastern Mediterranean. Copper-based alloy. Département des Antiquités Égyptiennes, Musée du Louvre, Paris (E 25393)

Today you can see Vega's Byzantine hip-hop art in several locations in New York, including Lexington Avenue between 104 and 106th Streets. And you can check out some precursors in the exhibition—after all, what are dancing ladies and crotale players, if not early hip-hop Byzantine?


  • Lilian Navarro says:

    Manny Vega's art work is an inspiration and all his paintings, mosaics, draws are so beautiful, so perfect, so intense. It is very gratefull finally to see his wonderful work reconized by this art museum. He is a great artist. Awasome!
    Lilian Navarro, Salvador, Bahia, Brazil.

    Posted: June 4, 2012, 2:28 p.m.

  • Manny Vega says:

    The MTA commission of the mosaics of the train station were designed by me, and were actually my first experience with a fabricator . I was able to supervise the actual fabrication by Peter Columbo Artistic Mosaics, which lead to my own evolution as a ''mosaicist''. In 1999, I went to Mexico City, and made contact with the company called ''Kolorines''. They were able to introduce me to their master artisans, and inventory of mosaic glass and tiles. For the next ten years, I created many mosaic projects and commissions as part of my artistic expression. In 2011, I was awarded an artist fellowship from the Joan Mitchell foundation, which I utilized to expand interest in the medium. I traveled to study with Luciana Notturni in Ravenna,Italy as well as field study of Antonio Gaudi's mosaics in Barcelona. These experiences has contributed greatly to my craftsmanship and artistry.

    Posted: June 4, 2012, 2:54 p.m.

  • Nancie Mills Pipgras says:

    Great post! I just tweeted and Facebook'd it to Mosaic Art NOW followers. More, please!

    Posted: June 4, 2012, 5:26 p.m.

  • Donna Burge says:

    Beautiful! What books did you read while doing your research?
    I am not an artist per se, just love art and creating!
    any recommendations are appreciated!

    Posted: June 9, 2012, 12:27 p.m.

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About the Author

Grace Labatt is an editor of culture books at Voyageur Press. Previously, she worked as an editor at Oxford University Press.

About this Blog

This blog accompanied the special exhibition Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition, on view March 14–July 8, 2012.