Roberto Lugo, a 2012 BFA graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute, has seen his Kansas City connection come full circle with the acquisition of “Kobe Urn” by the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art.
“Uniting (Lugo’s) love of graffiti and ceramics, this extraordinary vessel is a poignant and powerful homage to Kobe Bryant,” said Bruce Hartman, who recently retired from his post as executive director and chief curator at the Nerman. “Knowing that the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, was eyeing this vase for their collection, we had to move quickly to secure it for the Nerman. We did just that!”
Created shortly after the celebrated athlete’s death in a helicopter crash, “Kobe Urn” (2020) features the legendary “purple and gold” of the Los Angeles Lakers, intricate overlays, graffiti-style lettering, and a portrait of the late superstar along with a championship ring. Measuring 42 inches tall and 13 inches in maximum diameter, the vibrant urn resonates artistic excellence wrapped in street cred.
Immortalizing urban icons while melding ceramics and the struggles of inner city living, Lugo, an MFA graduate of Penn State, has earned the monikers “Hip Hop Potter” and “Ghetto Potter.” His body of ceramics includes teapots, vases and earthenware. The subjects of his porcelain visual riffs include Tupac, Biggie, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald and others.
Born in Philadelphia in 1981, to first-generation Puerto Rican immigrants, Lugo grew up amid the ravages of drug and gang activity. A religious child, he had vibrant interests that included grunge rock, hockey, baseball, and of course, art. He still uses his tag “Robske.” “I couldn’t make the pottery I make today if I hadn’t started doing graffiti as a teen,” he told the online art publication, “Hyperallergic.”
Currently an assistant professor at Tyler School of Art and Architecture, Lugo is the recipient of many awards, including a 2019 Pew Fellowship, a Cynthia Hazen Polsky and Leon Polsky Rome Prize and a United States Artists award. Lugo first turned his hand to ceramics at a community college, following a succession of factory jobs and a move to Florida. There, he found his calling. “It was the first time in my life I was ever told I was good at anything,” he told the American Craft Council.
Today, Lugo’s practice includes social activism, spoken word and education. In 2014, he was selected as an emerging artist for the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts and presented at their 2015 conference. He spoke about how art saved his life. The video has received more than 20,000 views online, and Lugo has received more than 100 email responses.
In addition to celebrating and immortalizing Bryant, Lugo’s “Kobe Urn” captures the athlete’s essence. Lugo’s image of Bryant exudes the intensity and obsession with success that Bryant was known for. It is a fitting tribute to Kobe Bryant the cultural icon, while reflecting the urban swag and cultural timelessness that he is synonymous with.
In the Nerman’s collection, “Kobe Urn” exerts a kinship with Kehinde Wiley’s “Alexander the Great (Variation),” a piece that employs similar juxtapositions of “old world/new world” dynamics. Lugo’s work can also be found in the collections of Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, The High Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Brooklyn Museum, Walters Museum and others. His “Frederick Douglass / Arthur Ashe Urn” (2017) is on view in the new exhibit, “Crafting America,” at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art through May 31.
“Kobe Urn” will be part of an upcoming exhibition focusing on new acquisitions in the Nerman Museum’s first floor galleries, when the museum is permitted to reopen. Check the museum’s website, www.nermanmuseum.org, for details.