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2018 PECOU Griot HIGH RES
“Griot” (2018). Acrylic and diamond dust on indigo-dyed canvas, 66 x 48 in / 168 x 122 cmCourtesy of Lyons Wier Gallery, New York

How this artist’s powerful paintings challenge stereotypes of black men

Fahamu Pecou shares his advice on how to take on power structures through fine art

In 2002, a message appeared: “Fahamu Pecou Is the Shit!” The bold declaration, which appeared on stickers and posters around New York City, told it like it was, announcing the arrival of a new artist coming straight out of Brooklyn. Pecou, who had been doing graphic design for hip hop stars, decided to bring the language of the streets to fine art.

Over the past two decades, Pecou has used his work explore, examine, and embrace the power and presence of black masculinity in a country that alternately marginalises, fetishises, and vilifies countless lives.

With the publication of Visible Man (Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, College of Charleston), a simultaneous two-year exhibition tour across the United States (Do or Die: Affect, Ritual, Resistance), and a concurrent exhibition (MEMORY) at Lyons Wier Gallery, New York (closing 31 March), Pecou looks at the ways in which the media and pop culture shape the relationship between representation and identity.

Whether creating large-scale figurative paintings that embrace the performative aspects of gender and race, or placing his work on the cover of major magazines, Pecou firmly asserts the importance of defining one’s self-worth while simultaneously questioning the assumptions present in the packaging of existing archetypes. The result is a multi-layered body of work that re-members the black experience across time and space.

Below, Pecou speaks about what it takes to challenge the status quo, claim your space, and transform the narrative to empower, inspire, and elevate.

“I’ve been working through how this impacts black men as they develop themselves and their identities up against a culture and a society that doesn’t want to see you, yet also renders you hyper-visible in certain aspects so that you get fixed into very limited spaces of who and what you can be” – Fahamu Pecou

TAKE UP SPACE

“I started my professional career as a graphic designer working in New York. I worked with a number of hip hop celebrities designing collateral for their parties. It was really fascinating to meet the person, rather than the persona that had become popularised, and I began to think, ‘What would happen if someone marketed a visual artist the way we market a hip hop artist?’

“After a couple years of doing graphic design and being frustrated trying to get my art into galleries, I decided I would do just that. I created a marketing campaign for a persona that I put on posters, stickers, and t-shirts, and I would blast them all over town. There was no call to action. It just said: ‘Fahamu Pecou Is the Shit! Paid for the committee to make Fahamu Pecou the shit’.

“That was a part of my way of dealing with things that I was trying to rationalise or understand: make it into a joke first. Around 2003, when there was an explosion of reality TV shows and stars, I began to play around with my character and put him in those positions. I would promote him through the lens of celebrity culture and would do spoof videos of reality TV shows.

“I created a subscription card for a fake magazine called Contemporaneo, which had my character on the cover. The subscription card said that if you fill it out and mail it in, you will get a free issue of the magazine featuring Fahamu Pecou. Then I went to the magazine store and put my subscription card into every magazine on the newsstand. I did this all over town and the cards came back by the dozens.

“One day at the mailbox I was looking at the image on the card and I thought, ‘This is pretty cool. I should paint it.’ I made a painting and a light bulb went off. I realised all these ideas and questions that had been swirling around in my head, criticisms of the art world and of celebrity culture – I realised I could use magazines as a platform to have these multi-layered conversations around these ideas.

“From that point on, I deliberately sought out art, fashion, and contemporary culture magazines as the base for the paintings. With the exception of Contemporaneo, every magazine I painted is a real one, and I would interject my character and conversation into the ideas that might have been expressed in those magazines.”

EMBRACE YOUR VISIBILITY

“Thinking about Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, one of the things that continue to make it very striking, is the conversation he is having around the ways in which our society actively works to erase black masculinity from the narrative and the visible spectrum. Ultimately what he is talking about is ‘unvisibility’ – invisible is something you can’t see; unvisible is something you don’t want to see.

“Through my work as both an artist and scholar, I’ve been working through how this impacts black men as they develop themselves and their identities up against a culture and a society that doesn’t want to see you, yet also renders you hyper-visible in certain aspects so that you get fixed into very limited spaces of who and what you can be.

“I’m constantly taking on various stereotypes and notions of visibility and the forming of identity as a way to break through those challenges and present different ideas around how black men might be able to see themselves and perform in a way that makes them feel whole and complete.”

QUESTION THE NARRATIVE

“In the series Gravity, I was asking the question, ‘What would happen if we changed the way we talk about black masculinity?’ – particularly for young black men because the conversation has always centred around trauma.

“That is something I have experienced but my work is not self-portraits. I use my body as a way to perform certain ideas and stereotypes; all of the conversations I am having come from my own life and observations of the ways things are happening in the world.

“With Gravity, I was taken by that fact that from an early age, my life was being compared to statistics that had pre-ordained how I was going to move in the world; ‘By the time most black men are 18, they have already been in jail.’ This was in the 80s when I was growing up and I felt like these ideas have been perpetuated for generations.

“With Gravity, I was playing with ‘gravity’ as a double-entendre, both as physics of weighing you down and as the seriousness of the conversation. I wanted to play around with the idea of defying gravity, like, if we change the conversation, can we change the way black men move and perform?”

“I use my body as a way to perform certain ideas and stereotypes; all of the conversations I am having come from my own life and observations of the ways things are happening in the world” – Fahamu Pecou

RECOGNISE THE DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD OF REPRESENTATION

“My next series I Know Why the Caged Bird Bling follows Gravity by talking about how not only are we constantly pitted against the negative impressions and representations, but at the same time we are embracing them as challenges and defiance.

“At a certain point, there is a demand to be seen, to be recognised, and to be acknowledged, that becomes very confrontational. A lot of times, young black men take on styles of ways of self-presenting that a lot of people become offended by. But it’s like, ‘If I do it the way, you want me to do it, and wear my pants pulled all the way up, wear a suit and tie, then I am ultimately conforming to an idea that doesn’t have my best interests or my identity in mind. It doesn’t include me so it is kind of erasing me. When I confront these stereotypes by being obstinate in the ways that I choose to present myself, now you have to look at me, address me, and deal with me.’

“There is a double-edged sword: you break through these ideas and put yourself out there but at the same time, you become tethered to them and the negative connotations around the way society has deemed them to appear. Caged Bird was about trying to break through that dichotomy and find ways of acknowledging and expressing the things that make young black men beautiful, bold, and brilliant in ways that they may not necessarily think about or see.”

TRANSFORM THE NARRATIVE

“I am constantly exploring ways we might change the narrative or reorient the narrative from a place of trauma to a place of strength and resilience. That’s where my series #BLACKMATTERLIVES took its cues.

“In 2016, when I did this body of work, there was so much going on in the media landscape and even in the art world that seemed to fetishise black bodies and trauma. As we as a culture and society remain incredibly susceptible to images in the media, I could see young people around me, and even in myself, the way this constant flow of images and narratives about black people; the police, protests, and violence – it really felt like everything was pointing to signs of hopelessness and helplessness. Like: ‘There’s nothing you can do about it, that’s just how it is.’

“I felt responsible to reject that outright. #BLACKMATTERLIVES was switching the language around. Simply changing the order of the words, it becomes a completely different sentence. #BLACKMATTERLIVES is an assertion. It doesn’t require your acceptance. It is a statement of fact.

“I wanted to remind people through that body of work that, ‘Yes, we have endured traumas, violence, and harrowing experiences but look, we are here, and we continue to be powerful and resilient.’ There is a power in acknowledging that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Rather than fixate on the trauma, I wanted to do something empowering and reorient our experiences into something that would become redeeming and inspiring.”

CONNECT THE PAST, PRESENT & FUTURE

“I have been reading Black Post-Blackness: The Black Arts Movement and Twenty-First Century Aesthetics by Margo Natalie Crawford, and in it she describes blackness as this constantly involving rhythmic expression that is not linear but is actually cyclical.

“When we think of hip hop, it has a rhythm that involves pulling from the past in terms of sampling to the present in terms of the lyrical content to the future in terms of bending the sound to create something new, so that it is like past, present, and future all happening at the same time.

“In a similar way, blackness operates. We are constantly pulling from past expressions of blackness, and that doesn’t just mean time-wise, but also looking at various locations and expressions from different parts of the world that began to inform, influence, and inspire the way we might shape our blackness here in Atlanta or in New York – so that you have this constant moving, vibrating, pulsating idea of blackness being drawn from all at the same time.”

“There is a power in acknowledging that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Rather than fixate on the trauma, I wanted to do something empowering and reorient our experiences into something that would become redeeming and inspiring” – Fahamu Pecou

RE-MEMBER WHO YOU ARE

“When I began thinking about MEMORY, of wanting to play around with this idea of unmaking blackness, making blackness, and then remaking blackness again so that, as we continue to move in whatever direction that we are moving in, we can constantly shape and inform our memory of how to move forward.

“There’s a great African philosophy that is centred on the Egyptian myth of Osiris, who is murdered by his brother Seth. After Seth kills him, to further humiliate him, he dismembers his body and scatters the pieces throughout the Nile River Valley. In a final act of love and devotion, Osiris’s wife Isis commits her life to finding all of these pieces. She ultimately collects all of the pieces and re-members him, and puts him back together. Ultimately, with some magical help, she is impregnated and gives birth to Horus.

“The idea of the fragmented, dismembered black body is a metaphor for the contemporary black experience, that for centuries and generations, our black bodies have been dismembered through a variety of traumas that have been enacted upon us: being stripped from our culture, our religion, and our countries, being forced to endure slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, police violence, and inter-violence in black communities – all these ways our bodies have been dismembered.

“What I am doing through my work is very similar to what Isis did: to collect the broken fragments and re-member us. MEMORY comes from that space of attempting to re-member our history, our legacy, our past, to remake our present, and to ultimately forge a new future.”

MEMORY is on view at Lyons Wier Gallery, New York, through March 31, 2018

Do or Die: Affect, Ritual, Resistance is on view at Mary Elizabeth Dee Shaw Gallery, Weber State University, Ogden, UT, through April 7, 2018. It will then travel to the Museum of Art, University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH (8/27/18–10/21/18); Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University, Atlanta, GA (1/19/19–04/28/19); Pand the African American Museum, Philadelphia, PA (5/23/19–8/25/19)

Follow Pecou here and here

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