ARC Magazine: The Reservations of Blackness and the Politics of Medium-
Interrogating Fahamu Pecou
By Nicole Smythe Johnson
If, with no background information, you should type “Fahamu Pecou” into a search engine, I’m willing to bet it would take you at least ten minutes to figure out whether Fahamu Pecou is an actual person, a mere persona, a trickster, or a genius. If you’re like me, in about the same amount of time, you’re likely to find yourself on the “Fahamu Pecou is the Shit” train, slightly embarrassed when you realize you didn’t bother to ask where it’s going.
As it turns out, he is a real person and a persona. There is certainly a good dose of satire involved, and the PhD candidate at Emory University’s Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts just may be a genius (if that means anything anymore). Don’t let the witty, playful tone of his repertoire fool you. The briefest exchange with the sober Pecou reveals a rigour and deliberation that can feel at odds with his brash alter-ego “Fahamu Pecou is the Shit”. It becomes clear that the slippages and contradictions that make his work fascinating are very deliberate devices, honed over years.
Pecou (b. 1975) has been making waves in the American and international art scene for years. Since 2005, he has participated in several solo and group exhibitions in New York, Basel, Cape Town and most recently Paris. His work has been reviewed and featured in numerous publications including; Art In America, Harper’s Magazine, NY Arts Magazine, Mass Appeal Magazine, The Fader Magazine and on the cover of Artlies Magazine.
Though he is primarily a painter, his work includes video pieces, performance, and quite often the melding together of all three. He’s even recorded an album. His most recent work focuses on representations of black masculinity and how these images come to “define black men across generations and geographical boundaries”. However, themes like the politics of the art world and the nature of fame also figure heavily.
When we spotted a curious resemblance to ARC’s cover in his “Shiny Things”- a painting from the 2007 series “All Dat Glitters”, which samples the covers of several magazines- we decided it was time to unpack the Fahamu Pecou universe. In late 2012, I sat down with him and asked him to explain himself.
NSJ: There’s so much happening here, I’m not sure where to start. Let’s start with something easy- what’s the context you place your work in? And what’s your process?
FP: To begin with, I would like to offer a brief bit of history as it pertains to my creative development. As a child, I was an avid reader. I read everything in sight, but growing up poor in a rural community in South Carolina, my “sight distance” was greatly inhibited. Someone in my family acquired a set of World Book Encyclopedias from 1964 and they constituted the bulk of reading material in my home. My childhood was bracketed between reading (and re-reading and re-reading) this set of encyclopedias and watching cartoons. Somewhere in the midst of all of this I developed an affinity for the profiles of significant historical figures who loomed in my imagination as these larger-than-life personalities – who I admired greatly (I often fantasized about the day I would appear in the pages of those same encyclopedias). These iconic figurations were juxtaposed with my passion for drawing and cartoons.
Fast forward to my years as a college student at The Atlanta College of Art, where encyclopedias were traded in for magazines, I was drawn to the stylized and larger-than-life representations of the celebrities contained therein. Though I was primarily a painter, I always flirted with elements of character building and media in my work. My passion for magazines fueled my interest in graphic design as well and soon after graduation, I found myself working as a designer for a boutique agency in New York that did a lot of collateral for hip hop artists and their entrepreneurial endeavours. Working closely with the artists I got to see the “real” individual behind the constructed identity that made up their public face. It is also then that I really began to take notice of the power, complexity and cunning of marketing.
I say all of this to give you a snapshot into the initial thought process behind the work. The “Fahamu Pecou is The Shit” character is born out of an awareness of the distinction between performed identities and the multi-layered identity that exists “off-camera”. Additionally, The character is also very much aware of and exploits the exclusion of his otherness within the context of the institutions in which he is primarily engaged. The performance of Fahamu Pecou is The Shit is dialogic, operating as a medium between the reservations of his marginalized otherness and the external reality of the political, cultural, and social limitations of the fine art / pop culture world.
The work, in all its forms – drawing, painting, photography, video- is all performance, a performance of our expectations as well as our desires. I refrain from anything remotely didactical in this work in an attempt to blur the lines between the reader and the read. My intent is always first and foremost the dialogue. My process is really very collaborative. I typically begin where conversations with friends, or even those in my own head end. Once I have a concept I collaborate with a photographer for a photo shoot. I provide some basic art direction which takes into consideration my vision for the final image as painting, drawing, video etc. Once the lights go up and the camera begins to flash, I transform into the character and submit myself to the camera. I distance me- the artist- from this process because the image of the character is what I seek. From there, I select, edit and manipulate the photos digitally, laying them out as magazine covers. I often play around with various mastheads seeking the composition that feels most effective. These digital manipulations function as my sketching process.
The next stage is painting. The digital image is referenced as a sketch through-out this process and though it would seem the image has been resolved in the previous step, the painting phase is actually the most organic. I’m often editing the image further as I paint, excluding elements or introducing new ones. Employing multiple mediums in the painting process such as spray paint, house paint, oil crayons, etc also allows for a great deal of spontaneity. While I am working, the conversations continue with myself, or friends, with the music I am listening to or an experience I had while away from the canvas. These conversations come in and out of significance as I work and inform choices- consciously and unconsciously- about the process. The final step is generally the titling of the work. Again, this stage is informed by many sources and it is also a space where a bit of my surrealist poet-self emerges. I begin dissecting, re-appropriating and apocopating words and adding another dimension to the work.
Return to my native… (2012). Acrylic on canvas. 60″ x 53.5″
NSJ: Your work recalls, but also furthers I think, the work of artists like Andy Warhol and Basquiat. Are there other major influences or references that inform you?
FP: I am greatly influenced by both Warhol and Basquiat, as well as Magritte, and Duchamp. I’m moved linguistically by individuals like Muhammad Ali, Kanye West and- actually several rappers. One of my favorite artists however is David Hammons. His use of satire and humor in the context of difficult social and critical commentary has always attracted me. I’m somewhere between surrealism and pop art.
NSJ: Why did you choose ARC’s cover? Was the resonance purely at the level of graphic qualities or is “Shiny Things” also engaging ARC’s content, presentation and cultural status as a Caribbean arts and culture magazine.
FP: The ARC cover was more about the aesthetics of the magazine and its composition. I love the logo. It has great presence without being overbearing or obnoxious.
NSJ: Earlier, you spoke about ”the reservations of otherness”, what do you mean by that exactly?
FP: Well blackness is performed, there are all these expectations around behaviour for black people, all of these cultural and social engagements that are constructed as ”not black”.
NSJ: So the reservations you’re talking about are limitations?
NSJ: Which becomes even more interesting when you think about the fact that those reservations are so context specific. In different parts of the world ”blackness” means such different things.
FP: Right, there are these varying degrees of blackness everywhere and there are these varying degrees of projections and performances of blackness in all these different places. I’m always really fascinated to go to a country that’s predominantly white. In Paris for example, all the white kids are dressed more like black-Americans than black-Parisians are. You know what I mean? So those kinds of themes are really fascinating to me and I’m really curious about those. How I’m dealing with them directly? I haven’t, I don’t know that I have touched on it quite yet but it is in my mind. It’s a part of what I’m thinking about. In fact, the show that I’m working on for my next exhibit in Paris is called ”Negus in Paris”. It’s a play on the ”niggas in Paris” phenomenon. I’m concentrating on the influence of Negritude in Paris and how that’s an early predecessor for the black culture movement that we’ve experienced in the States.
One of the things that’s really interesting for me is Aime Cesaire was really well known and criticised for embracing negre, which is the French word for nigger. At the time, he was trying to kind of reclaim that word and give it a sense of ownership and pride and make it a term of endearment and he was kind of challenged on that. But thinking about now, fast-forward a few generations, back then black people were leaving the States and going to Paris to escape being niggers, now black people are going over there and proclaiming to be ”niggers in Paris”. You know what I mean? So I’m interested in that whole irony. I’m just trying to play with that. And playing on the fact that blackness is this celebrated thing. It’s really celebrated outside of the United States, all around the world, throughout the Diaspora, people really cling on, look for, tap into, jump on, they want to be it, they want to dress it, they want to hear it. I just think that we limit ourselves so many times by putting ourselves into these boxes and performing a certain identity of blackness that’s limiting.
NSJ: Okay let’s talk on a formal level. In Jamaica we have the Edna Manley School of the Visual and Performing Arts. I’ve been spending some time there, and one of the things that really struck me is the continued currency of the high art (painting, sculpture etc) versus contemporary medium (photography, film etc) binary. I suppose it should have been obvious, but coming from a cultural studies background, I considered the whole debate moot.
I’m also thinking about the work of a Jamaican photographer called Marvin Bartley. At a talk I attended recently, he spoke about how starting in painting in art school. At first, he took photos in order to paint them, but he became increasingly frustrated with painting and ended up dropping the painting and embracing photography completely. Funnily enough, he now produces these very painterly composite photographs. They are these massive three-month projects. So you end up looking at the work and wondering is this a painting or a photograph? Looking now at your description of your process, there is some similarity, but you still place a lot of value on the painting. Your paintings look like magazine covers but they simultaneously speak very much to the fact that they’re paintings- the dripping paint etc. So I wanted to talk a little bit about that. What is your relationship to those forms and that fine art/contemporary medium debate.
FP: Yes, I’ve thought about that debate a lot and in fact one of my projects that I’m doing in school right now is talking about the difference between painting and photography, particularly in my work. To be completely honest with you, I tried photography in college and I sucked at it. I was horrible, I was the worst photographer. I never really went back to it. I never considered photography as a medium for me, painting was always the way. One of the arguments that I make about my own personal use of painting is, you know, in America, we live in such a media driven culture that people don’t look at media objects with any degree of critical analysis. They take it at face value, it becomes an empirical authority on whatever we’re doing. The whole idea of rappers for example, we see these images of them plastered everywhere, we see these videos and people don’t know that that’s not how they really live. That’s not reality, its a projection, its a character, its a performance. And I like to use paintings in that way. Part of what I have always said when people ask me why do I leave areas unfinished and the dripping paint and all these kinds of things is: on a technical level its about the texture, I like painterly looking paintings, but conceptually its about breaking down the layers of our expectations and the way we read media objects. So when you look at one of the actual paintings you can see all of the layers exposed, you can see where I sketched it in, you can see the under-painting, you can see all these different aspects of the painting as its being built and being destroyed. So conceptually it’s about tearing down people’s expectations about what that image is supposed to say. So it forces you to begin to ask critical questions about the image as opposed to taking it at face value.
NSJ: I really like that, there’s a real unity of form and content in your work and process that I find arresting. There are all these different things in conversation, sort of smashed together; it’s really rewarding to pick out all the strings. Taking off from there- you’ve said your work is dialogic and that you’re intention is to start a conversation. Still, you do seem to me to be making a statement about your own ideals. Do you think of the work as political? Is there an acknowledged politics that informs your work (if you do think of it that way)? That kind of question, because that is also something that is very relevant to the Caribbean context, our artists are always engaging it I think, whether they acknowledge it or not.
FP: I do think that I have a very political agenda about the type of things that I’m doing in my work but at the same time, the politics like my blackness is not finite. I’m challenging my own politics when I have these questions. A lot of times these paintings are questions, they’re really questions. They’re not answers. So I’m thinking about experiences that I’ve had, or conversations that I’ve had with people and I’m putting it in the form of these paintings as a means of creating a dialogue between my audience and the work but also these are conversations or debates that I’m having in my own mind. I’m very much concerned with issues of black masculinity, that is first and foremost my concern. Just really thinking about how little we consider how we are viewed or projected in terms of media, how that affects how other people see us, the way our children see us, the way we see ourselves and I want to challenge my community and black people throughout the Diaspora to embrace ourselves in a more total way. We don’t have to just be this one thing, we don’t have to just lock on to this one thing. So that’s really my soapbox, but I don’t want to be on a soapbox so I just dish it out little by little. And at the same time it’s a debate that I’m having with myself. So I’m challenging some of the representations of blackness but I’m also appreciating the creativity that I see a lot of these young cats have. To be honest, a lot of the music that’s out right now, I wouldn’t buy it. I don’t really care for it but when you really listen to it, its really creative. Just seeing what people are able to do and how they put their words together. The last project I actually recorded an album and I had firsthand experience of the challenges of trying to write a song that makes sense from beginning to end and is catchy. So I have a deeper appreciation for that practice. At the same time, I don’t want to… because I love hip hop and because I love my people I can’t just stand by and not challenge where we are. So it’s about creating challenges.