By Sara Khaled
It’s likely that you haven’t heard of Fahamu Pecou, but you should. Here, I’ll entice you—he’s got a lot in common with the unicorn of an artist, Kanye West. (Whaaaaaaaaaaaat?) See? Stay with me.
Pecou is an Atlanta-based artist whose young portfolio features galleries of work uniquely dealing with the identity of being a young, black man. Pecou’s latest exhibit, Gravity, is currently at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, a little art exhibit nestled in the usually unwelcoming Atlanta suburb of Buckhead (think rich, think white). Pecou’s gallery consists of less than a dozen pieces which all feature himself as the primary subject.
In this particular show case, Pecou features himself in a variety of paintings and sketches, shirtless or with a cut-off tee, pants sagging underneath boxers of all different colors and patterns. The paintings capture him at different angles and in different poses. At times crouched, at times seeming to be teetering on tip toes, face angled to the sky, in a manner that wouldn’t be described as contemplative, so much as strained. In most paintings, he’s wearing green and gold kicks, and when the viewer is exposed to his face, square glasses. Some of the most interesting perspectives we’re exposed to are the ones where he is crouched, almost touching the ground, his hands holding up either side of his pants, struggling against losing them completely to the pull downward.
This isn’t new material for Pecou. The fashionable artist is known for his exploration of the black, male identity. Particularly for bringing imagery that is usually relegated to the halls of hip-hop into the often alienating ivory halls of fine art. As the story goes, Pecou explored this type of hip-hop imagery in his work from early on. But after a trip to South Africa, in which he became critical of the way Black Americans were depicted on an international level, Pecou began to focus his work on challenging his audience on a variety of issues relevant to being a black male in America; from the hood-chic paradigm in which the identity largely resided, to the observers and participants of the culture.
Gravity is an interesting exposition on this struggle. A few of the pieces are adorned with poetry hand-written in a Basquiat-like style of thrown together genius. The poetry plays with a few words on repeat. One of my favorites goes,
Move His Weight.
Move. He’s Weight.
Moves. He Weighs.
Move. He Waits.
The poem explores the theme of the exhibit beautifully: the very real force of gravity, driving us downwards—emphasizing the uniqueness of that push towards earth that black men specifically experience. A push that seems to play out more strongly and with more persistence than on many others. The gravity of being young, black, and male and the force with which you are pummeled by assumptions fueled with negativity and threat. The gravity of not being celebrated, and of feeling destined to the burden of persistent weight.
So, what do Kanye West and Fahamu Pecou have in common beyond the superficial list of black and brilliant? They share a similar commitment to bursting asunder the assumptions and expectations of being black in America through a mix of high art and hip-hop. A sort of relentless discomfort waged on their audiences in pursuit of breaking a static notion of blackness, which has qualities of defiance and threat to the other— the white identity and this country itself. A notion of blackness that is also suffocating in its force to adherence—something the term stereotype begins to get at, though not nearly enough.
Fine art is a realm that is run by the white and the wealthy. Hip-hop is, in contrast, for the black and the poor. A marriage of the two seems an impossible feat to the non-believer, but to Pecou and West it is a dialectic that reveals much contradiction. This contradiction is explored persistently in the very hopes of relieving it of it’s tension. Inherent in both of their works is a challenge to hip-hop culture as well, not just it’s perception of it by outside forces. Many of Pecou’s drawings include exaggerated swag—head tilts, gold chains, women as accessory—in pursuit of critique. Take his series, “All dat Glitters ain’t Goals”, which features images of a black man showing off his chains, smoking a blunt, and tatted up. One of the paintings is Off da Chain. It feels more openly vulnerable than a lot of Pecou’s other pieces; the image of chains on a half-clothed black body evokes memories of slavery–the words on the painting indicate the same. It’s a powerful picture; one which calls into question the culture of hip-hop, to the youth enthralled by it, and to the system which birthed it.
In “All dat Glitters ain’t Goals”, and in many other works of his, Pecou plays with the idea of respectability. He seems to reject respectability for all it’s worth. This is Pecou’s play on fine art–a “fuck you.” For those who define acceptability, “fine art” has often meant “acceptable art”–sign here if you agree with all of our white terms. The nasty truth is that young black males are, by definition of the powers at large, de-legitimate and unrespectable. Their sagging pants are testaments to that, as is everything about their hip-hop-gold-chain-talking back-lazy-thuggery. So Pecou sees that, and raises you an installation called “How to Eat Your Watermelon.” How’d you like that?
Pecou’s work is a special thing. It reveals different messages for different viewers. For the ill-willed crusaders of whiteness and respectability it is a nightmare legitimized. For the family, it is intimate; loving, but critical.
Like in Hard 2 Death, Pecou pokes fun at the hardness and fronting in hip-hop culture. He has pieces featuring a guy in whitey-tighties, a guy in scooby-doo clothes, and comic-like text in an unorthodox fashion. It’s a nice play at masculinity–a disapproving look from ma.
Looking at Pecou’s work with a critique of respectability in mind, it’s evident that he’s a beautiful artist for our day. He continues to create art in a time when the avenues of old political respectability are being torn apart, illustrated by the people of Ferguson. This is the age of Al Sharpton actin’ a fool, Jesse Jackson being booed off stage, Azealia Banks going off on sell-out artists, and general fuckery. It’s an age of middle fingers to grandpa dinosaurs trying to hold things back, an era of non-apologies. A time of self-reflection, critical engagement, and growing pains. We’re shaking off the dust of ossified forms, and refusing to speak with our heads down.
At the end of the day, there is something radical to the way that artists such as Pecou and West channel their art and there’s something telling about the larger audience’s discomfort with that.