Of Self and Others: The Art of Fahamu Pecou
By Shantay Robinson
Most people think it’s not wise to speak for everyone, as one person’s experiences could never really be representative of the experiences of the masses. But Fahamu Pecou’s approach begs to differ. As a painter, Pecou uses his image to provoke narratives that speak to the multiplicity of black life. He, himself, is a multifarious character with linkages to the hip-hop community, fine artworld, and academia. With his self-portraiture, Pecou depicts himself in various poses, using clothing and ephemera to convey messages not only about himself but about black cultural systems. He looks at hip-hop, African traditional religions, and blackness as systems in which he intervenes his interpretation to provoke his viewer to think differently about black culture. His reach through the many exhibitions of his work allows for his unapologetically black aesthetic to confront viewers from all backgrounds and ground their understanding of blackness in new terms – terms they might not have known existed.
Fahamu Pecou is Brooklyn born. As a child of the 80s and being in New York City, Pecou was surrounded by hip-hop culture. From the guys with ghetto blasters to car sound systems whose music you could hear from blocks away, hip-hop in New York was ubiquitous. It wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine Pecou tuning into Video Music Box on a public access network after school like so many other kids did in the 80s. Before Rap City, which aired on BET in the afternoons, Video Music Box would show the videos from the most popular rap groups and even many from artists most have never heard of. Big Daddy Kane, Doug E Fresh, and Rakim were popular throughout the 80s and not only were their lyrical skills impressive, their style dictated what to wear in the streets. Pecou brings this swagger into his work. The bravado in the poses he depicts himself evoke nostalgia for those 80s music videos where raps stars donned multiple gold chains and fronted for the camera. Growing up in New York could have afforded Pecou with the possibility to be immersed in a city known for the birth of hip-hop culture. He couldn’t help but be influenced.
His body of work All That Glitters Ain’t Gold speaks directly to the hip-hop aesthetic that flaunts extravagance and bravado while he questions the worldviews of those who believe in the façade and invest solely in the here and now, bling, and hustle without proposing solutions for their future. In one painting in this series he alludes to “what next” — these words tattooed onto his knuckles in the “Radio Raheem” pose fronting the tattoo for the viewer. In another painting in this series, he holds a heavy gold chain behind his back and off to the side of the painting are the words “whips and chains” and on the other side “off da chain,” alluding to the idea that the chains used to shackle black people in slavery may be the same chains enslaving us today. By using his image, relevant iconography and a bit of text (reminiscent of Jean-Michel Basquiat), Pecou makes statements, with the sense of an elder and charm of a peer, which speak directly to a demographic of people whose lives today are threatened by historical institutions. While Pecou’s work might seem too rachet for some, as his pants sag and his bravado penetrates, a closer look allows one to see that he doesn’t shy away from making statements using the same tropes that people consider too hood or urban.
Pecou attended Atlanta College of Art in the mid-1990s, a time when hip-hop culture was exploding in Atlanta. Freaknik was a monumental yearly event at this time and college students from around the country descended onto Atlanta to experience the best there was of hip-hop. Concerts, parties, and picnics brought hip-hop stars from both coasts to the A. Due to the city’s popularity, on any given weekend, there were hip-hop conferences like Jack the Rapper that made Atlanta today’s premier spot for hip-hop music. Pecou was likely influenced by the busyness of the city. The parties, the concerts and the promotion of those things. Although he was trained to be a fine artist, he found himself working as a graphic designer as the hip-hop generation grew up and created businesses out of the culture. He satisfied the needs of the community.
But Atlanta promoted a different kind of hip-hop than Brooklyn and it was a different time, and style changed. The Atlanta hip-hop scene with its southern charm reflected more organic imagery with a southern drawl, which has morphed into trap music. We see influences from the Atlanta hip-hop scene in the conversations Pecou is having with his audience in his series Hard 2 Death. In many of these works, Pecou is pictured with sagging pants with multiple boxer shorts visible. The words “so low you can’t get over” are placed to the left corner of one of the paintings. These words are a play on a Funkadelic song while they allude to the idea that sagging pants will keep the young men who wear them so low that they can’t get over their situations. In one of the paintings he holds a gun to his own head. In another, he places an automatic rifle to his crotch and the words “you’ll shoot your eye out” are placed in the lower portion of the painting. He juxtaposes the hypermasculine images with images of himself in young pajamas with cartoons which speak to the idea that the young men he wishes to speak to are children growing up too fast.
Fahamu’s paintings convey the hip-hop of this generation. With Black Boy Fly he’s speaking about a concept in one of Kendrick Lamar’s songs on Good Kid m.A.A.d City where Lamar reminisces on his fear of not being able to make it out the ghetto because another boy made it out before him. A fear like that is rarely expressed in popular culture, but Pecou latches on to it to elevate it into contemporary discourse. Why should we feel like only one of us at a time can make it onto the public stage? Why should we feel there is a quota on the amount of us who can fly? In his series Gravity, he plays with the idea of this worldview of many young black men that are keeping them down. In the images in Gravity his personages fly despite the sagging pants. He plays with language in these painting by morphing words and phrases that describe the weight with which black men are oppressed to allow them to fly. He transforms the word “Lowered” to “Lord” and the phrase “disadvantage point” to “the vantage.” By manipulating an image of black men we view as negative and threatening, Pecou analyzes this state of being while at the same time giving it power to transform into something that is weightless and could inevitably rise out of repressive states. The paintings in this series don’t depict the whole of the body and many of them depict the feet off the ground in flight.
Earning his doctorate in 2018 from Emory University, Pecou has proven that a black boy could fly. With his latest paintings he’s depicting an alternative image of black men and some women. While he still uses his personage as the subject, in Of Crowns and Kings he doesn’t don his signature Gumby but traditional African hairstyles and inscribes text that asks, “Not just wear styles, but from where styles,” alluding to Africa from which the styles have come. The clothing styles no longer depict mainstream hip-hop but the growth in the culture to the more Afro-centric, as the clothing is still hip-hop but infused with African prints. In Trapademia he connects the current hip-hop culture with traditional African masks making connection to the past and the contemporary while also using symbols to create depth of meaning that speaks to the spiritual practices of both Africans and the trap. This work follows Imagining New Worlds where he intentionally infuses Yoruba symbology with hip-hop culture to reimagine the black body.
While Pecou’s work has been viewed in museums and galleries all over the world and in places as far as South Africa, he is true to Atlanta, having painted murals at several stations for the city’s Rapid Transit System. He also has an art installation, a gold coated cop car, on the Atlanta Beltline with a title based on Kanye West’s lyrics, “We Can’t Cop Cars Without Seeing Cop Cars.” His contributions to Atlanta show that he’s invested in the city’s hip-hop community in a way that engages it to mature, have faith in its potential, and encourages it to continue to make culture that influences the rest of the world. Pecou’s work is influencing the rest of the world by looking at hip-hop culture with an eye towards the future.
Pecou’s work can be found in the permanent collections of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the High Museum of Art, Nasher Museum at Duke University, Clark Atlanta University and several other institutions. In 2020, he founded the African Diasporic Art Museum of Atlanta (ADAMA) a virtual (for now) museum.
Listen to a bonus clip read by Shantay Robinson about Fahamu Pecou’s work at our Patron page on Patreon
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Shantay Robinson, BAIA resident scholar has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.
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