VISUAL ART In 2005, then-struggling Atlanta artist Fahamu Pecou presented “Arts, Beats and Lyrics” at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art. The oversize paintings were blinged-out-mack-daddy-baller self-portraits showing the artist on the covers of well-known and respected magazines. Within two years, his work had been reviewed and featured in numerous publications, including Art In America, Harper’s, NY Arts, Mass Appeal, and The Fader. The sheer voodoo of this act makes Pecou a formidable creative force, and coupled with his knack for spectacle, his opening at Shooting Gallery this month is rumored to be the most vainglorious of the season. I caught up with him recently on the phone.
SFBG I’m amazed by your earlier work because it seems to me that you used sympathetic magic to approach fame. You placed yourself within the context of celebrity and became a celebrity. Was that your original intention?
Fahamu Pecou It’s funny. It was kind of like the law of attraction. You can write your own narrative by believing in the messages you put out. I started doing this marketing campaign because I was frustrated with the way my career was going at the time. I really just wanted to get my name out there. Just my name. I wanted to make sure that when my name came across the desk of curator or gallery owner, they’d say, “I’ve seen this name before, maybe I should learn more about this person.” It was really sort of a joke. As it started to grow and people began to talk about it, it took on a life of its own.
SFBG Did you anticipate that it would go beyond Atlanta and become international?
FP No. It was just a clever, catchy inside joke among me and my friends. The minute I started putting out stickers and posters that said “Fahamu Pecou Is The Shit,” it was a hit. People were jumping on it. It was good that it happened that way because it allowed me to grow with it. Whether I can directly relate it to a specific style, I’ll leave that for people to write about.
SFBG Why did you call your latest show “Whirl Trade”?
FP The theme came from the idea of cultural exchanges between Africans on the continent of Africa and the rest of the African diaspora around the world, and how a lot can be lost and misconstrued when taken out of the original cultural context. We look back and forth at each other, and we do what we think is our best impression of “the other.” It comes out a twisted up and strange simulation.
I was in South Africa for residency on the Eastern Cape and spent some time in Capetown. I had a friend from Detroit with me, and a few friends from Capetown. We were coming out a restaurant and this homeless guy heard me and my homeboy talking. He said, “You guys are from America? You guys are the real niggas.”
We were both like, “Naw man, we aren’t niggers, we’re brothers.” And he said, “No. No, you guys are niggas, and I want to be a nigga too.” He was going on and on about how being a nigga was a good thing, not like these guys who come in from Nigeria and other places thinking they’re real niggas. We were the real deal. And here we are, trying to explain to him how being a nigga is not a good thing. Nobody wants to be a nigga. My Capetown friends were telling me that being a nigga is not a bad thing anymore. I started wondering, where did this come from? That’s what “Whirl Trade” is about: the cultural export of hip-hop culture and the impact it has on the rest of the world. We have this great stage, this platform, where we have the ear of the world. What are we saying? A lot of what’s being said and heard is a lot of nothing, especially when taken out of cultural context.
The response has been great and has sparked a lot of conversation around how we view ourselves and each other. What kind of impression we are making of ourselves to other cultures and, deeper still, what kind of impression do I have about African culture through this same context and my own experience? I couldn’t ask one question without asking the other. I try to be cautious about this in my work. I’m not trying to accuse or ridicule any group so much as begin to ask questions and start a dialogue between groups who think they know each other but don’t.
SFBG You do performances at your gallery shows. Costumes and everything. How does fashion play into your work?
FP In the beginning, it was more about capturing fashion that reflected a whole lifestyle. I patterned it after 50 Cent, who was the catalyst for my whole campaign. I was watching how he was packaged and wondering why a visual artist was never marketed that way. My whole fashion was based on that and Puff Daddy. Then I added my own touches with ascots and blazers and stuff like that.
With “Whirl Trade,” I’m looking at contemporary African fashion. Right now, African street fashion is a mashup of textiles and patterns, colors that almost seem disparate but come together beautifully. That and photographs of Malik Sadibe inspired me to bring in many different patterns and contrasts. It wasn’t that I was trying to copy a style as much as capture the cultural exchange between what Africans think African Americans dress like, and what African Americans think Africans dress like.
SFBG Though you reference hip-hop, I don’t really see you as a hip-hop artist. I sense a cynicism in your approach. Are you disillusioned with hip-hop?
FP I just found myself not so connected to what was being presented in early 2000s. A lot of media-made hip-hop stars came out. It stopped being so much about talent as it was marketing. It became about who was willing to come out and say they sold these drugs or did this killing. At one point that was legitimate, rappers came from the street, but then came these media guys who just said that shit to be famous, just for credibility and that’s what started hurting the integrity of the form.
It stopped being how fresh, how clever or how innovative an artist could be. It became how violent, how misogynistic, how violent a person could be. Extremes of everything — people ended being blaxploitation characters.
I’m talking about that in my next work, called “Hard To Death” — about the evolution of black manhood, and how there’s a lack of visual representation of that evolution beyond a certain point. Most of the images we see are reflections of hip-hop culture, which captures the black male between the ages of 18-25, just when many young men are working things out. It has become one of the only representations of black masculinity, which is very frustrating. My next piece is devoted to accurately portraying the evolution of black men. I’m seeing more established artists like Common and Jay-Z who have grown beyond that dangerous time.
Since my son was born, I’ve been really driven to addressing these issues around black masculinity and black manhood. I feel a sense of responsibility there because my work crosses the lines between popular culture and hip-hop culture, and I see that there’s a lack of responsible voices. My voice can work as a catalyst to start a conversation. I started a blog (passageofright.wordpress.com) to begin talking about creating systems for some kinds of rites of passage for young black boys. I didn’t grow up with a father or a whole lot of role models, so most of what I’ve learned about being a man is from the school of hard knocks. I want to prevent the continuation of that kind of awakening.
WHIRL TRADE: NEW WORKS BY FAHAMU PECOU
Reception Sat/12, 7–11 p.m.;
Through July 3
839 Larkin, SF