Throughout his still brief career, Atlanta-based Fahamu Pecou has experimented with playing the role of an artist whose fame approaches that of a hip-hop star. Earlier performance works in which he arrived at openings in a limousine with bodyguards, and paintings featuring the covers of art magazines bearing his likeness, toyed with how he thought, or hoped, others perceived him. But Pecou’s work took a more serious turn when he traveled to South Africa in 2008 and saw how the global phenomenon of hip-hop has influenced the way African American men are viewed abroad.
The five large-scale paintings (all 2009 and approximately 82 by 63 inches) in his recent show, “Whirl Trade,” explore the assimilation of hip-hop culture as it moves across continents. In these new works, Pecou steps away from art magazines to feature himself on the covers of diverse titles like Planet and Hotrod, splashed with colorful, graffiti-like text. Poses and palette are borrowed from Malian photographer Malick Sidibé, whose portraits of Bamako locals are internationally recognized as documents of African pop culture. In “Whirl Trade,” Pecou’s normally vibrant canvases have become primarily black and white. The paintings combine traditional motifs (patterned African textiles) with contemporary style items (flashy sunglasses, baggy jeans, stereo equipment).
Pecou grew up in South Carolina and moved to Atlanta to study painting at the Atlanta College of Art; he graduated in 1997. A child of Southern hip-hop culture himself, he has an uncanny ability to capture the very attitudes that fuel his frustration with the one-dimensional way that black men are perceived. (A husband and father, Pecou delves deeper into his own difficult upbringing on his blog, passageofright.wordpress.com, where he discusses, among other things, what he thinks it means to be a responsible black man.) The upward tilt of Pecou’s chin on the cover of Hi Fructose magazine indicates an air of superiority. He stands behind a woman seated sidesaddle on a bicycle; she strikes an equally confident pose in a patterned dress and headscarf. At the top of the canvas Pecou has scribbled “American Dream’n” upside down, and, across the bottom edge, “African Dream,” backwards; in the middle of the painting is the observation “All around the whirl the same song.” The dueling top and bottom phrases highlight misconceptions on both sides of the Atlantic: those held by Africans buying into in an idealized black America as projected by a few stars, and by African Americans who might romanticize a return to the land of their ancestors.
In Role Model Citizen, Pecou sits in the center of a Hotrod magazine cover. A small microphone dangles limply between his splayed legs. At any moment, he will come to life, broadcasting his message to anyone who will listen. The phrase “Some bodies watchin me” (written in tiny, easy-to-miss white paint) simultaneously references the song about being stalked and the biblical reminder that God is always on the lookout. Pecou’s challenge is clear: think carefully about the role model or type of citizen you choose to present.
Photo: Fahamu Pecou: American Dream’n, 2009, acrylic and oilstick on canvas, 82 by 63 inches; at Get This!