August 24, 2010 Arts » Cover story

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Artist Fahamu Pecou brings creativity and controversy to the Harvey Gantt Center 

Trust the dude with the gumby haircut — the guy with a penchant for wearing sunglasses while inside, painting his likeness onto six-foot canvases, going by the moniker "Fahamu Pecou is the Shit!" and holding WWE-like press conferences that demonstrate the level of his fo-shitness — to tell you he began his life as an artist with an eraser.

Not a pencil or a paintbrush or crayon or chalk or a marker. But an eraser.

"You remember those spiral notebooks [with] different-colored covers? Well I figured out if I took an eraser, I could erase the color out of it," says Pecou. "I would draw cartoon characters and stuff on the covers of these notebooks, but I would like — in essence — color them or shade them by using an eraser to take out color where I wanted to have a highlight."

Pecou is still using color — and the absence of it — to highlight his work. He is, after all, a black male artist who paints his black male body onto white stretched canvases to challenge the perceptions (and mis-perceptions) of black males in popular culture. And where once Pecou's work centered on animated characters, it is now the focus of animated discussions.

"I think he finds the way to, in some cases, address difficult subjects or address reality in a satirical way," says David Taylor, president and CEO of the Harvey Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. "You certainly walk away with an impression about the statement he's trying to make. And I think that's what art should do."

The Gantt Center — in partnership with Charlotte's McColl Center for Visual Art — will host Pecou as its inaugural artist-in-residence next month. Ce Scott, the creative director for both centers and director of the artist-in-residence programs, says when the discussion came up about the McColl and Gantt centers launching joint programming, she was eager to launch it with Pecou (who's moving to the Q.C. from Atlanta). It didn't hurt either, that the selection panel voted Pecou in with a perfect score.

"He draws on things that many people, whether they're followers of art or not, are familiar with," says Scott. "He uses popular culture and playing on a little bit on some stereotypes about black masculinity and what that means, and hip-hop culture and stereotypes about that; he's using all of that as a social commentary. And the work is beautifully done, and it's also accessible.

"It's going to be an honor, I think, for Gantt to be able to say that Fahamu was their first artist-in-residence because of his talent and his energy and his willingness to work," she continues. "[He wants] to be that artist that demystifies the artistic process and connects with community as well. Not just his artist community, but the community as a whole."

The Making of a Superstar

At 11 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, a status update on Fahamu Pecou's Facebook page reads: "Fahamu Pecou is less talk, more action. Except for this statement right here. But seriously this is all I'm going to say. Except for that last part. So now I'm done talking. Except for what I just said."

Though Pecou's alter-ego can have quite a lot to say, Pecou, himself, can be pretty shy in social situations. Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., to a Panamanian father and an American mother, he was a quiet "nerdy dude" who sold comic books in high school and read encyclopedias as a favorite pastime.

"I used to like to read the profiles about artists, and I used to fantasize about being in the encyclopedia one day," he says. "I just thought that was the ultimate of success — it wasn't to be on TV or to be in a magazine — it was to be in an encyclopedia. That, to me, felt more significant; that you would go down in history, as opposed to being popular at a certain point in time."

At the Atlanta College of Art, Pecou (whose first name is Swahili for "understanding") majored in painting and computer art, though he says it wasn't until college that he visited his first art gallery. His original desire, upon graduating, was to open his own animation studio and create black cartoons; however "a pretty girl introduced me to paintings and galleries, and that changed my whole life." After receiving his B.F.A., Pecou worked for a graphic design studio for two years then started his own venture, the Red Creative Agency.

Though his agency was picking up work with a notable list of clients (including a number of hip-hop artists), Pecou still struggled to get recognized as a painter. At some point, he says he "got tired of waiting on the bus to pick me up, so I just started walking." Taking a page from the hip-hop playbook, he decided to incorporate the stance, style and strut of these musicians into his persona as a fine artist. A verb, article and four-letter-word later, Fahamu Pecou became "Fahamu Pecou is the Shit!," thus launching himself and his work into the cyber/global/big-baller stratosphere.

"When I started out with my 'Fahamu Pecou is the Shit' campaign, it was all about social media," he says. "It was all about guerilla marketing; it was all about alternative forms of communication. So social media just became a tool that made my job a lot easier. Now, I don't necessarily have to go out and leave things posted all over ... I can just jump on Twitter and hit a few thousand people in two seconds." A husband and father of two, Pecou also maintains a blog, "Passage of Right," where he writes about growing up without a father and his commitment to being a dedicated presence in the lives of his children.

Pecou's presence, it seems, is being felt by many — on- and offline these days. His works have been viewed in places near (the High Museum of Art in Atlanta) and far (solo exhibitions in Capetown, South Africa and at Art Basel in Basel, Switzerland). Magazines like The Fader, Mass Appeal, Art in America and NY Arts Magazine have featured and reviewed his art, and he maintains public speaking engagements at museums and colleges nationwide.

"What he's been able to accomplish in a really, really short time career-wise, is really remarkable," says Scott. "One of the things we want to be able to do here at The Center is to support artists and to nurture talent and to reward it and recognize it. And so Fahamu is — I mean, we're already reading about him in magazines."

"I think he's a young superstar as an artist," says Taylor. "I think [his residency] will continue to demonstrate an example of hope to young aspiring artists of how they can use these new mediums of technology in [expressing] themselves as Fahamu does."

The Body as Other

On some stretch of I-20 in Atlanta, Pecou's fingers are moving fast-like. Something he has sensed in the air, picked up through multi-sensory transmission, must be documented. This is how a Fahamu Pecou creation is born: A few ideas typed into his blackberry become concepts for future projects; that become photo-shoot collaborations with photographers; that become images for digitally designed, mock magazine covers; that become large-scale paintings made to look like magazine covers with provocative images, provoking cover lines, and himself as the main focus.

He says, though, that his works are not about him.

"One of the things I really try to make clear is that yeah, it's me, it's my body, but it's not me as an autobiography," says Pecou.

"I'm using myself as an allegory, because a couple of things happen when I present the work as such. One, when people see these covers or they see these paintings and they see the kind of posing and the clothes and the styling and all that kind of stuff, automatically your mind jumps to what you think you know about black men, as it's been presented in the media. But then the contradiction comes when the person actually realizes that the person in the piece is me. And an artist is not supposed to present himself in that way. So then, all of a sudden, your whole foundation starts to rock a little bit.

"I feel like if I choose a random guy off the street, it's really easy for people to disassociate themselves from that. Because it's me and you're forced to confront me in that kind of way, it forces a conversation in a different kind of way."

The Fahamenal Future

On Tuesday, Sept. 7, Pecou will officially begin his residency in Charlotte, and he'll make his introduction via the Saturday, Sept. 11 "Something like a Fahamenon" '90s Jam at the Gantt Center (see "Fahamu-Related Events" sidebar for more details). The event is modeled after a series of parties Pecou hosted in various cities throughout the country, and seeks to create "memorable experiences around the arts by making the institution of art accessible to diverse audiences through music, culture and a party atmosphere." Fahamenon will feature Pecou as the MC and host, themed music by DJ Salah Ananse, and a book signing. It is only the first in a series of programming events that will familiarize the Queen City audience with the artist and his works.

"In order for art to be accessible and enjoyed and appreciated, there has to be a lot of education and programming around the exhibitions and the artists," says Scott.

For Pecou, this will include a panel discussion, "Passage of Right: Call & Response" (featuring Phonte from the N.C.-based hip-hop/soul group The Foreign Exchange, among other panelists) on Sept. 18, his participation in Open Studio Saturdays, open house events, as well as a group exhibition next spring.

Pecou will also showcase a more performance-based project during his Charlotte residency, the 15 Project. Created in collaboration with the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, the 15 Project is an "outrageous talk show" with Pecou as the host, "irreverent" guests from a variety of backgrounds, a house band and "The Strumming Mummy" sidekick.

"The show is called the 15 Project based on Andy Warhol's quote that in the future, everybody will be famous for 15 minutes," he says. "Well, the tagline for the 15 Project is: 'Your 15 minutes begins on my couch.'"

Pecou hopes to use this opportunity to continue to "blur the lines" between art and life. He hopes to be a "catalyst for change" in our perception of self and others. He hopes, always, to be "part of the conversation." And he hopes, in the near future — absolutely — to be "that guy" in visual arts.

"During [President Obama's] inauguration, when they had the concert on the Mall the day before, they had all of these different representatives from America's cultural community presenting on stage," says Pecou. "They had actors and dancers and writers, rappers — everybody was there. But in that whole group of presenters, not a single person was a visual artist. Every facet of American culture was represented except visual art.

"I didn't see the lack, I saw the potential. And I said to myself that I want to be that guy. The next time they come calling, I want to have positioned myself, that they can't have that without, one: the visual arts represented, and two: without it being Fahamu Pecou." C

For more information on programming during Fahamu Pecou's residency, visit www.mccollcenter.org and www.ganttcenter.org. For more information on the artist, visit http://fahamupecouart.com.

FAHAMU-RELATED EVENTS

Something Like a Fahamenon: '90s Jam

Date: Sept. 11

Location: Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, 551 S. Tryon St. 704-547-3700. www.ganttcenter.org.

Time: 9 p.m.-1 a.m.

21 and older

Admission: Advanced tickets are available for $10 online or at the Center prior to Sept. 11. Gantt Center Members: $8 (before Sept. 11); tickets will be available for purchase at the door for $15 unless the event is sold out. Limited tickets available.

Passage of Right: Call & Response

Date: Sept. 18

Location: McColl Center for Visual Art, 721 N. Tryon St. 704-332-5535.

www.mccollcenter.org.

Time: 1 p.m.-2 p.m.

Admission: Free

15 Project with Fahamu Pecou

Date/time/location: Oct. 9, 3:30 p.m.-5:30 p.m. Gantt Center.

Date/time/location: Oct. 28, 6 p.m.-8 p.m. McColl Center.

Admission: Free

10 "FAHAMENISMS" ON LIFE AND ART (According to Fahamu Pecou)

1. On his fantasy: "One of my current fantasies — and maybe if I continue to fantasize it will materialize — is to host Saturday Night Live. I would really love that."

2. On his worst job: "I was a porter in a nursing home in Newark, N.J. (What does a porter in a nursing home do?) Exactly what you think, clean up behind a bunch of sick, old people — and it was in Newark, which sweetened the deal."

3. On his playlist when he's creating: "I recently got put on to a great group called Little Dragon ... my music collection is really all over the map. I'm a big house music head, definitely the Golden Era hip-hop classics — as evidenced from my haircut, I'm perpetually stuck in 1991. A lot of world beat stuff, Afrobeat music. [When I'm in the studio], I just put it on shuffle and let it ride."

4. On where he was when Obama got elected: "I was about a quarter inch through a bottle of rum, in front of my TV, surrounded by friends. And we would take shots every time Obama won a state. By the time 9:30/10:00 rolled around, we were all completely trashed."

5. On conversations with his children about art: "The largest conversation is, ‘You'll enjoy it, just c'mon!’ I really don't try to force anything with them; I really try to  just try to encourage them to be creative and not be afraid to express themselves. "

6. On the title of his unauthorized autobiography: "Fahamenon."

7. On what it takes to create and consistently create work: "It takes commitment, it takes discipline, it takes faith ... The people who make it are those who are unafraid or are much more willing to go the extra step, to go the extra mile, to hustle just a little bit harder. It's a balance of creativity and ethic, and you can't have one more than the other or one without the other."

8. On the purpose of art, and the role art should  play in a society: "I've heard once, that in the future, historians will tell what happened, artists will tell how it felt. And that's how I look at art. Artists have a unique ability to not only capture the significant moments in time, but the significant emotions of those times. Art should be about holding up that sort of emotional/mental mirror up to society, in truth-telling. Such that, a thousand years from now, people who want to get a sense of what happened a thousand years before, are able to do that.”

9. On artists he collects in his home: “I like to collect a lot of young artists, mostly friends of mine who I consider myself rising with. Pamela Sunstrum is in my collection, another young artist named Cosmo White — I'm trying to think of my man's name, this dude is so dope — Lawrence Lee. And I do a lot of exchanges for art. That's another buddy-passion of mine, art collecting.”

10. On the future: "Years from now, I would like to be painting, traveling the world experiencing different things and really seeing or feeling at least, that the work that I'm doing is making a difference. I don't know if it's a contradiction to say this, but even though it's my face on these paintings, the work is not about me. It's about my community, it's about all of us — not just the black community, but all of us."
 

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