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Photos by Dinah Rogers

Pecou’s Propaganda: A Look at ‘DO or DIE,’ Fahamu Pecou’s Expansive Exhibition

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“Something eteRNal

SomEthings, eteRNal

SomE things, eteRNal

SomE thing things EteRNAL

SomE think EteRNAL

So, Me think EteRNAL

So, ME, think EteRNAL?

So ME? Think EteRNAL

Me EtERNAL?

ME Eternal!

BE ETeRNAL

WE RetuRN YALL

RETURNAL

ETERNAL RETURNAL,”

                                                                    —Fahamu Pecou

This poem was the first thing that patrons of Charleston’s Halsey Institute for Contemporary Art saw as they entered the DO or DIE space. It was applied to the entranceway in Dr. Pecou’s stylistic handwriting (in typing it, some of its power and fluidity is sacrificed). This playing with words—taking one distinct and powerful phrase and altering it repeatedly to achieve new meanings—is present in many of Pecou’s pieces.


When I heard Dr. Fahamu Pecou (artist, scholar, and mind-opening, perception-changing creator) speak at a panel of similarly innovative artists and scholars, I was surprised by how he defined his art. He told the audience that it was propaganda, something so commonly associated with the contortion of truth and malicious public persuasion. In fact, he has just the opposite relationship with the truth, all the while aiming to increase the power of his not-so-malicious public persona and persuasion. His propaganda does not advertise, endorse or campaign, but instead is a call for common humanity among divide and tragedy, a call that grows in strength as its public broadens.

Fahamu Pecou’s propaganda is let loose into the world in the form of immense oil paintings, of poetry written across layers of color, and of masked dance ceremonies performed on city streets. It seeks to change and influence, and make its way to progressively wider audiences. Pecou specializes in the creation of this diversified, provocative, and beautiful propaganda because he thinks propaganda is what all good art should be classified as: a means by which activists project their voice to those who need it, criticize systemic failings, and raise necessary questions. Hanging on acclaimed museum walls is far from the top of Pecou’s list of goals for his art, but his work can be seen in such institutes as the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Atlanta’s High Museum, the Nasher Museum of Art, and the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art. Lying square in the public eye, whether that be plastered onto the side of a building or added to a Smithsonian collection, Pecou’s work can do what it does best: be truly seen and change the way viewers see. Or, to encourage viewers to “stay seen [and] stay seein” as he wrote in my DO or DiE exhibit catalog.

Fahamu Pecou’s art is divided into seventeen distinct series; each emphasizes a different theme of his artistic purpose. His tenth series, DO or DIE: Affect, Ritual, Resistance of 2016, successfully realizes an integral role in this tapestry of deliberate crusading against sometimes fatal stereotypes. 

Not only do Pecou’s individual pieces pulse with energy—deliberately and stylistically imparted into every work—but so does the entire exhibition. When entering the DO or DIE space, viewers are immediately acquainted with the heartbeat of the show: a low thumping emitted from a room deep in the exhibition—its identity uncovered only after the viewer has made their way through the several displays spanning drastically different mediums. Also made clear is Pecou’s guiding question: How would you live if you weren’t afraid to die? Not only with his artist’s statement and displayed bio, but with his art itself, Pecou engrains this question into museum-goers’ minds. His pieces leave room for interpretation but they are not without a clear purpose. This purpose is to redefine the way we—Americans and citizens of the world—view current issues from racism-charged violence to the generalizations surrounding masculinity. 

DO or DIE lies at the intersection of the past and present, our destinies and our ancestralities, the surreal and the very real, and, perhaps most acutely, life and death. The project examines and embraces the in-between spaces present in all of these juxtapositions, and reminds us continually to accept nuances and complexities: life isn’t just black and white.

Mask from Carlos Museum permanent collection, not Pecou’s art.
Oil painting from DO or DIE series.

Pecou articulates three main goals that drive his creation. These goals serve as both the inspiration behind his exploration of various mediums and behind his subject matter itself. He wants his work to be accessible, legible, and to add to the movement of “re-membering” Black culture: piecing together and redefining an identity targeted by centuries of racism, or as he puts it, “systematic dis-memberment.” By painting, sketching, photographing, sculpting, sewing, writing, film-making, rapping, and spreading his work publicly, Pecou reaches as wide an audience as he can, using what he refers to as different points of entry. His priority viewers are not museum-goers, but MARTA-goers who pass by his large-scale public art—those who may lack the means or encouragement to visit his museum installations. This focus on accessibility and visibility is strongly linked to Pecou’s next goal: legibility. 

The legibility that he works to ensure manifests itself in his clear purpose, available for all to consider and understand. Sometimes he reinforces his visual messages with linguistic ones: scrawled words, phrases, and poems populate his pieces. His NEOPOP style that spanned 2005 through 2011 was largely text-based—Pecou isn’t afraid of putting words front and center, ones that deepen his themes and expand his audience. Editor Mark Sloan writes in the DO or DIE catalog, [In]visible Man, that throughout Pecou’s NEOPOP works, “images and words converge to create messages…[exposing Pecou’s] associations with celebrity, media, displacement, racism, and fine art.” The DO or DIE exhibit exemplifies this goal in a different way: while poetry can be seen in some of his smaller sketches, most of the figures populating the pieces are full compositions in and of themselves: their bodies front and center, meaningfully exposed. Their positions and expressions, and the simplicity of their forms and backgrounds, exude a clarity that transmits Pecou’s message from art to beholder.

The Return at the DO or DIE exhibit (Emory’s Carlos Museum). This piece deliberately lacks a background, save for an almost imperceptible pattern, and the foreground is constructed only of the central figure. With this type of clarity, viewers can see how Pecou mixes modern and ancient clothing and motifs, and how the figure’s mask and position contrast sharply. Both observations point towards his greater themes and messages.

Finally, he works towards artistically reconstructing the repeatedly oppressed Black identity by acknowledging the years of pain and discrimination. However, he showcases the life and ingenuity that exist parallel to hardship rather than turning the targets of these evils into tragic martyrs. He seeks to empower instead of garnering pity. By exploring and presenting developments of Black scholarship (specifically the French literary movement Négritude), hip-hop culture and linguistics, and Ifa, a Yoruba system of divination—entities that Pecou denotes as the mind, the body, and the spirit of the identity that needs re-membering—Pecou seeks to elevate a people as worthy and to dismantle long-held stereotypes. His exhibit matter could confront viewers with the paralyzing thought of imminent death, but in the words of Pecou, it instead “usher[s] in hope,” “affirm[s] cyclic infinitude” of the spirit, and offers itself as a platform by which to resist.

Rising at the DO or DIE exhibit (Emory’s Carlos Museum) exemplifies the spirit of the mind-body-spirit triumvirate. The looping threads of gold that encase the figure represent ase: a Yoruba definition of energy or life force.

 

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A masquerade costume from the Carlos Museum’s collection and shots of the DO or DIE space. Physical cowrie shells populate Pecou’s exhibition design, inspired Yoruba culture and spirituality.


The exhibit itself is centered around the Egungun masquerade, a Yoruba masked performance and another tether to the central notion of finding the “in-between.” In fact, the word Egungun means “the powers concealed,” a phrase already alluding to finding a balance between contrasting entities. When performing the masquerade, the Egungun act as mediators between the spiritual and natural world, bringing to life ancestors and their wisdom. Pecou’s masquerade costume and performances are the Egungun rituals for the new world and the present day; instead of family, civil rights leaders and those murdered by the police are taken to ancestral level, their names listed on panels of cloth hung on each side of the mask. On one panel lies power, on the other, death, and when the masquerade begins, the two are blended together with the motion of the fabric.

 


 

 

New World Egun at the DO or DIE exhibit (Emory’s Carlos Museum). The Egungun masquerade costume works as a physical manifestation of all three facets of re-membering: mind, body, and spirit. The masquerade is aligned with common themes of Négritude (mind): rejecting colonially-imposed stereotypes of Africanness and replacing them with beauty. It tangibly shows standard elements of hip-hop (body): sampling and layering—of fabric and words in this case. Finally, its whole composition alludes to similar masquerades important to the Ifa religious system (spirit).

Egungun Masquerade Costume, part of the Carlos Museum’s permanent collection.


After leaving the exhibition, still recovering from the sensory experience of Pecou’s short film, Emmet Still, I was left with a sense of reverence—towards the beauty and solemnity of the paintings, the ancestral presence of the Egun mask, and towards Pecou’s purposeful art. He and his art are armed with the mission to change the eyes, not solely appeal to them. The walk through those few rooms left me with a more keen sense of the delicate balances that surround us: the past, the present, and the future; our ancestors, ourselves, and our fates; life, death, in between, and beyond.

Pecou’s work is relevant, accessible, and legible, making it the effective system of social activism that it is. He is currently working on a series of large scale murals in partnership with WonderRoot and MARTA’s Artbound to realize his overall goals of public visibility and impact. Just like his New World Egun of the DO or DIE exhibition physically shows the combination of the mind, body, and spirit, his murals capture how he wants to present his art to the world: in the most accessible way possible. MARTA and its stations, the settings for his murals, provide transportation for 1.7 million people in Atlanta and is the regular transit service for over 500,000. In expanding his reach from the confining walls of museums, Pecou has the power to reach a new, larger public who may well need his messages of survival and hope more than High museum membership-holders. Currently, he has murals at the King Memorial and Ashby stations and installations at the Hamilton E. Holmes and Oakland City stations are underway.


Even though DO or DIE has been moved to the African American Museum in Philly, Pecou remains grounded in Atlanta culture through his street art initiatives, panel discussions, and academic projects. In its expansiveness and range of media, DO or DIE is worthy of being highlighted, but be sure to also explore Pecou’s more recent series, TRAPADEMIA, which is currently being exhibited at the Kopeikin Gallery.

About Dinah Rogers

/VOX ATL Contributor

Dinah, 15, attends Decatur High School. She loves to write and enjoys literature and art. She is the co-captain of her Level 9 gymnastics team and she sketches and reads in he...

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