Staying relevant can be difficult for a museum gallery. Exhibitions of a certain caliber take time to put together and the original impetus for a show may become, if not history, at least yesterday’s news by the time the wine and cheese are brought out for the artist’s reception. When Fahamu Pecou’s exhibit
Do or Die: Affect, Ritual, Resistance was first proposed in 2016, the Black Lives Matter movement had been building steam for over three years, one fatal shooting after another training the focus of the nation on the issues of institutional violence against black men. But two years later, when the exhibit opened at the Mary Elizabeth Dee Shaw Gallery on Weber State University’s campus in the first stop of its traveling tour, the issues that inspired it seemed to have been subsumed by a news cycle of collusion, gun control and porn stars. One could justifiably wonder, “When was the last time you heard about a police officer shooting an unarmed black man?” Then, halfway through the exhibit, Stephon Clark was shot dead in Sacramento holding only a cell phone.
Pecou is a Brooklyn-born, Atlanta-based artist whose works deal with images of black masculinity, the artist serving as both model and protagonist in self portraits that act as cultural examinations by blending pop media images with elements of hip-hop culture. Good doses of satire and parody leaven the works, from the artist’s declaration “Fahamu Pecou is the Shit” in a series of paintings in which Pecou becomes the media star of an imaginary hip-hop universe, to the sagging pants revealing multiple pairs of layered underwear in his Gravity Series.
In Do or Die, Pecou seeks (in his words) to respond to the “looming threat of death” by asking, “how might we inspire life? Through what mechanisms could we resist the psychological violence and despair inspired by the threat of violence and usher in hope?” The exhibit consists of a series of drawings, paintings, photographs, video and sculpture inspired by the Yoruba masquerade tradition from southwest Nigeria. As Amanda H. Hellman explains in an essay published in conjunction with the exhibition, the masquerade known as “Alagbada Egungun” that informs the work is a dance ceremony used at funerals and annual festivals in which a costume consisting of varying strips of fabric and a colorful mask are employed to give shape to the spirits of the ancestors and make them active in the life of the community. “The power of masquerade acts as both a spiritual and a political manifestation of power,” she says, and has been employed in a variety of culturally important situations, from leading men into battle to anti-colonial protest and cultural affirmation.
Pecou’s Egungun costume, which is displayed in the center of the show as if it were part of an anthropological exhibit, is a New World-Old World hybrid, a flywhisk and beaded cowry-shell mask blended with a hoodie, sweat pants and sneakers, while the strips of fabric, all in white, are emblazoned with the names of those who have become martyrs in the Black Lives Matter movement: Martin, Medgar, Walter, Freddy, Emmett, Trayvon, Michael. Wearing the costume, Pecou led a procession from Gadsden’s Wharf in Charleston, S.C., to the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art to open his exhibition there in 2016, a performance made particularly prescient by the events in Charleston the following summer. For the exhibit, he recorded a similar performance in a darkened studio, images which became the source material for a group of life-size drawings that appear in the show. The photographs themselves are interspersed among a series of large paintings in Pecou’s direct, unembellished style. Like many of his previous works, in these paintings Pecou is the model, though he ceases to be the subject: with his face covered by the cowry-shell mask, he becomes the embodiment of so many spirit ancestors.
For most, liner notes will be necessary to understand many of the elements from Yoruba culture and religion that infuse the paintings — elements like the thin gold lines that encircle the figures, meant to represent their ashe’ or life force, or the role of the three women who bless Pecou’s spirit figure. Explanation is provided in an essay by scholar Arturo Lindsay which appears in a brochure that accompanies the exhibit. What is evident from the paintings themselves, however, is the sense of power and affirmation that flows through an archetypal story of the hero figure who journeys to the spirit world to take on a new form.
The exhibition is filled out by a large video work set up in one prominent corner of the gallery space. At first glance, the 15-minute video piece, titled “Emmett Still,” seems out of context in relation to the other works. The first half of the video, in which a young black man’s innocent walk home from playing basketball with friends turns deadly when he encounters a white police officer, seems a piece of straightforward activist art. But in the video’s second half, the slain man goes through the type of spirit transformation described by the other works in the show. In a pleasing coincidence, the initial audio for the video, a song recorded by Pecou, seems synched to serve as a soundtrack for another video piece across the room — Pecou dancing in Egungun costume, projected from above onto a rectangular pool of water so the video appears as a shimmering, ghostly image speaking from the spirit world.
In this exhibit, one senses that Pecou the young trickster is growing into something of a cultural elder, the strategies seen here the necessary maturing of a satirist who has been embraced by the world he once made fun of — he may have found that the tone one can use to ridicule the narcissism of our celebrity culture is insufficient when addressing issues of life and death. In Pecou’s case, we could say the issue of life from death, for that seems to be his strategy here. Viewers looking for righteous indignation or political solutions will find little of either. Affirmation not accusation is the driving force. Do or Dielooks to the empowerment of African and black culture to face the continuing onslaught of death and despair, dovetailing well with the current zeitgeist that has made the Black Panther movie such a hit. But one is left wondering if, in a world where before its next installation, a piece of fabric with “Stephon Clark” will need to be added to the exhibit’s centerpiece, that is enough.
Fahamu Pecou’s Do or Die: Affect, Ritual, Resistance, Mary Elizabeth Dee Shaw Gallery, Weber State University, Ogden, through April 7.
The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.