In a July op-ed for ArtsATL, a nonprofit publication in Atlanta, visual artist Fahamu Pecou wrote a column titled, “Art Will Tell.” In it he talks about the origins of his Halsey exhibition, DO or DIE: Affect, Ritual, Resistance, which opens this weekend. “One day in April 2015,” he writes, “I came home to a package in the mail. The sender was the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art in Charleston, South Carolina.” Mark Soan, Halsey’s director, had sent Pecou a P&C story about the murder of Walter Scott. He attached a note to the article, “It’s Time For You.”
Pecou, an African-American painter and multi-media artist, creates contemporary works that address society’s representation of black males, while utilizing traditional themes of Yoruba and Ifa, West African religious practices. Many of Pecou’s pieces are images of himself, a character he calls Fahamu Pecou is The Shit. In a piece titled “Native Tongue,” Pecou is in profile, wearing slouching jeans and no shirt, a traditional Yoruba mask atop his head. Other pieces, like “Something Eternal,” show a man with a covered face kneeling before a woman’s naked body, whose black skin is speckled with what appear to be gold flakes, but could just be Vitiligo, a skin condition that causes depigmentation in skin.
Currently earning his Ph.D. at Emory University, Pecou is a prolific creator, constantly working on large-scale paintings of African-American masculinity, in addition to videos and music. Just last week he released a video and EP, Emmett Still, which references the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was murdered for reportedly flirting with white women.
In 2015, when Sloan asked Pecou to bring his art to Charleston, his subject matter seemed more than timely. While the murder of Walter Scott prompted Sloan’s request, the murder of nine parishioners at Emanuel AME in June confirmed the need for a voice like Pecou’s.
“My work began as responding out of traumas and tragedies,” says Pecou. “Those experiences gave me a voice.”
Pecou lost both of his parents when he was four years old; he says that he started drawing soon after that. “It was a coping mechanism. And it got me a lot of positive attention from peers,” he explains. Pecou found that his art helped him connect to people and he knew that he both wanted and needed to be an artist, although it took him a while to nail down what form his art would take.
“It’s almost a reflex,” he says. “I’m never sitting still for more than two minutes.” If it’s Pecou’s restlessness that sparks his creations, it is his conscientiousness that fuels his art’s message. “I’m really interested in finding ways to engage with the community that my work addresses,” he says.
That community is, for the most part, young African-American men. Pecou says that music and entertainment have taken center stage in the African-American cultural sphere, and that fine arts have been relegated to a classist space. “You won’t see black people frequenting galleries. They feel that they’re not welcome,” he says.
“I’m concerned about the ways in which the African-American community and youth are exposed to arts education,” says Pecou. His concern rings true in Charleston, thanks to the recent Charleston County School District $18 million budget shortfall. Earlier this summer the district removed its fine arts coordinator and cut funding to places like Sanders-Clyde elementary and middle schools, which have primarily lower income, black students.
“You see a really disproportionate representation of people of color majoring in the arts,” says Pecou, who often lectures at colleges and universities. He says that while lecturing at historically black colleges and universities he rarely sees any students majoring in the arts, often as a result of their parents urging them to major in something they can “get a job in.” “It’s a cultural difference. If we can change the perception of the arts, and show that it’s a viable space for people to make money, we can change the culture,” he says.
The culture in the black community this past July was one of frustration, fear, and sadness. Pecou wrote “Art Will Tell” just days after the deaths of Philando Castille and Alton Sterling, two black men killed by police officers in different cities, within 24 hours of one another. Pecou writes, “But suddenly I became voiceless, arrested with doubt. I could no more answer the very questions I raised than I could assure my or my son’s hope for a long fulfilling life. I was no longer sure that what I was doing would be sufficient.”
In “Art Will Tell,” Pecou recovers, watching a video created by his 13-year-old daughter, realizing that love can be stronger than hate. A month after the op-ed ran, Pecou says, “You just kinda keep pushing forward. You realize that everything is a lesson in the making.”
And Pecou hopes to keep learning, and teaching, by exposing as many people to his art as possible. His paintings are currently on display at a few corporate collections and will soon grace the walls of an art hotel. “My work is very deliberate,” says Pecou. “I’m attempting to share a message and inspire a feeling. I committed a long time ago to create art not just for the sake of art.” He continues, “Art should serve a purpose. I see how art can move and shape us.”
As part of his exhibition, Pecou will host InterSessions: The Art X Hip-Hop Dialogues on Fri. Sept. 9 at 7 p.m., featuring rapper Killer Mike and artist Arturo Lindsay.