Fact, Fiction, and Friction: Frohawk Two Feathers
During a time when fiction dances eerily with fact, it feels appropriate to look to a contemporary artist from my generation who is using acrylics, tea-dyed paper, and a variety of mediums to blur, illuminate, disguise, and play with these lines. I first saw Frohawk Two Feathers’ (NAP #73) work at Taylor De Cordoba in 2006 and have followed him and his empire literally through many gallery and museum openings, and figuratively through 100’s of years, numerous battles, wars, and revolutions. Lives have been lost, prisoners have been taken, but Frohawk always comes out on top.
As current 30-somethings, Frohawk and I grew up in a murky time. For me, my 20’s were formative: besides being post-college and post-9/11, the 2004 elections, The 9/11 Commission Report, the United States’ invasion of Iraq, and Sarah Palin’s vice presidential nomination influenced my worldview largely. Bottom line: I don’t believe anything anyone says anymore. - Read more by Ellen Caldwell, LA Contributor, after the jump!
Frokawk Two Feather | Amir Al Bahr. Admiral Deucalion Of The Pirate Fleet of Batavia, 2011, acrylic and tea on paper, 30" x 22" Courtesy of Taylor Cordoba
I kept thinking that the former G.W.Bush administration was smarter than it seemed. People know better. Bush Jr. knew what he was doing and what he was ignoring. McCain did too when he chose Palin as his vice presidential nominee. It is easier to blame ignorance; it's neater too. But I do not believe that these examples are simply a case of ignoring information or not bothering to do research. Then The 9/11 Commission Report arrived, and it was a detailed, sharp, and damning document commissioned by and about the U.S. government. As a factual, governmental record, the Commission Report provided readers with data. And it is mesmerizing. But as you read it, you have to start re-placing puzzle pieces of information that you have gleaned from the news and newspapers over the years into a different looking history. It is a lot like being told that Christopher Columbus did not in fact believe that the world was flat and that he didn’t actually “discover” anything. Or learning that a Brontosaurus is actually an Apatosaurus or that Pluto is not a planet. The Commission Report questions your historical base, while affirming your worst fears the whole time. It reads like a thriller, but is presented as factual data. And this is the era we are in, the era our children are growing up in: one of fact, fiction, and the friction between the two.
This is a time when there is not a black or white line in sight - just a million shades of grey. During the beginning of January 2006, author of A Million Little Pieces James Frey, was under attack for embedding lies in his then-categorized "nonfiction" memoir. During this hubbub, Oprah first defended him saying that it was “much ado about nothing."
Just 14 days later though, after journalists and authors alike shamed Oprah for this defense, she rescinded and then caught Frey off-guard on his second visit to her show. Frey’s crime: defacing the value of truth. Maureen Dowd of the New York Times put it best, "It was a huge relief, after our long national slide into untruth and no consequences, into Swift boating and swift bucks, into W.'s delusion and denial, to see the Empress of Empathy icily hold someone accountable for lying and conning." Frey became the scapegoat and albatross that was strangling the nation's neck with mistruths and lies.
Enter Frohawk Two Feathers and his sinfully delightful Frenglish Empire. He too is an avenger of truth, but he uses manipulations and slight tweakings of history to get us there. Much like J. R. R. Tolkien or J. K. Rowling, Frohawk has woven an intricate mytho-history of the Frenglish Empire over the past few years. In the same way that Tolkien had developed a detailed elfin language or that Rowling knows more about her characters than she published in her complete Harry Potter series, Frohawk has imagined a complex narrative which he enriches and unveils with each new series and show. Creating portraits that at once mimic, modernize, and satirize traditional colonial portraiture conventions, he depicts characters from empires as close as “Frengland” (the unified region of France and England) and Haiti or as far as the Arctic Tundra. Frohawk explores colonialism, imperialism, war, and degradation through a complex re-imagining of history. With his work, he creates a fictitious world of conquest that reflects a specific historicized colonial past. He shifts and updates actual historical events and conflicts with his fictionalized empires and characters, reflecting a contemporary reworking of and commentary upon imperialism.
Frohawk Two Feather | (Oedipal) Marechal Ganymede Hippolyte the darling of men and women. Son, of (the former) Marechal Hippolyte founder of the First Frenglish Republic and Phaidra, Duchess of Franconia. Ganymede loves his mother above all and is unnaturaly fascinated by her. His raids in Nueva Granada were very succesful but he could not prevent the loss of Sainte Domingue to the rebels. 2011, acrylic and tea on paper, 29.5" x 21.5" Courtesy of Taylor De Cordoba
Besides his obvious love and infatuation with recasting history and emphasizing the problems of our imperial past, Frohawk inserts his characters into ironic, humorous and re-contextualized situations, where kings flash gang signs, teenage soldiers pose in “b-boy” stances, and textual tattoos cover his characters’ bodies to carry the plot.
As an American artist born in Chicago, Frohawk offers a unique lens to consider new ways in which his art reflects a collective memory of imperialism—a collective memory that Americans are often eager to dismiss with something of a cultural amnesia. He uses traditional European art of empire in a curious and challenging way: to reflect upon, historicize, remember, and record it.
It is common to see the theme of empire and colonialism played out in art of Sub-Saharan Africa, New Zealand, Australia, and India. It is not as common to see it in the U.S. by an American. Instead, this is often a buried past here. Lack of ownership, shame, ignorance, and anger are all potential reasons keeping colonialism out of a larger American historical narrative. However, just because it is precluded from the narrative does not mean that it does not reside in and trouble the American psyche, or collective subconscious. Frohawk’s work speaks to this collective memory—one that is haunted with violence, bloodshed, anger, and shame. Although American imperialism and genocide is often veiled as foreign policy: colonialism and neo-colonialism as slavery, share-cropping, and globalization, our contestable past and present still pervade our collective memories. While Frohawk’s work places us as viewers and onlookers to the Frenglish Empire, we are forced to see ourselves in his reimagining of history.
Frohawk Two Feather | The Force Fantastique Artillery Corps at Agulhas, 2011, acrylic and tea on paper, 22.5” x 30” Courtesy of Stevenson
Frohawk Two Feather | DETAIL: The Force Fantastique Artillery Corps at Agulhas, 2011, acrylic and tea on paper, 22.5” x 30” Courtesy of Stevenson
Although mainly showing his art in the U.S., Frohawk and his most recent work crossed the Atlantic for his first international solo show in South Africa at Stevenson, Cape Town. When I spoke with him about this show The Edge of the Earth Isn’t Far From Here, he described his process of working with one of the gallery’s directors Michael Stevenson to continue his narrative, while tying it to Cape Town’s complex history. He wanted to include South Africa in the show because he likes to incorporate the gallery’s locale into the story (though, interestingly, he noted he hasn’t done anything about the U.S. yet).
FTF: Everything I’m working on now is moving the story forward, though [he laughs] I’ve been doing a little bit of time-traveling. In South Africa, the show there took place chronologically before the Miami show with Morgan Lehman and before the Taylor De Cordoba show “Company Crocodile Part I: The War of the Dancing Machetes,” February 2011. All is pertinent to telling the full story though.
In terms of the story, I’m moving along with the collapse of the Frenglish Empire and birth of the Frenglish Republic, which mirrors the French Revolution in the real history, but in my world it's the Frenglish Revolution. So there is a lot of revolutionary activity going on and they’re in the process of abolishing the monarchy and establishing representative governments… I’m really delving into revolutions in the colonies.
Frohawk Two Feather | Beer, Braaivleis, Battle: The Battle of Cape Agulhas, 1792, 2011, acrylic and tea on paper, 44” x 64.5” Courtesy of Stevenson
Frohawk Two Feather | DETAIL: Beer, Braaivleis, Battle: The Battle of Cape Agulhas, 1792, 2011, acrylic and tea on paper, 44” x 64.5” Courtesy of Stevenson
In preparation for South Africa and his more recent work, Frohawk took to the books, as he always does. He described his reading as “lifestyle stories and stories about war – not just a military focus.” A handful he cited ranged from Xavier Beguin Billecocq’s French Travelers to the Cape of Good Hope, to Chris Peer’s The African Wars: Warriors and Soldiers of the Colonial Campaign, to Samuel Eliot Morison‘s Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus.
I asked Frohawk about the outcome of his research into historical narratives and stories of revolution for the recent show.
FTF: I’m happy with the way everything came together. And I was grateful for the literature I was able to get from Michael Stevenson, though what I found is that talking about South Africa in 1792, is like talking about any colony in 1792. In that respect, I went into some specifics, but a lot of it was generalized because in reading the history, it didn't seem that different. The players change, but the game is still the same.
And in many ways, it seems that this is Frohawk’s mantra: “The players change, but the game is still the same.”
His research and mantra helped to inspire a series-within-a-series in The Edge of the Earth Isn’t Far From Here that he named Scenes from the Veld. This included a group of smaller vignettes, depicting scenes that occurred in the bush and surrounding area of Cape Town. He felt these were particularly successful in “holding the portraits together a little bit more than in previous shows.” These included such works as Scenes from the Veld 5: Soldier's wife of the veld with orphaned child of questionable parentage and Scenes from the Veld 2: Hunter-gatherer of the veld and the spectre of his future, a servant. These are both typical of Frohawk’s biting humor. Casting himself in Scenes from the Veld 2, he simultaneously makes himself a player and pawn of empire – one with a limited and predefined future.
Frohawk Two Feather | Scenes from the Veld 2: Hunter-gatherer of the veld and the spectre of his future, a servant. 2011, acrylic and tea on paper, 16” x 20” Courtesy of Stevenson
Frohawk Two Feather | Scenes from the Veld 5: Soldier's wife of the veld with orphaned child of questionable parentage. 2011, acrylic and tea on paper, 16” x 20” Courtesy of Stevenson
He said that people often ask him about this – saying things like “if you are changing history, why wouldn’t you tell the story differently? Why would you cast yourself in that role?” But that’s just the thing. He is not completely recasting history. It is not entirely magical and new. He is telling a history that happened to many people. In his words, he says, “I am bringing to light a few things you may not know, but I'm not trying to do the opposite of what was done. I’m not changing history and the roles. People ask, ‘how come you don't make black people the kings?’ It didn't go down that way. There would still be a dialogue, but it would be total fiction. To me, it wouldn't serve what I've learned or expose these stories I want to tell.”
And there lies the crux and complexity of his work. A recent review of his show in South Africa labeled him a “trickster” and “master rascal” “who has fun at the system’s expense.” I would argue, however, that he goes way beyond having fun. Many of his characters carry swords, and they are sharp. His work is a retelling of history: histories forgotten or in need of re-telling and his work is also a biting critique. Though we can read it comically, it is written in blood, sweat, and tears. The tea used to dye and age the paper on which he paints tells a history of its own: one of trade, import substitution, and colonial exploitation. It is a story of the degradation of both natural and human resources.
In Recrafting History, a recent group show at Taylor De Cordoba (full disclosure: I curated the show), Frohawk explored this commercial side of colonialism in such works as Drink Away the Pain and Map of Lesser Antilles, 1793. Here, he was looking at the colonial Wylie-Coyote-esque game of import substitution: a process by which colonizers monopolized local economies by halting (and often banning or outlawing) local production of goods, and substituting it with their foreign imported product. In his words:
FTF: I’m taking a breather and trying to do more propaganda pieces – something I haven't done before. The Antillean Rum ad (“Drink Away the Pain”) was making fun of Newport ads and WWII propaganda advertisements. I plan on touching on that a lot more in the next show. Even though the empire’s losing hold of the colonies, they still control them with products. The British West India Company ran the sugar, rum, indigo, and spice trade in the colonies -- so does the Frenglish West India Company. So these pieces were somewhat outside of the storyline, but function more like companion pieces.
Frohawk Two Feather | Map of Lesser Antilles, 1793, 2011, acrylic and tea on paper, 39.75" x 25.5" Courtesy of Taylor De Cordoba
Frohawk Two Feather | "Drink Away The Pain", Antillean Rum advertisement featuring Capt Achille St. Marc and his aide-de-camp Colin after the retaking of Dominica 1793 paid for by the Frenglish West India Company, 2011, acrylic and tea on paper, 43.75" x 30.5" Courtesy of Taylor De Cordoba
In an age of grayish truth, I welcome the friction Frohawk’s work creates. It reflects and refracts my murky worldview in many ways, all while illuminating mistruths, mishaps, and mistake of our American mythologies. When I asked him if viewers are able to distinguish the difference between his fact and fiction, he said they often don’t. But, he added:
FTF: It’s not about whether it's true or not, but it is more about the general overall feeling. There are really great historians out there who research their subjects very thoroughly, but this is my heritage: a complete work of fiction with historical references; a truncated history of a lot of views based on the way things actually went.
It’s not my intent to have people get caught up in little minute details. I always preface my artist talks with the fact that I don't really think in a linear pattern, and if you're looking for clarity, I'm afraid I can't give it to you now in the middle of the saga. Until it's all done, you just have to enjoy the journey.
And it’s precisely his journey that makes it worth the ride.
Frohawk Two Feathers is an LA-based artist with a current show at Stevenson, Cape Town running through November 25th. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver, is featuring his first solo museum show this coming summer, 2012. And his next show at Taylor De Cordoba is scheduled for September 2012.
Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, editor, and writer.