Fahamu Pecou & The Portrait: A Q&A with Sam McKinniss

Fahamu Pecou, Close...And a Cigar, 2010 | Acrylic on canvas, 66 x 54 inches. Courtesy the artist.

In 2008, I met Fahamu Pecou at an opening party for a group show at the Amistad Center in Hartford, CT. After viewing his hilarious video,  Instant Celebrity: The Rise of an Urban Legend, I approached the artist to tell him how much I enjoyed it. After introducing myself, Mr. Pecou handed me his business card which read, rather matter-of-factly, “Fahamu Pecou is the Shit.” No phone number, no email, nothing (with the exception of an unforgettable moment).

Since then, the Atlanta-based artist, featured in NAP edition #82, has been exhibiting hip-hop self-portrait inspired work across the globe, including a current solo show at Dallas’s Conduit Gallery. I caught up with the artist last week to discuss his recent work.  —Sam McKinniss, contributor

Baby Boi, 2010 | Acrylic on canvas, 72 x 60 inches

SM: Could you briefly describe your new show, HARD 2 DEATH: Second Childhood, at Conduit?
Since 2009, I’ve been working on this concept called “HARD 2 DEATH,” which basically examines black male culture, particularly black male youth culture. It talks about some of the behaviors within the culture that are celebrated that, in some instances, began as a means of self-preservation, ultimately destructive behaviors. As a result I wrote an essay and I broke my ideas into about four suites of paintings. The first one which came out last year was called All Falls Down.

The second series, the one that’s on display right now in Dallas, is called “Second Childhood,” which takes its cues from looking at how older generations of black men often look at what the youth are doing and try to emulate that as opposed to setting the examples. So it’s kind of retroactive behavior that creates a really dizzying and sad state of manhood. It’s hard to tell who’s leading who. To comment on that, I exaggerated the idea by dressing up in children’s clothes and doing these poses—trying to maintain this look of toughness and a hard exterior, but dressed in kids’ pajamas.

Game Boi, 2010 | Acrylic on canvas, 72 x 60 inches

The poses in these paintings remind me of Barkley Hendricks, and your use of text reminds me of Basquiat. I wonder if you get that a lot.
I actually credit Basquiat a lot in the way that I use text and language in my work. You know, in the beginning, I call that 'style sampling.' I kind of pull from sources of inspiration around me and I adapt them into a new vocabulary. Barkley Hendricks is definitely someone who really changed the way that I consider my paintings, or the way that I painted.  I was doing this thing for a while when I first encountered Barkley Hendricks’s work, and just his painting style alone—it moved me to a completely different place. I am definitely influenced by those two, but also artists like David Hammons. Conceptually, his style and way of trickery is really poignant to me, and I like the idea of being able to play on people’s expectations and ideas in a similar kind of way that he does.

You seem to be constantly on a mission to expand your audience in and outside of the artworld. It’s almost like you operate like an evangelist or like a party promoter. It’s in your self-presentation when we see you in person or videos circulating online, and it’s in the painting itself. Is your studio a quiet working place, or is it literally like your offices? Like you’re the CEO and you have your corner office.
It varies. A lot of times I’m here by myself just painting, making, writing or whatever. But there are a lot of times when people just come and hangout. You know, I keep my studio open because I like the idea of community and collaboration in my process. If I finish a body of work, I’ll invite anywhere from 15 to 20 people over to my studio and critique it. It won’t just be artists, it’ll be artists and writers and the homeless guy off the street. It doesn’t really matter. I’m interested in how people receive the work. I’m always interested in how certain things will resonate with certain people and what that means in terms of the work. In terms of it being a headquarters, I don’t know if it’s necessarily that. It’s more of a hangout.

Men of Still, 2010 | Acrylic on canvas, 66 x 54 inches

A lot of this kind of collaboration sounds specific to Atlanta’s creative community.
Atlanta definitely lends itself well to that. One of the things often criticized by the local art community here is that it exists in many ways without support or recognition from the higher institutions here. And so, as a result, the local community will rally in support of one another to try and get things happening.

What do you love about Atlanta?
The thing I love the most is that it is an affordable place to be. So, a financial struggle here is a very different struggle than say in New York or Chicago or something like that. And I also like the community here. I didn’t grow up here, but the person that I am today… I kind of grew up here. So, I feel really comfortable and I feel optimistic about what will happen here in the next 2 to 5 years in terms of the city’s growth, the artists who are here, and the kind of work that’s coming out of Atlanta.

Can you name some self-portraits from history that inspire you?
It’s funny you should ask that question. The body of work that I’m working on for a show coming up in New York is actually inspired by that. One of my very favorite self-portraits is Norman Rockwell’s triple self-portrait. I recently finished a homage piece to that portrait. Another one is Chuck Close’s self-portrait from 1967. It’s the huge black-and-white of him smoking a cigarette. That’s another favorite of mine. This series I’m working on is called “Art History Next” and basically I’m examining and appropriating famous self-portraits and reinterpreting them through my own prism. That show will be in New York in March at Lyons Wier Gallery.

WWSD&Y, 2010 | Acrylic on canvas, 66 x 54 inches

I look forward to seeing that. Over the years of using yourself as a model, what have you been getting at, conceptually?
Essentially, even though they’re self-portraits, I always say they’re me but they’re not me. I use myself as an allegory to talk about an idea of the perception and perspectives on black masculinity. When people see these images, there are preconceived ideas about the rap guy or whatever it is they be. When they realize this is not a rap guy, this is actually the artist, and artists don’t normally present themselves like this—this guy doesn’t think or speak the way that somebody who looks like this would do—it kind of shakes people off of their foundations a little bit and it forces them to examine the work and examine the idea of black masculinity a little bit differently. That’s really what the whole thing is about.

That wasn’t something that I would say I consciously entered into the work doing, but as a result of doing the work over time and thinking about that question a lot, “why do you always paint yourself?” In the beginning, it was more about establishing myself or almost like throwing the middle finger up to the artworld. Just to say this is not what you would expect: it’s what I’m going to give you anyway.

And also a very strong sense of humor. There are obviously deeper underlying social questions going on, but what’s immediately appealing about your work is just the amount of fun you’re clearly having.
At the end of the day, you know, I’m a jokester.

Ambitions of a Rider, 2010 | Acrylic on canvas, 84 x 66 inches

Fahamu Pecou was featured in edition #82 of New American Paintings. His solo show, HARD 2 DEATH: Second Childhood, is on view at Conduit Gallery in Dallas, TX through February 12. He will also be featured in a solo exhibition of his work in March at Lyons Wier Gallery, New York. Images courtesy the artist.

Sam McKinniss is an artist and writer based in Boston.


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