A Smile That Ain't A Smile But Teeth: New Works by Umar Rashid
In A Smile That Ain’t a Smile But Teeth, artist, performer, and storyteller, Umar Rashid opened his first solo show under his aforementioned birth name this past weekend at the Reginald Ingraham Gallery. In the art world, Rashid is better known as “Frohawk Two Feathers”—his nom-de-plum and alter ego (NAP #73). This Homeric and Tolkien-esque raconteur is known for reweaving and reinventing a master narrative based on the supposition that France and England had united as “Frengland.” In his painted and sculpted saga, Two Feathers invites viewers through tales of woe and into bloody battles, introduces them to traitorous heroes and lost loves, and amuses them with his wit, humor, and biting sense of irony. – Ellen C. Caldwell, Los Angeles Contributor
Umar Rashid | installation view of “Post Physical Slavery American Negro Archetype Numbers 1-4,” acrylic and graphite on canvas, four canvases - each 36”x 48.5”. Photo by Ellen C. Caldwell, courtesy of artist and Reginald Ingraham Gallery.
Rashid has cultivated an empire of mythical proportions – both in his development of the Frenglish Empire and in his creation of his artistic alter ego. Writers and critics often examine Two Feathers and his empire through an art historical and somewhat psychological lens, supposing and suggesting that he is playing god historically and make-believe more personally, as he inserts himself and his friends into the Frenglish narrative. In A Smile then, it is particularly interesting to see Rashid flip this script and wholly own his name, portraits, and the very game he originally wrote through the Frenglish saga.
Umar Rashid | gallery view of “Post Physical Slavery American Negro Archetype Number 3-4,” and “El Soldado Negro (The Black Soldier)” video (5:20) and installation. Photo by Ellen C. Caldwell, courtesy of artist and Reginald Ingraham Gallery.
In his own words, Rashid aimed to “examine the self-identity of the black man in America.” Exploring the current political climate, inherited historical truisms, and other influences from his upbringing, Rashid reflects and refracts murky worldviews, deeply engrained stereotypes, and grayish truths, all while illuminating mishaps, mistakes, and mistruths of master American mythologies.
It is particularly interesting to see where and how Rashid’s and Two Feathers’ paintings overlap subject- and style-wise. In both, issues of race, class, gender, identity, and the problematic concept of historical truth intersect in an effort to explore the fractured and duplicitous way not only we as a people remember and recollect, but also Rashid as an individual remembers and recollects his own adolescence on a much more personal scale.
Umar Rashid | “Berlin Conference Finals Official Merchandise (Replica of an original tragedy),” Embroidery on basketball jersey, Edition of 2. Photo by Ellen C. Caldwell, courtesy of artist and Reginald Ingraham Gallery.
Compositionally, both bodies of work contain a combination of text and image – in maps, portraiture, and advertisements. In A Smile, Rashid moves away from Two Feathers’ historic, detailed, and aged maps and instead uses geographic forms and names to suggest, alter, and problematize historic colonial and imperial events. In his jersey Berlin Conference Finals Official Merchandise (Replica of an original tragedy), for instance, he plays on the NBA’s Eastern and Western Conferences and on one of the most devastating divisions of a continent by colonial powers – the Berlin Conference of 1884. Beginning with the Berlin Conference and leading through 1900, major European nations carved up and divided Africa along arbitrary lines in what became known as the “Scramble for Africa.” (For a great introduction to and analysis of the Berlin Conference and its aftermath, watch Al Jezeera’s documentary Scramble for Africa, 2010.) Rashid alludes to this geographic division through the jersey name and moves beyond the word play on “conference” to question the very legacy the scramble produced worldwide including the subjection, enslavement, and exodus of African people and products.
Umar Rashid | Detail of “Post Physical Slavery American Negro Archetype Number 4. “Knowledge (born Kevin Bigsley). Radical leftist (in theory and in practice to a lesser extent.) The greatest ally to himself and visual champion of the proletariat. Born hero.” Acrylic and graphite on canvas, 36”x 48.5”. Photo by Ellen C. Caldwell, courtesy of artist and Reginald Ingraham Gallery.
Umar Rashid | Detail of “Post Physical Slavery American Negro Archetype Number 3. “’Marvelous’ Marvell T. Powers. Strong, god-fearing, hard-working, wage earner. Any government’s ideal citizen. Desires nothing except for guap and physical love. A purely tactile creature. A lifelong acolyte of the temporal condition. Born soldier.” Acrylic and graphite on canvas, 36”x 48.5”. Photo by Ellen C. Caldwell, courtesy of artist and Reginald Ingraham Gallery.
Umar Rashid | Umar Rashid, Detail of “Post Physical Slavery American Negro Archetype Number 2. George Washington Filmore Jackson. Brilliant scholar, jazz saxophonist, perpetual self-hater, master of the waltz Viennese, the kowtow, and the bow and scrape. His body is always tilted at a 45 degree angle to his imagined superiors. Born disappointment.” Acrylic and graphite on canvas, 36”x 48.5”. Photo by Ellen C. Caldwell, courtesy of artist and Reginald Ingraham Gallery.
Umar Rashid | Detail of “Post Physical Slavery American Negro Archetype Number 1. Just ‘Toine Aka ‘Self Serve’ Informant and known traitor to the cause. Born snitch.” Acrylic and graphite on canvas, 36”x 48.5”. Photo by Ellen C. Caldwell, courtesy of artist and Reginald Ingraham Gallery.
In his portraits, Rashid uses a similar painting style to that of Two Feathers’ – but rather than using his friends as his subjects, Rashid himself is the focus and medium throughout. Rashid said he wanted to apply the Jungian concept of an archetype to all the facets of his identity as a black male in America, so he himself embodied the archetype and the portraits became self-portraits. Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung believed that there is an overlying collective unconscious similar to instinct, from which all humans can derive certain shared and similar archetypes or patterns that are manifested in one’s culture through mechanisms like art, stories, songs, dreams, and religions. Jung used this idea to explain why very different cultures, separated by oceans and miles, might share very similar archetypes of mother, trickster, and hero figures in popular religion and lore. As Rashid looks back to examine his formative years as a black American male, he paints himself as archetypical characters and figures—from the hero, to the snitch, to the disappointment, and soldier—but as Rashid explores these archetypes, it is clear that they have transformed into and become deeply seated stereotypes.
In this same vein, Rashid turns to advertisements to challenge and poke fun at popular narrative, just as Two Feathers does with the Frenglish company ads. Here, though, in his video El Soldado Negro (The Black Soldier) and his painting Alive (A tribute to menthol as a lifestyle decision and occasional currency), Rashid examines, questions, and recreates advertisements whose after effects ultimately kill a large percentage of the black community. In El Soldado Negro, for instance, Rashid jabs at the typical army recruitment advertisements that air on MTV and target underprivileged youth through action montages, video game graphics, motivational scores, and the directive challenge to “be all that you can be.” In Alive (which also hangs in the background of El Soldado), Rashid paints the Newport cigarette logo and alludes to their motto “alive with pleasure” – inverting it upside down, and clearly questioning and detonating the choice word “alive” since both the army and cigarette marketing tactics would more likely wind you up dead.
In his examination of self, Rashid presents a rich body of work and an enticing series of questions about the same topics that haunt the Frenglish Empire – the role of influential and pejorative stereotypes, racism, capitalism, and imperialism. Here, we see Two Feathers as Rashid and the reverse – something Rashid described as a “trompe-l'œil effect of Two Feathers without the long extensive narrative story.” In that sense, Rashid replaces the epic historical narrative with a more personal, contemporary American narrative – though I would argue that the Frenglish and American worlds and messages are far more similar than they are different.
Umar Rashid’s A Smile That Ain’t a Smile But Teeth runs at the Reginald Ingraham Gallery through October 18th and it is a must-see—especially when coupled with Edgar Arceneaux’s show A Book and a Medal across the street at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects.
Umar Rashid is a Chicago-born and LA-based artist. This fall, he will exhibit as a MATRIX artist at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, CT. To learn more about his work and his Frenglish Empire, see Caldwell’s other reviews and writing: Myth, Midtopia, and Mapping: Frohawk Two Feathers and the Making of the Frenglish Empire (2013); Fact, Fiction and Friction: Frohawk Two Feathers (2011); Museum Admission: Frohawk Two Feathers at MCA Denver (2012); and Reframing History: In the Studio with Frohawk Two Feathers (2010).
Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, editor, and writer.