Interview: Fahamu Pecou

Next up, as part of my spotlight on Atlanta-based artists, is Fahamu Pecou, of “Fahamu Pecou is the Shit” fame. Known for his large-scale painted riffs on art magazines, Pecou also incorporates performance and maintains an active online presence. Playing with strategies of pop culture branding and promotion, Pecou delves into stereotypes of black masculinity and notions of fine art. Along these lines, his latest forays extend to the representation of the Obamas in the media. Here we learn about his most recent work, upcoming performances, his views on Atlanta, and what it really means to be “the shit.”

Fahamu Pecou, “The Code”, Acrylic and oil stick on canvas, 66 x 49.5 inches, 2009.

Fahamu Pecou, “The Code,” 2009. Acrylic and oil stick on canvas, 66 x 49 1/2 inches.

Victoria Lichtendorf: It seems like you’ve been pretty busy these past few years with solo shows in Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco, and Dallas, as well as group shows in New York, Miami, and recently, Cape Town, South Africa. You went to school here in Atlanta, but what makes you stay?

Fahamu Pecou: Atlanta has always felt like home to me. After college, I moved back to NY. Though I had a great time and was inspired art-wise, I missed Atlanta. I missed the community and trees…LOL. Atlanta is a great place to be. The city is growing and I feel like a part of the foundation, a claim I don’t think I could make in New York or L.A. For me, it’s great that I get to travel and be inspired in all these other places and then bring that energy back to Atlanta.

Fahamu Pecou. UnAmerican Idol. Courtesy Fahamu Pecou.

Fahamu Pecou, "UnAmerican Idol," 2009. Acrylic and gold leaf on canvas, 63 1/2 x 49 inches. Courtesy Fahamu Pecou.

VL: Diamond Lounge Creative seems like a pretty demanding day job. Are you becoming any less involved? Do you identify with them or any other artists who’ve followed a similar path from advertising, such as Andy Warhol and Barbara Kruger?

FP: I am still very much involved in Diamond Lounge, now called RED|Creative. I am the principle designer and creative director. So my days are almost endless. But it is a great environment to work in. My team is extraordinary and we all have our own creative lives outside of RED. In many ways, RED is a think tank, a place where creative minds collaborate. We don’t consider ourselves graphic designers or copywriters. We are artists first and foremost; advertising and marketing design is just another medium for us, like painting or drawing.

I do identify highly with Warhol. He was a master of bridging the commercial world and the fine art world. I can identify with that. I like to think that anyone and everyone should have access to art. It should be a part of our daily lives. It should be fun and thoughtful. It should be accessible.


VL: In your YouTube “biopic,” Instant Celebrity, you mention your appropriation of hip-hop marketing tactics was partly inspired by local clients of yours. Do you often tap into local sources for inspiration?

FP: I find myself inspired by many sources, be it local culture, television, music, books, conversations, fashions…you name it. My mind, like my eyes, is always open. Because my work is about how our society influences and is influenced by media, it is imperative that I stay awake and find ways of channeling what’s happening now. I think artists are unique in that ability. Historians will tell what happened; artists will tell how it felt.

Fahamu Pecou. Courtesy Fahamu Pecou.

Fahamu Pecou, "American Gothik," 2009. Acrylic and oil stick on canvas, 72 x 54 inches. Courtesy Fahamu Pecou.

VL: Along these lines, can you tell me about two upcoming Atlanta events, “Fahamenon” on June 7, and The 15 Project at the Contemporary, June 19?

FP: My upcoming projects are the world premiere of my current work, Blak Presidential, during Art Basel in Switzerland and my talk show, The 15 Project, at the Contemporary on June 19. Blak Presidential debuts June 8-13. I am really excited about this work. It is commentary on the skewed perspectives around black Americans, exposed in the media’s reaction to the images of the Obamas. So many people have literally had the world turned on end by the emergence of a figure like Barack Obama and his family. They can’t understand how a black man is so intelligent, thoughtful, loving, charismatic, etc. They are confused by Michelle’s poise and grace, her boldness and realness. The only thing they can find to compare them to are fictional television characters like Cliff and Claire Huxtable. I find that amazing! But I also understand that the Obamas contradict the carefully designed stereotypes our culture has complacently accepted as a norm for black Americans. At the same time, I am trying to bring awareness to the new stereotypes that are being crafted around the Obamas which, on either hand, the old or the new stereotype, doesn’t tell a complete story. In the series, my character takes on the role of the Blak President. The paintings are conversations around how black American culture has been and is being presented and re-presented through the Obamas.

The 15 Project is an irreverent and insightful public program presented by the Contemporary. Quarterly, I conduct interviews with my friends and contemporaries in Atlanta’s cultural, political, and entertainment scenes in the format of a late night TV talk show. It’s always fun and full of surprises.

Fahamu Pecou, Blak Maybe. Courtesy Fahamu Pecou

Fahamu Pecou, "Blak Maybe," 2009. Acrylic and oil stick on canvas, 56 x 62 1/2 inches. Courtesy Fahamu Pecou

VL: Where are your favorite venues to see art in the ATL?

FP: I am a fan of the gallery scene in Atlanta. I think the museum culture here needs a lot of work. But I think it is changing slowly but surely. As more artists are staying here and putting Atlanta on the map, the demand from the community for more engaging arts programming is only going to continue to grow. More and more you will see the faces of the arts patrons changing. Atlanta has existed as a “big town” for decades; it’s now becoming a big city. My favorite galleries are Marcia Wood, Solomon Projects, Get This Gallery, Saltworks Gallery, Eyedrum, and of course the Contemporary.

VL: NEOPOP, as you’ve dubbed your work, engages with an incredible range of media in both content and form. In an interview for Open Door Contemporary Arts Projects with Nicole Caruth (a resident Art21 blogger), you talk about approaching the web as a digital canvas for experimentation, where you run multiple tests. What are some of your latest tests? Any new discoveries or surprises?

FP: I’ve really been developing my knowledge of Web 2.0 technology, basically the Internet-on-the-go experience. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter have allowed me to create a virtual presence where fans and supporters practically have access into my studio and my experiences 24/7. I get to share real time updates on what I’m doing in the studio as well as what’s happening when I’m on the road. I also get to sort of test out concepts, projects etc.—kind of like a soft launch for different ideas to make them interactive. So followers/friends can submit feedback or comments that help me fine tune some of the things I’m working on.

It’s also great to take the art out of the gallery and put it in people’s hands. A lot of black people (in particular) have never been into fine art, museums. or galleries and don’t always have access to all of the really cool contemporary art that exists. Many just don’t see what art has to do with them. So using the web and other mediums has also allowed me to reach people who aren’t fine art insiders and open up the art experience to them in a way they can relate to.

VL: Which came first, the paintings or the performances?

FP: I think performance has always been a part of my personality, even though I didn’t identify it as such. But the painting series created a space for my characters to really be defined and have a voice. It’s like I’m now able to take my inside jokes public.

VL: How do you develop your personae? How would you describe your mind-state during a performance?

FP: Many of my characters have been around for years. They were not as developed or didn’t have as much focus as they do now. But they all began as jokes. I am a pretty silly dude on the regular, but I was also really shy. So my close friends would see a side of me most people didn’t. My mind-state is pretty much the same, except I have more confidence in the “performing” side of things.

Some characters, like Fahamu Pecou is the Shit, do not behave or speak any differently than my normal persona. The difference is in the presentation. The performance is actually the presentation, the girls, the paparazzi…It’s not so much me acting as much as it is you and everyone else reacting to me.

VL: You’ve spoken about the role of audience in testing your various ideas through different personae and platforms. In Fehamu Pecou Outtake, posted on YouTube, you mention “being the shit” doesn’t mean you are just interested in “playing to the crowd.” What kinds of responses are you looking for? How do you gauge success? Because of the pop references in your work, do you think you are reaching audiences beyond the insider art crowd?

FP: I have not yet had a show or event where at least 2 or 3 people haven’t come to me and said, “Wow! I never been into art before (or I’ve never gone to an art gallery before). I didn’t know art could be like this.” That’s an amazing compliment. My own story is similar. As a child, I wanted to be an artist but I didn’t know anything about the art world. I never went into a gallery before I was in college. For me, my option as an artist was to do cartoons. I didn’t know about fine art as such, even though in my heart that’s what I always was. So to hear someone say that to me is a great feeling. I hope that they will continue to go to galleries and experience art. And ultimately buy art and start collections. But I think as an artist, part of my responsibility is to share art with everyone, not a select few or not a specific class of people.

VL: With a recent grant from Artadia and more shows planned (any news to share on this front?), you seem to be moving towards the success you sought by creating Fahamu Pecou is the Shit. Is “being the shit” signified by the moment when the alternative universe you’ve created and reality converge? Does it mean you have “arrived” in the art world, or has it become something else?

FP: After my show in Switzerland, I will be doing another show called Blak Presidential INAUGURATION in New York in October and a show in Atlanta called WHIRL TRADE. I am also prepping to show next year in Paris.

With every show, project, or accomplishment, I see greater goals on the horizon to strive for. My personal mission is to outdo myself every time I approach a canvas or embark on a new project. When I raise the bar for myself, I feel I am also enhancing the experience for others. Being an artist is a great honor to me and a very humbling one as well. I am grateful for the gifts I have and am eager to share them. I guess I mean that to say “arriving” per se is not necessarily the aim, but I do want to make a mark and shift expectations. In the end, I would like to one day look back and see the path I made. Where I am at that point is not an issue, because hopefully I’d just be at another checkpoint and then keep it moving.