Pecou: Using Art to Shape Discourse

He sits with black John Lennon glasses and the signature haircut found in his paintings as he shares his story of becoming a world-class artist and explains some of the ideas behind his work. Fahamu Pecou, 38, is a Ph.D. student in the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts (ILA) and has shown his paintings all over the country and the world from Atlanta’s High Museum of Art to Switzerland, South Africa and Paris.

His work has also taken him among several jobs, and Pecou is a testament to defying the conventional wisdom that discourages the attempt to succeed in following a passion for the arts. He has also used his art to make bold statements about topics like what it means to be a black man in America.

For Pecou, his purpose is not only to create art. As his modus operandi of sorts suggests: in the future, historians will tell what happened, artists will tell how it felt.

Pecou graduated from the Atlanta College of Art in 1997 and, while claiming he did not have any marketable skills, he was able to secure a graphic design job making license plates and stickers. He describes his first job out of college, where he would work faster than anyone else and practice graphic design with the influence of magazines as the “most boring, simple work” he has ever done.

He also did similar work in New York.

“At the end of the day, it was a job to buy paint,” Pecou said.

It was not until he helped create graphics for advertisement for former Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin’s campaign that he was truly able to blend his love for hip-hop with his passion for painting.

Pecou used his marketing experience with Franklin’s mayoral campaign to further examine the marketing of hip-hop and visual art. Often critical of the relationship between hip-hop and corporate capitalism, he found it hilarious that much of it was aimed at selling the artist rather than the music. So, he began a campaign of his own aimed as a satire of this marketing, and he explored the possibility of visual art being marketed in the same vain.

Despite describing himself as often being a shy, introverted person, Pecou designed and placed posters around Atlanta with his image and text reading, “Fahamu Pecou Is The S–t!” People began recognizing him in public and coming up to him, asking if he was Fahamu Pecou and subsequently telling him that he is, indeed, the s–t. After he made shirts for his friends with the same image, people wanted to buy them, and orders began coming in from all over the world.

He became frustrated, however, that no one was calling him back about exhibiting his work. And once, after he was told that he would have to be taken out of a show at the High Museum, he used the opportunity to extend his character’s bravado beyond the canvas and into actual performance.

“Not only was I going to be in the show, but I was going to take over.” he said.

He arrived at the show in full celebrity swag, complete with a bodyguard and entourage.

Pecou drew crowds at art shows with his local celebrity status. He soon began hosting parties with live DJs, and while crowds would dance around him, he would be on stage painting.

The events were “a spectacle, an anti-performance” and “more about people’s reactions than what I was doing,” he said.

Pecou had been looking to get his work shown since he graduated college, but in 2005, he invited a friend into his studio to get a shirt and see his art, and he was immediately given the opportunity to show his work in a gallery. Later that year, he had his first solo show, and the rest, he says, is history.

As evidenced by his paintings, Pecou is heavily inspired by hip-hop culture and sees the possibility for the genre to engage communities and transform from one state of being into another. Pecou said, “The role of art should be to create an affective relationship to the world – it should mean something and not just be about pretty pictures or making money.”

He considers himself an activist of sorts and much of his art features him, not as a self-portrait, but as an allegory of black masculinity. He questions, offers commentary and, in some cases, mocks the media’s popular perception of a black man needing to be overtly masculine or narcissistic, which has been perpetuated by corporatized hip-hop.

Pecou also addresses prescriptives that society places on boys and men and notes that he didn’t fit this mold. As a kid, he says, he was no good at sports, got into trouble for playing with the girls and as an adult black male, he found people telling him what he should act like based on what he looks like.

His image and larger-than-life persona on the canvas varies from swaggering with a cane in his hand, posing with a cigar between his teeth or carrying a gun or can of spray paint. In other paintings, he poses with African masks, and in many, there is text displayed. The subject of black masculinity took a new perspective for Pecou after his son was born.

He wants to use his art to speak to what kinds of things he would like to teach his son as he becomes a man.

This exploration of black masculinity is also his focus of study in the ILA, where he engages in the study of visual culture, critical race theory and masculinity studies to further influence his work. Like the relationship between hip-hop and his art, there is also a substantial relationship between his academic studies and the work he creates.

Pecou is currently working on an essay to be featured in an anthology about hip-hop music in which he recalls a visit to South Africa in 2009. During this visit, a black homeless man approached Pecou and his friends and said racial epithets toward them in attempt to connect with and show admiration for them. This experience gave Pecou a lasting impression and further illustrated the commodification of the image of a black American male.

Despite this instance of a distorted perception of black men, some of the most interesting and enlightening conversations about race, Pecou says, have been overseas where there is more critical engagement about racial issues.

“In the United States, society is groomed to be consumers and other countries are more inclined to read the package,”  Pecou said.

He also notes how he shudders at ironies that emerge at use of certain words in hip-hop and how they are freely thrown around but have completely lost their context.

After completing his Ph.D., Pecou aspires to continue his work through public scholarship.

“I hope my work can be a beacon of hope and inspiration for young black men, many of whom continue to struggle with carving out their individual and collective identities in the face of consistent and limiting stereotypes,” Pecou said,.

He has certainly started to do this already.

“It is my aim to use my work, both creative and academic, as a way of sparking, inspiring and facilitating dialogues across communities. I see my work as a sort of bridge that connects seemingly disparate communities.”

– By Ross Fogg 

Photo by Thomas Han

To see Fahamu’s art work, visit fahamupecouart.com