Nashville Culture Fest’s featured artist, Fahamu Pecou, brings hip-hop to high art to talk about black masculinity
by Joe Nolan
Nowadays, when artists like Jeff Koons are displaying giant balls of Play-Doh at the Whitney, you’d be forgiven for overlooking the dividing line between fine art and popular culture. When an artist like Ryan Trecartin’s videos seem custom made for YouTube, and a painter like Kehinde Wiley mixes his portraits of contemporary black people in modern dress into the aesthetics of Old Master paintings, it becomes increasingly difficult to discern the differences between mass media and museum masterpieces. Maybe there is no difference anymore? Maybe that’s why we should be paying attention?
Fahamu Pecou is an Atlanta-based artist and scholar whose paintings, videos, and social media experiments ask questions about how our society organizes, categorizes, creates, and consumes media—from hip-hop to highbrow, graffiti to glamour. Pecou is currently a PhD student in Emory University’s Institute of Liberal Arts, and he’s also the featured artist at this month’s Nashville Culture Fest multimedia happening centered around arts from the African Diaspora. Pecou studies the masks of black masculinity through the lens of media critique, making him both a perfect and provocative choice to represent the inaugural event.
“One of the things that I’m really interested in—both as a fine artist and in terms of academia—is the way that certain kinds of information, certain ideas about culture and society, are privileged to certain groups,” says Pecou. “I’m interested in exploding that. One of the things that I found when I started the PhD program was that there is this wealth of knowledge in this world where all this research is being done on these things that people have day-to-day issues with, but if you’re not in these environments where you have access to this information you don’t know about it. I’m trying to figure out a way to create bridges between the everyday person and the academy or the curator or the fine artists.” The dichotomy of being an academic who criticizes the academy, and the roles of those it canonizes and christens as curators, is a contradiction that amuses Pecou. But he’s genuinely advocating for the discussion between fine art and popular culture to be as engaging as his own early exposures to art education and art history were.
“For me art school was a great benefit because it opened me up to different ways of thinking about art that I was unfamiliar with,” says Pecou. “Where I was growing up there were no galleries to speak of, but I had a passion for drawing—that was my thing: people knew me as a kid who could draw. But when I got to art school I got exposed to galleries and museums and art history, and all these things I was just completely ignorant of. It really helped to transform me into the person I’m still becoming.”
As he’s grown as an artist and a thinker, Pecou’s work has crossed the lines between fine art and pop culture at different points through different means, with the 2009 painting Merrill Lynch’d. Pecou responded to the bank bailout fiasco, lampooning the cover of a Berlin art magazine with a self-portrait and a Jean-Michel Basquiat-esque bull. His recent Caged Bird series references the late great Maya Angelou—who collaborated with Basquiat on a children’s book—in a trio of paintings and drawings that questions the values and roles that define contemporary black maleness.
“I think part of the blurring of the line between pop culture and fine art is about challenging us to think critically about popular culture,” says Pecou. “You know, we see these things—these images and ideas being communicated—and we try to mimic them. But we never really ask why. Why is this important to me? What does this mean in the grand scheme of things?”
Pecou also addresses the barriers that still exist between African-American culture and the world of fine art. “I’m an African-American artist who—before I started doing the kind of work I’m doing—didn’t see a lot of African-American people in spaces for fine art. There is definitely a line there. My work speaks to African-American experience—particularly African-American male experience—but that’s not typically the audience that’s frequenting those spaces. So, what can I do to make those spaces more accessible to that audience?”
Pecou himself has had to push aside assumptions and knock down barriers to make room for his category-challenging work, which often adopts the over-the-top bravado of hip-hop culture to speak about the experience of being a black man.
“At any given time it seems there will be one important black male artist and everybody else is on the sidelines—like Double Dutch, just waiting on their turn to jump in. There is also a lot of criticism and commentary that occurs—not only in the art world, but also in the academic world—around issues of black men that aren’t coming from black men in the first place. They’re from other people’s perspectives and ideas about what black masculinity should be, be that black women scholars or white male scholars. You know, everybody else is saying what black masculinity is, and black men are often not in the conversation or not even in the same room. So I want to be a part of that discussion.”
Pecou and his art will be at the center of the Nashville Culture Fest from August 27 to August 31. The artist will be showing paintings, works on paper, and video at The Arts Company with a reception on August 30 from 3 to 6 p.m. He will talk with Nashville Arts Magazine at 4 p.m. during the reception. He’ll be lecturing at the gallery as well as at schools in the city throughout the festival. www.fahamupecouart.com