Nashville Scene

An exhibit of paintings by Fahamu Pecou is Culture Fest's crowning jewel

By Laura Hutson 

The majority of Fahamu Pecou's paintings are self-portraits. But for an artist who goes by the Twitter alias Fahamu Pecou Is the Shit, he speaks about them with surprisingly little ego.

"I don't even call them self-portraits," he tells the Scene over the phone from his home in Atlanta. "I use myself as a model as a way of challenging images that we have around representations of black masculinity. In many ways I am performing a character, and as that character I'm performing to different stereotypes."

In the exhibit of Pecou's work that is currently hanging at The Arts Company in downtown Nashville, eight paintings feature Pecou in various representative modes — a hustler, a dandy, a hip-hop star — all with the same serious expression and ever-present dark sunglasses. His paintings recall the works of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kehinde Wiley, with their scrawled graffiti and grandiose attention to style.

He was invited to The Arts Company and to Nashville through Culture Fest, a celebration of African diasporic culture that's based on the model of the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta. His invitation came from Culture Fest's executive producer, Leatrice Ellzy, a longtime friend who knew Pecou's work had the pop cultural relevance to grab a younger generation and the formalist chops to appeal to a broader audience.

"One of the things that Leatrice wanted to do with Culture Fest is not only touch people from different walks of life and different demographics," Pecou explains, "but also that it connects across generations. She wanted to reach the younger audiences."

One series of paintings in particular calls on Pecou's talents as diplomat to the youth. "All Dat Glitters Ain't Goals is a series that really tries to engage with youth culture," he says. "It's a sort of a cautionary tale. Oftentimes, we're represented with images in the media of success being these shiny, glittery beings. But at what cost?"

If that sounds heady for a contemporary artist, it is. Pecou is also a Ph.D. candidate at Emory University's Institute of Liberal Arts program, where he's expanded upon the research interests he began exploring in his studio practice. Primarily, he's exploring allegories about black masculinity that recall Cindy Sherman's interest in the femme fatale.

"I'm doing my dissertation on Kanye West," he says, "and his performance of obstinate resistance — that's what I call it. I find that an interesting way to engage with how black men are portrayed, and how we perform our identities."

Like the self-titled track on an LP, the painting named "All Dat Glitters Ain't Goals," which is currently hanging over the administrative office area of the gallery, functions a bit like Pecou's lead single. At 74 by 60 inches, the 2012 painting is massive, with Pecou's Bobby Brown-style asymmetrical hair and a stance that's laughably aggro, as if he's looking out of the canvas through a fisheye lens in a music video. His fingers pull at the various chains he's wearing around his neck — playing a kind of cat's cradle with the platinum and gold pendants. Pecou's hands are caught in the chains in what may seem, in a post-Ferguson world, like a "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" pose. But Pecou stays subversive, and recently posted a video and a short response on his Tumblr page about the Ferguson protests.

"The Michael Brown murder has once again illuminated the reality that Black lives are inconsequential," he writes in that post, "Still we march and rally with our hands raised in submission asking the system to acknowledge our humanity."

Pecou asks that people take their hands down and stand up, instead.