"GRAV•I•TY” by Fahamu Pecou
2013/2014 MOCAGA Working Artist Project
Exhibition Dates: December 13, 2014 - February 14, 2015
(“Phoenix” 2014, 72x54 in, Acrylic on Canvas)
Using the trend of “saggin” (the style which sees young men wearing pants well below their waist) as an allegory to talk about Black male mobility and agency, Fahamu Pecou presents his first museum exhibition, “GRAV•I•TY”.
The term gravity is used as a double entendre. It refers to both the physical concept of gravity - as in the force that presses matter towards the Earth - as well as the notion of something being grave and serious.
"Grav•i•ty" troubles dominant ideologies around Black masculinity, especially as these ideas often use a vocabulary that images Black manhood in despair and disrepair. As a society, we often give up on Black boys before we’ve ever give them a chance. We meet them with fear and loathing. We limit their potential with tragic statistics about their potential and stories of their impending death. The resulting anxieties tether Black boys - and men - to the weight of their disposition, rendering them ultimately, immobile.
What if we resisted this idea of gravity? What if we believed in Black boys potential instead of instead of feeling dubious about their chances? Could they… Would they fly?
This exhibition challenges us to redefine and defy gravity, literally and metaphorically?
For more information on Fahamu Pecou visit: http://www.fahamupecouart.com
For more information on MOCAGA and the Working Artist Fellowship, visit: http://mocaga.org/WorkingArtistProject.asp
In August of 2014, protests between citizens and police in Ferguson, MS caught the nation’s undivided attention. One image of young men, bandanas and t-shirts tied around their faces to protect them from clouds of tear-gas as well as to protect their anonymity, toss Molotov cocktails in the direction of officers in militarized protective gear, flanked by tanks. This image looked more like a scene of civil unrest in the Middle East than in America’s mid-west. For more than a week, nightly clashes between police and protesters were the source of nationwide headlines, prompting more and more media outlets to dispatch reporters and photographers. Some networks such as CNN set up mini-studios on location, complete with their top on-air personalities and a small city of tents housing producers, editors, researchers etc. Everyone wanted the story first, or at least the most iconic footage (after all, advertisers would pay big dollars to be on the station with the most shocking images). On social media, individuals and activists alike debated the impending revolution, expressed the exhaustiveness of their angst, or condemned protesters and police both for inciting the violence and muddying the cause- that of the unexplained assassination of (yet another) unarmed, Black male teenager.
(photo credit: Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
What began as a spark had again – due the zealousness of the media to report the story, and the visibility that the yet emerging murder case was gaining – become a mere spectacle. Like all spectacles, intention loses out to attention. In their respective texts, Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare and In Search of the Black Fantastic: Politics and Popular Culture in the Post-Civil Rights Era, Leigh Raiford and Richard Iton suggest that dominant authorities do not miss this fact. In fact, they argue that the blurriness of these spectacles is anticipated.
Raiford alludes to this clash between intention and attention when she refers to the Black Panther Party’s struggle to protect their image from attacks by the police, government and FBI. “The realm of the visual, of image, of performance, of culture here emerges as a significant battleground in the field of politics” (Raiford, Chapter 3) One part of the BPP’s methodology of resistance was in shaping their image to reflect their politics in an aggressive manner. Taking cues from SNCC, the BPP sought to establish their own targeted media and image campaign that evoked a sense of Black pride and Black power. Unlike SNCC however these images were also modeled and manipulated to reveal the aspirations of the group, the movement and its mission. Rather than simply showing the struggle they sought to image their ideals and rhetoric in a way that inspired the change they wanted to see.
Iton contends that post-civil rights, the dominant power structure anticipates and in many ways shapes resistance to serve it’s ultimate aims. “Moreover, performances of resistance can assist in the legitimation of the status quo and strengthen in some ways the hold of hegemonic formations over marginalized peoples” (Iton, pg130) Since the iconic struggles of the civil rights era, public outcry and opposition to power structures in the United States have been peculiarly formulaic. They consist of the same elements, which play out like a throwback to the 1960s; You have your non-violent marches, a clergy-based, charismatic, iconic spokesperson, in extreme cases a “violent” clash which sparks the looting of stores and some property damage, a couple days of news coverage and then its back to business as usual. In nearly all of these instances, the “justice” being sought is never realized, however the spectacle endears (‘we tried’ becomes the sentiment) and endures (the images of struggle become fetishized within the dominant cultural imagination).
In many ways, the extremity of the show of force by Ferguson PD played out like a commercial in itself. Municipalities across the country got to see first-hand demonstrations of their recently acquired, post-war, military surplus gear. As police departments across the U.S. have taken advantage of funds allocated through the US Patriot Act to acquire decommissioned military equipment as well as new crowd and riot-control technologies in anticipation of major, domestic terrorist attacks, they’ve sat dormant for them most part. It’s like buying a new action figure and having to keep it in its original packaging. It looks cool to have, but its not much fun. All this occurs despite critiques that police are ill trained to use such equipment and quite simply have no need for it. Ferguson PD was the first to play with their new toys. They got the opportunity to test this equipment before the world thanks to the presence of news cameras and cell phones. Where this might be viewed as a deterrent to some to others its opportunity to exploit and a chance to imagine what more.
What does the reliance on media for both dominant discourse as well as opposition movements say about the integrity of both voices? Are there more authentic ways or means of representing these voices that don’t require the manipulation of images to represent them? How can we as consumers of these images make informed decisions about our individual position knowing that all images are ultimately propaganda in one form or another?
"WARN-A-BROTHER" 2008 © Fahamu Pecou
In the future, historians will tell what happened. Artists will tell how it felt.
My work around Black masculinity responds to the way the images we ingest influence the image we ultimately project.
Even more I am interested in the way the visual sphere of Black manhood is constantly manipulated to serve a particular agenda.
In recent cases like the murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, we’ve witnessed the way the lives of young black men who’ve died senselessly at the hands of police are vilified by the media - often as a way of exonerating law enforcement of any type of negligence.
"Assume the Imposition" 2009 © Fahamu Pecou
As a visual and performing artist I am hyper aware of the way images serve as propaganda. I’ve adopted those same strategies in my work as a way of encouraging a critical dialogue. My work is in many ways an intervention, a disturbance, a troubling of still waters. In it I ask; What is Black masculinity? And by what means/terms/actions is it defined?
I argue that for too long these questions have been answered by those other than the subjects themselves. Our collective ideas about black masculinity are often determined for us, not by us.
In “Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness”, scholar Nicole Fleetwood discusses the way certain signs and narrative scripts render the cultural body in visual culture. In the case of Black men, the narrative script remains rooted in fear, a fear that has historically worked to justify inequitable treatment of black males within society by imaging them as violent and criminal. The propaganda machine of our society continues to perpetuate an implied and inherent criminality of Black men. A part of resisting the outright assault on people of color is raising awareness to the way hegemonic systems of racism and prejudice inform and influence not only police reaction to young Black people, but society as well.
This becomes my charge and my mission. As an artist I am committed to a visual vocalization of these concerns. I am committed to creating a body of work that both sparks and stokes the conversation. This is art and activism. This is heart and soul.
"One [creates] out of one thing only-one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art." -James Baldwin