Last week, as viewers tuned into the new hit show “Empire,” Fahamu Pecou’s Twitter account began chirping away. Friends and acquaintances recognized his painting All Dat Glitters Ain’t Goals on the set. The fictional homes of the “Empire” dynasty display works by Gustav Klimt, Jean-Michel Basquiat and wonder boy Kehinde Wiley (just awarded the U.S. State Department Medal of Arts). In fiction, Fahamu Pecou was placed among the art royalty. In reality, he’s not up there (yet) but he does have a New York gallery, has appeared in Miami art fairs, and has a solo show on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia through February 14, the same day that his collaborative project with José Parlá opens at the High Museum. In Atlanta, he is an art star.
In “Grav•i•ty,” the show at MOCA GA, and in his practice in general, Pecou defies the notion that black masculinity is immutable. In his artist statement, he says: “But what if we resisted this idea of gravity? What if we believed in Black boys instead of belittling them? Could they … Would they fly? Could we defy gravity and its limitations?” Pecou’s performance of unapologetic, urban machismo radiates through many of his paintings. The packed exhibition opening in December and equally packed artist talk last week attests to the power of this idea as much as to Pecou’s popularity.
As the culmination of his Working Artist Project fellowship at MOCA GA, “Grav•i•ty” was like his acceptance speech at an awards ceremony. But instead of using it as a moment to reflect on where he’s been and where he is headed, he chose to make space for the person who influenced him throughout his career. “Grav•i•ty” is dedicated to Charles H. Nelson, an Atlanta artist who was a mentor to Pecou and who died in 2009. The gravitas of their work is similar.
In the watercolor paintings by Nelson that are included in the exhibition, there are references to the “Invisible Man,” referring to the existential text by Ralph Ellison about an African American man finding his place in a society that polarizes black men as either savages or trophies, as well as to the H.G. Wells science fiction film of the same name.
The exhibition includes about a dozen large-scale paintings and watercolor self-portraits. In the middle of the gallery, a sound installation titled Sky is the Limit plays samples of rap songs with flight themes, though it was hindered by its low volume. In some works, gold leaf—carrying associations with altarpieces and religious iconography—covers large portions of the surface. Pecou’s paintings hang on the perspective that the black male can be exalted in his persecution rather than restrained by it. In one painting, Pecou depicts himself holding up the back of his pants. Etched into the gold foil is “up/up rising down/apprising down/ apprising doubt/ a prize in doubt,” which could refer to the murders of black men in contrast to the adulation of the black entertainer, leaving little light for the many black men that fall in between victim and victor. Nevertheless, the exhibition overall offers an optimistic point of view.
However, what can be appreciated about Pecou’s paintings in relation to, say, Glenn Ligon’s or Rashid Johnson’s, is that their exploration of identity is more nuanced and pensive than confrontational. Even in Pecou’s painting Atmospheric Pressure, in which he is hunched over with his hands atop his head, he accompanies the canvas with text written on the wall: “Atmospheric Pressure/I most feel its pressure/ As most feared, Its pressure/ At most, fear is pressure/ At most fear will press ya.” He addresses the political climate head on, bracing for the impact, but still standing and not overpowered by circumstance.
The signature braggadocio that Pecou brings to his work is part role playing, à la Cindy Sherman, and part P.Diddy. “Grav•i•ty” is transformative instead of mocking. Sure, a black man wearing what appears to be five pairs of boxers is humorously excessive, as is the multitude of chains Pecou wears in his earlier work All Dat Glitters Ain’t Goals. Pecou confronts stereotypes of black males in order to demonstrate that a black man can be both authentic and heady, and overcome the burden of those stereotypes.
In Invisible Man, Ellison writes: “For, like almost everyone else in our country, I started out with my share of optimism. I believed in hard work and progress and action, but now, after first being ‘for’ society and then ‘against’ it, I assign myself no rank or any limit, and such an attitude is very much against the trend of the times. But my world has become one of infinite possibilities.”
This idea of heightened visibility is what impresses most about “Grav•i•ty.” It is impossible not to see a black man emboldened on these canvases. It is impossible not to see the role-playing of masculine racial stereotypes. Pecou’s insistence that we see these figures as more than that, and that we should expect more, is uplifting.
Jennifer Jefferson is a journalist living in Atlanta.