WWAF talks smack, exposing skills and a new way to encounter art

Falyon is interrupted by the ego of Montell the Merciless, professionally known as Charly Palmer at the second WWAF battle, Paint, Draw, and Sketch Blood! 2010. Photo by Carla Aaron-Lopez.

Coming up this Saturday, January 29, at Stuart McClean Gallery is the next installation of the World Wide Art Federation, titled The Art of War of Art, a rebellious attempt at fighting the Man from banning art in public schools by using skills, kung fu, and smack-talking from the Blaxploitation era. I’m sure this year will be filled with as much ego tripping and self-diagnosed cause célèbre to make any of the artists become instant favorites amongst the crowd. The lineup is brimming with many unknown names balanced by the notoriety of such participating artists as Fahamu Pecou, Charly Palmer, and John Tindel.

Back in the late 80s when I was a child, it drove me insane when my great-grandmother would turn off my cartoons and watch wrestling. I would often wait until she nodded off and switch the channel back to Nickelodeon, only to hear her wake instantly and yell “Change that back!” It scared the pants off me, and for a long time afterward I had a small distaste for wrestling. Fast forward to the present: My great grandmother has long transitioned to the ether, and, in her honor, I’ve fallen in love with wrestling entertainment. Characteristics such as costumes, talent, and talking smack have created a worldwide global culture surrounding the industry.

Now let’s mix all of those traits with a range of starving to established artists, and we have the ingredients for Fabian Williams’s World Wide Art Federation, an art battle based upon skills and quick tongue lashings. Williams hails from Fayetteville, North Carolina and has been a part of commercial arts for a long time before he switched gears to conquer Atlanta’s fine arts community. Since late 2009, the WWAF has been an exciting event amongst many of Atlanta’s underground artists. Its inception started over an “art beef” between Williams and an unknown artist on an Internet blog. Once BURNAWAY’s Art Crush Fahamu Pecou jumped in, Williams began to formulate plans for an event where local artists could compete on a platform that provided entertainment for the audience and exposure for local artists.

“To make the history brief, it came from an online beef with another artist,” Williams explained. “The exchange happened in two different places, an Ebony Jet blog that was written by Fahamu Pecou and an unrelated email string on Facebook. At first, when she insulted me, she spoke as if I didn’t have enough academic credentials to speak to her about creativity. I told her that I wanted to battle her and she could choose the subject matter and medium. That’s how confident I am about my abilities. It was like being on the basketball court when another player was talking too much; it just kicked in. ‘Don’t talk me to death. Play me one on one!’” stated Williams.

“After I noticed that people were commenting and following the exchange between she and I, I decided not to pursue the real conflict and create a fake beef with the artists that I actually admired as a way to gather attention. It just made sense to bring in other artists and their work.”

Another scene where you would hear and see a battle is in the hip-hop community. DJs and rappers will come together at times and battle one another’s skills for a top prize or bragging rights. A battle consists of a set of rounds where a predetermined number of artists compete until all are eliminated but one champion. It’s similar to contemporary wrestling games. Both competitions have performance qualities that add to the audience’s experience of the event. Audiences are often invited to cheer on their favorite rappers, DJs, wrestlers, and now artists.

“From what I noticed, the artists enjoy the exposure and excitement from the audience. There’s also the thrill of performance. It really is like theater, and once you finish it, there’s an odd sense of completion. It takes quite a bit of work to get into character, make the pieces, and just figure out what side of yourself you want to portray. Once you go through all that and do a battle, it’s a sort of relief, like, ‘I survived that!’” said Williams.

Host Sean Falyon, an Atlanta hip-hopper, confronts Jessica Scott Felder, aka Lady Luxe, about her performance in the second WWAF battle, Paint, Draw, and Sketch Blood! 2010. Photo by Carla Aaron-Lopez.

“Most of the crowd is surprised by what happens at each battle. I try to bring something different every time. The comment I hear most is, ‘I’ve never seen anything like that. It was refreshing!’ I only believe that’s because they’ve never been to an art battle from The WWAF.”

The WWAF is based on the Worldwide Wrestling Entertainment model. The difference between this and Williams’ venture, however, is that he is choosing to showcase artists.

“The artists benefit from the exposure and they sell work. I would love it for every artist to sell pieces at these shows but I figure the only way that is possible is if this becomes part of art history. I’m just waiting for the contemporary scene to catch up. This is the future, most definite,” explained Williams.

“The WWAF is leaving Atlanta and going on the road to challenge artists in other cities. I really want it to be similar to Dragon*Con where the audience comes dressed up and people are just excited to be creatives. I want cities to have their own art battles. I would love for Atlanta to battle NY; NY to battle LA; LA to battle Paris; Paris to battle London; London to battle Cairo; etc. You know, World Wide Art Federation!”

These are big dreams coming from a man that explained he wanted to “bum rush” the contemporary art scene. Years of being an illustrator for companies like Coke, Nike, and American Express made Williams want to spend more time making works for himself rather than for someone else. His artistic style boldly reminds me of this commercial influence as he revives the classic Black Arts painting style with the campy humor of a modern cynic.

Michi Meko, local artist, paints his interpretation of the lady referee at the second WWAF battle, Paint, Draw, and Sketch Blood! 2010. Photo by Carla Aaron-Lopez.

“Being a hired gun forces me to find the financial balance in any creative move I make,” says Williams. “Whatever the art battle was going to be, I knew it would have to be something I could potentially make a living off of. Advertising was eroding my soul so I knew I had to create a format that allowed me to move art work for me and whoever did the events with me.”

I can understand. It seems that, for artists, applying any kind of business model to oneself for exposure becomes a smarter choice in the long run. No longer can one just paint for the sake of painting. Most people have lives to live and bills to pay, as well as supplies to purchase. Though, being able to market oneself in the art scene today requires innovation, quite a bit of collaboration, and heavy planning. In Williams’ case, he chooses to market his skills in a format that is entertaining. At its very best, the WWAF is a great way to begin mixing all the different art crowds that exist in Atlanta. Indeed, sometimes we make our art experiences rather stuffy by following the same exhibition format over and over again. Remember when David Byrne held Happenings? Those were moments of collaboration by artists for the entertainment of friends, curators, and writers.

“I find that I have to get certain people from certain art cliques or circles to get others involved. I’m not particularly mad at that because it’s a new concept and all. Though pitching over and over again is a drain. Plus, not being rooted in the contemporary community means I have to prove that I’m not some local underling wasting their time. Once they experience it, they get it, but you have to get them there, and that is the challenge. I do way more promotion than any other art show that I know of, but it’s kind of an art form in itself. We shoot videos of trash talk, but it’s actually performance art, just a more aggressive kind. It’s a lot of fun,” explained Williams.

Atlanta native Brandon Sadler interrupts a battle round while joking with an audience member at the second WWAF battle, Paint, Draw and Sketch Blood! 2010. Photo by Carla Aaron-Lopez.

There’s nothing wrong with the merging of the arts every now and then. On a platform like the WWAF, it’s a way to begin bridging the divide between Atlanta’s local arts community and many of the city’s underground artists: “It introduces new works to new crowds. It’s cross pollination. Contemporary patrons are introduced to traditional black art; Traditional black art collectors are introduced to contemporary artists; They’re introduced to underground artists and hip-hop art,” said Williams.

“I would like to involve some people that are behind the scenes in making the art scene function. I would like to get Michael Rooks, Kai Lin, Bill Lowe, Jason Orr, and Caesar Mitchell involved. Jason Orr helps me behind the scenes. He has been a big player in the development of the soul underground and popular music scene here in Atlanta over the last decade, influencing music locally and around the world. I recently had the chance to pitch it to both of them [Rooks and Orr] while co-hosting Fahamu Pecou’s 15 Project in front of a live audience.”

Artists that participate in the event have a chance to showcase more than just their skills. If they get it right, talking smack to the crowd is a fiery way to brag about one’s unknown accomplishments.

“Charly Palmer who is an established artist, who just recently did a show at the Smithsonian, always goes big with his costumes and character detail. He has two characters: Artus The Great and Montrell The Merciless. His Artus the Great character is one who always believes that he’s this great innovator who seems to always do these new things in art but never gets his credit. I know several older artists who talk about their great achievements and the little respect that they get from other artists and the creative community. It’s quite hilarious to see him talk in character. He brings props, always speaks with a crazy dialect, and has stunts in his shows. If you speak to him out of character, he’s very laid back and low key. The transformation is a trip. Charly really is one of the best examples of what The WWAF is about.”

“I have heard a plethora of comments and plenty of suggestions from artists, which I always listen to. The crowd generally is pleased with the show. I am always open to improvements. When I get it to look the way it does in my mind, it will be a spectacle,” ended Williams.

The World Wide Art Federation’s next event, The Art of War of Art, will take place at Stuart McClean Gallery on Saturday, January 29, 2011. The doors open at 7:30PM and the battle begins at 9:30PM. Tickets are $15 online and $20 at the door.

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