There’s probably never been a better time to channel the powers of healing than the present. With the high-profile killings of what many have said are innocent black men and women, artist Fahamu Pecou looks to African ancestors for strength.
Pecou’s exhibition “DO or DIE: Affect, Ritual, Resistance“ at Emory’s Michael C. Carlos Museum uses a variety of media — painting, drawing, photographs, installation and video — to channel a healing, transformative African identity. An outgrowth of the Atlanta-based artist’s 2018 Ph.D. dissertation at Emory, “DO or DIE” makes history in its own way, as the only solo exhibition at the Carlos featuring a living Atlanta artist.
Referencing the Ifa religion of the Yoruba in southwest Nigeria and their ceremonial Egungun masquerades, Pecou uses elaborate, face-obscuring costumes and masks to also act as a spirit of justice in the community. The artist refuses to consign men like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Walter Scott — an unarmed black man shot in 2015 by a Charleston police officer after a routine traffic stop — to one more sad, grim statistic. Instead, he channels forces of hope, rebirth and spirituality to both memorialize these people, but to also suggest that they join a larger spiritual world of resistance and renewal that links past and present.
It’s powerful stuff, demonstrating the ability of art to create new meaning. “DO or DIE” also shows the necessity of a black identity linked to something other than prime-time death and trauma. Just as artists like Kehinde Wiley or Amy Sherald depict their black subjects as potent, empowered and inspiring figures, Pecou presents images of strength, unity, connectivity and shared experience that are their own psychological and emotional balm. As Pecou observed of the necessity of referencing African history and traditions in an Emory University interview, “our history and our culture predates the enslavement of our ancestors.”
Positioned in a series of galleries that connect to the Michael C. Carlos collection of Egungun artifacts from the permanent collection, there are both spiritual and aesthetic parallels between the robes, cowrie shells, ornamental brass bells and collars in these historical costumes and in the garments Pecou creates for his solo show. Included in the exhibition is an elaborate paneled robe inscribed with the names of slain black men from Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin. That robe is often worn by a dancing figure in a video viewed via a kind of evocative water memorial; in a group of photographs; or in a series of graphite and acrylic drawings on paper in which a figure is draped in that obscuring mask and robe.
In dramatic, beautifully executed paintings featuring the artist’s own body, he paints his muscular frame draped in totems of the present like sneakers and sweatpants. But added to those contemporary clothes are face masks ornamented with cowrie shells or a necklace of oversized brass bells that reference the elaborate, theatrical, performative Egungun costumes in the Carlos collection. In a powerful suite of paintings that can evoke the inspirational black-power artwork that ornaments ordinary African-American homes, Pecou depicts a group of defiant, beautiful, in some cases pregnant black women. They are forces of rebirth and renewal in their own right, a kind of totem of the ability to continue even despite injustice and cruelty.
“DO or DIE: Affect, Ritual, Resistance”
Through April 28. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays; noon-5 p.m. Sundays. $8; students, seniors and children (6-17) $6; free for Carlos Museum members, Emory University students, faculty and staff with Emory ID and children 5 and younger. Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory University, 571 S. Kilgo Circle, Atlanta. 404-727-4282, carlos.emory.edu.
Bottom line: Connecting past and present, artist Fahamu Pecou powerfully substitutes images of violence, despair and injustice in black life with affirmative, healing references to African tradition.
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