Atlanta artist Fahamu Pecou was in Havana, Cuba, doing research on the island’s African spiritual traditions for an upcoming project when the text messages from home began.
“I started getting all these text messages saying, ‘Hey, I heard what happened, I’m so sorry.’ ‘If you need anything, let us know,’” Pecou said.
At first Pecou and his wife Jamila thought something had happened to one of their children. Then came the text message from another artist and friend with whom Pecou shared studio space in Inman Park: Their studios had been consumed in a fire.
For any artist, such an event would be devastating. For a painter like Pecou, who went from a paste-up artist putting his work on buildings, fences, and lamp posts around Atlanta 20 years ago, to a creator whose work has been collected and featured internationally — on hit television shows such as “Blackish” and “Empire,” in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and a 2015 solo show at the High Museum — the loss was all the more searing.
“I had just started a really large painting, 55 inches by 94 inches wide, a piece that I was working on for a show that’s coming to the (Emory University) Carlos Museum in January,” Pecou said. “I was about halfway through with it before I left.”
That along with eight other finished works, all of his supplies and a collection of work from other artists and memorabilia documenting his career from when he was a student at the former Atlanta College of Art, is gone.
SEE MORE: Photos of Pecou’s work
The Atlanta Fire Department is investigating the cause of the fire. The case was initially turned over to arson investigators, however, Sgt. Cortez Stafford, spokesman for the department cautioned that no determination has been made as to how the blaze started. A person of interest was found outside the building and was interviewed, but according to the fire department the person, “denied any involvement,” and was not arrested or charged. The investigation is ongoing.
Now Pecou, 43, who is also a board member of the High Museum, must figure out how to start over. He has insurance, but is in the early stages of documenting everything that was lost and filing claims.
Pecou’s artwork is often mammoth in scale. In it, he explores the black male identity and how the world responds to its various manifestations. Pecou, who recently completed his doctorate at Emory in interdisciplinary studies, uses himself as muse, his large-scale self-portraits challenging preconceived notions of what it is to be black and male in America. Most recently, his work has dealt with traditional African religions and how they can be imagined to influence contemporary African-American manhood. His path to prominence was documented in a 2o13 profile in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“He was so hurt,” said his wife, Jamila, who listened to him field the call from his studio partner, Scot Dunn. When Pecou returned to Atlanta Sept. 9, they immediately went to the studio at 26 Waddell St. Pecou’s business manager, Karen Mason, sent him pictures of the devastation while he was still in Cuba. But he was not prepared for the experience of walking through the char of his life’s work, the setting sun creeping through the holes in the roof. The dripping sound of the chemical foam the fire department used to put out any smoldering remains made the moment all the more eerie. The building did not have a sprinkler system, Pecou said.
‘I’ve been going to that place every day for the last four years and sleeping there sometimes,” Pecou said. “I didn’t recognize it anymore. It was just a shell.”
All of his paints, brushes, stretchers and rolls of unpainted canvases were lost. Those can be replaced, although Pecou had spent hours dying rolls and rolls of canvas a dark indigo blue. Onto those, he planned to paint work for his upcoming show. But there are other instruments necessary to his work that will be harder to replace.
“I had a carousel slide projector that I use to make my sketches,” Pecou said. “Completely melted. And a carousel projector is not something you can just go pick up anymore. Now everything is digital. My lighting kit for photography, because I do my own photo shoots, the backdrop papers I use. Gone. I never had to imagine not having these things.”\
About eight completed works were destroyed, though a few others only suffered minor smoke damage because they were in a tiled storage closet in a far end of the building. Still, he’ll have to repaint two works that were already paid for and wrapped to be shipped to two collectors. Pecou said the patrons declined a refund, and instead were willing to wait for Pecou to get set up in a new space.
Even so, Pecou knew that working in a rented, shared space was not what he wanted for the long term.
“I was telling Jamila, I always knew that I would have to leave here, I just didn’t think it would be like this,” Pecou said.
But even as he grieves the loss, he’s ready to move forward and to see what springs from the char and loss. His show at the Carlos Museum, “Do or Die,” is still scheduled for January.
“I’m not one to wallow or let a setback hold me back,” Pecou said. “As unnerving as they are, there are lessons to be learned in all this.”
Pecou’s wife and Mason have set up a Go Fund Me account for the artist.