The Los Angeles based artist Umar Rashid has a solo exhibition in the Dordrecht Museum in the Netherlands. From October 29 2022 until March 5 2023. A good reason to republish the interview I had with him in 2016.
“(humor) is indicative of my upbringing as a Black male in the United States (or anywhere in the Western psyche for that matter). Casting any light upon the White male hierarchy outside of the accepted canon requires superhuman (albeit tiring) cleverness, deftness, and diplomacy to which other groups are not so subjected. I don’t feel like this all the time but my black survival training always pushes this “behavior” into my frontal lobe. A shameful bi-product of living within the veil of unending racism. Yet, on a different note, I do consider myself to be quite funny.”
Clovis and Beertje, 2014.
I wanted to create something new and exciting.
I met Frohawk Two Feathers (Umar Rashid) last year in a gallery in Los Angeles. We arranged a studio visit for the week after. However, he had to cancel the appointment because he had become ill. Food poisoning. I had to leave for Amsterdam and he went back to work. No visit, no interview.
Because I like his work a lot and know that it is important to pay attention to it I asked him a few weeks ago if he would consider an email interview. He agreed. “Thanks for including me brother.”
Frohawk Two Feathers was born in Chicago in 1976. He lives and works in Los Angeles now. His work is a personalized, grand narrative on colonial history “melded with contemporary urban street culture”. Some critics call this type of time-travelling Afrofuturism, others think it is a search for his identity? Every new exhibition is a new chapter of his never ending (?) saga. His media are painting, drawing, installation and sculpture.
Guanche girls at the villa of Lord Hockney on Tenerife, 2016.
Was the fact that you did not see yourself represented in history the main incentive for the work you make?
The fact that I never saw myself in the “known” historical canon was the initial impetus to create my sprawling narrative but as in all things, it was the journey along the way that made me continue to do it. All of the periods and all of the stories of people and places that I have researched opened my eyes to a great many things. It is here, in this space that I have committed to restructure our view of history, that timeless and fluid thing that we can hardly name due to the blur from the lack of empirical evidence.
Is your work at the end about identity or about an attempt to (re)write the (colonial) history?
The work is indeed about identity but I won’t say that it is a rewrite or revisionism. In the end my work seeks to bridge all possible futures, and pasts into a very cohesive narrative that can be recognized in the present. The way I see time is not about here or there. It is not linear. Given the circumstances I had to start from the colonial period because in my actual life I’m still living in the aftershock of that trauma. And I’m still here. So, I decided to expand the dialogue first, to the easily recognizable disenfranchised elements of society i.e. people of color, women, the dispossessed and then to the lesser known elements in attempt to bridge the spiral of malady. It is by no means a circuit. It is impossible to think that the injustices can be cut off and contained without more trips along the path. However, since this “grand narrative” has so many tangents I have made a conscious decision to focus (pictographically) on the plight of people of color, women, and the poor in order to move the story along. This however presents a case about story building and plot devices that I will not get into now because it would be boring.
How Them chains Feel Prisoners Captured after Haarlem and Marched to Rotterdam, 2015.
Why did you choose for a narrative form? Artists like Dread Scott have chosen for a more pamphlet-kind- of-form? Could that have been your choice too?
I could have gone for a pamphlet form but I always say that I am a storyteller first and a painter second. And the way I know how to tell a story best is within the classic format, beginning, middle, and end. But for me it is also a matter of convenience. Given that my narrative mirrors the history (we think we know) it is easier to group certain time periods together due to similar styles of dress, weaponry, transportation, technology overall, etc.
Frenglish Flag, 2013.
Why did you choose not only for a narrative but even for fiction? You talk about the Republic of Frengland (France and England).
Hahaha. Good question! Despite my desire to create an alternative historical narrative (again, do not confuse alternative with revisionist) I wanted to create something new and exciting. I wanted to shift the power dynamic a bit (in my case, greatly) because upon looking at the historical record, the most profound changes are due to accidents, happy or otherwise. And time contains certain stress points where the future can be changed rather easily. In my narrative, I chose the power vacuum left at the end of the English Civil War and the death of Oliver Cromwell. I could have chosen any stress point in time but I chose this one because I was not interested in making an alternative history of humanity. I’d like to finish this narrative before I succumb to the elements. Also, it was a bit of a joke I wanted to interject given the high level of antagonism between the U.K and France although it was the foreign Normans that conquered both of them. And furthermore, with fiction, I can expand on the fantastical and supernatural elements (religion included) of society. And given my history with organized religion, and subsequent forays into new age, even extraterrestrial leanings, it made a lot of sense.
Writing real novels was never an option?
A novel is still an option but this is more fun.
When I first saw your work I felt lost in time. Your work had an old look, but I recognized influences of the present (street life, hip hop, tattoo etc.) and got the feeling that you were playing with the future. Was my first observation correct or was I really lost…..? Is your history a metaphor for the actual reality?
Making people feel lost in time was the goal. I’m glad that it worked. It is however a device I used to draw people in so that I could lure them into the primordial soup that is my universe. The Venus fly trap of mindfucks!!! Or the pitcher plant if you fear the jaws of death. Some people like the pool. As for my work being a metaphor or actual reality, it is. Time is not static and no point in time is truly unique. It is merely a continuation. My main problem with each incarnation of human existence is that many of us forget what was done in the past and make the same foolish mistakes. On the other hand, and this is a stray philosophical observation: what is our purpose here? I do not know the answer to this question and I do not pretend to. I only know a bit of how things played out and continue to play out. Everyone is free to choose their own adventure no matter the circumstance.
The Necessary Death of the Coward King Arend and his Drunken Friend Uncas IIGot, 2015.
Can I say that every large exhibition you have is a new chapter in your historical ‘novel’?
Yes. I have structured it this way out of convenience. Sometimes an exhibition warrants a fraction of the story and I return to that narrative at a later date to expound on it. When I get enough chapters completed, I may take some time off to compile it into a graphic novel.
And is the location – Los Angeles, Manhattan, Cape Town – affecting the content of that chapter?
Yes. But again, it is because it is convenient that I work in this manner. It didn’t start out this way however. Yet, over time I feel that being present and speaking to the people and walking the land where the history was spun spurs me on to create an honest, endearing, and informed narrative whereas I’m not pulling it all out of my ass.
Let say – you never know – you have an exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, on which aspect of the history would your story focus?
Oh my friend, if given the opportunity to show there, there would be no shortage of material I could use when it comes to the United Provinces. Hahahaha. I guess I would go deeper into the inner workings of the V.O.C. and the Dutch penchant for great liberalism on one hand yet great wealth hunger, and self sabotage on the other. I will be returning to what would have been the Napoleonic period soon so get ready!
Irene of the Sisters of the Red Wood, 2014.
You use friends and colleagues as models in your work. For a practical reason or is there an underlying philosophy?
At first I used my friends for purely aesthetic reasons. I have great looking friends from all over the world and why not. But then, as time progressed I realized that everyone that I chose embodied the virtues (and lack thereof), of the characters that I had created in my mind. So, in retrospect, I believe that my friends and colleagues fleshed out the characters for me.
Map of Europe, 2012.
In your exhibitions portraits and maps have a dominant present. For a reason? Is it to personalize the history, to make it more concrete, accessible?
The portraits and maps do serve to inform the viewer first as who the major characters within a particular chapter are. The bigger the portrait, the bigger the character and the only exception would be in the large portraits of battle scenes. Since most of the description of my work is in the actual title, for the portraits, my codified “imperial tattoo system” provides more clues and verbiage to the subject in order to help the viewer understand more about the story. This device also allows the portrait to exist within its own space. The maps however are pure visuals and information. And I truly enjoy making them, all of it really. To create the artifacts that go with my alternative history is and has been a thrilling experience.
There is a lot of humor in your work, especially in the details of the individual works. On purpose or are you just a funny guy?
Ha! Sometimes it’s on purpose and initially I think it was my way of dealing with the violent, and traumatic gravitas of history and furthermore how to convey that to an audience. It’s like the parable of the jester. The jester was given carte blanche to insult the royalty and the court with impunity while the self-proclaimed revolutionary was condemned and oftentimes executed for expressing the same sentiments. It is the parable of the trickster god who while lesser than his mightier counterparts in terms of sheer power manages to exert the same amount, if not more of influence upon the populace that know of them. And on a personal level, it is indicative of my upbringing as a Black male in the United States (or anywhere in the Western psyche for that matter). Casting any light upon the White male hierarchy outside of the accepted canon requires superhuman (albeit tiring) cleverness, deftness, and diplomacy to which other groups are not so subjected. I don’t feel like this all the time but my black survival training always pushes this “behavior” into my frontal lobe. A shameful bi-product of living within the veil of unending racism. Yet, on a different note, I do consider myself to be quite funny.
Your Crew Is Not A Shield, 2014.
When people ask you about your alter ego you react casually: “it gets a cool ring to it”, for instance. Is it just a fictionalizing of your name to ‘support’ the fictional concept of your work? Is it a joke? Do you want to confuse or intrigue the viewer?
Initially the Frohawk Two Feathers alter ego was never to be seen in person. Or if he was, it was never to be the same person as the alter ego was to be this timeless presence throughout the period in which I’m working in. It was intended to confuse and to disarm but over time my ego would not let Frohawk become this separate entity and needed to be “seen”. Another reason for this particular convention is rooted in my past as a graffiti artist. In graffiti, one’s true name is almost never used and a different name is adopted for ease of spelling and the flow of the script, among other reasons. A proper study on this phenomenon would be very interesting due to the multitude of factors involved. Lastly, it was to honor the alleged Native American ancestry that I am purported to have according to the elders in my family. I stopped claiming this ancestry as it is based on speculation and any change in my genotype/phenotype could be attributed to any form of miscegenation in my family’s history. Native American ally, White rapist? I’ll wait on the test results but you must admit that it is a very cool name!
Sometimes you show under your real name. Why do you make that difference? And, is there a difference in work?
Well, as of 2016 all of my work will be done as Umar Rashid with Frohawk Two Feathers in parentheses. I had been trying to put the two together for sometime now but I was afraid to lose my base as Frohawk. I’m glad that I made the decision. The work is different but very much the same as it keeps in line with the timeless aspect of the themes that regularly appear in my work. However, as Umar Rashid I can make video performances! Frohawk is relegated to the technology of the time. Not necessarily a bad thing, just limiting at times.
Umar Rashid, Detail of Post Physical Slavery American Negro Archetype nr.-4 Knowledge (born Kevin Bigsley), Radicalleftist intheory and in practice to a lesser extent, 2014.
What struck me in your 2014 Umar Rashid show were the self-portraits instead of ‘just’ portraits. The framing of the self-portraits was remarkable too: in your historical work you often use the mirror (self- reflection?), in your own, personal work there are no frames, while you would think that self-reflection is a key subject there…… ????
Aha! Yes. The Umar Rashid self-portraits were an experiment in the influence of philosophy within my work. As a lifelong subscriber to the philosophy of Frantz Fanon I had become drawn to the Hegelian dialectic. And it is through this lens that I materialized the Umar Rashid exhibition, ‘A Smile That Aint A Smile, But Teeth.’ The absence of frames was to separate the work from Frohawk and also to illustrate the lack of refinement I find within the modern era. The codified tattoos are still there. The defiant, and majestic, as well as the timid, and cowering poses are still there. These portraits however, more overt than any of the “Frenglish” portraits speak to the aspects of myself and are intensely personal.
Most of the time you use paper and leather. For a reason?
Great question to end on! I use paper for its aging qualities and its ability to hold ink for fine drawing. It reminds me of the beautiful parchments that drew me to the art of this era in the first place. I use leather, mainly rawhide for similar reasons. The rawhide however can be used to make sculptural objects as well. Both choices are based equally on aesthetics, functionality, and ease.
Are there things I did not ask but are important for the understanding of your work? Please feel free to add what you think is useful or important.
I think I said too much!