It would be easy to say that the alternative histories portrayed in the works of Umar Rashid are perfectly timed to reflect the era of “alternative facts” taking place in this historical moment. But the truth is, if you are going to make art intended to talk, both directly and indirectly, about the oppression of people of color and the suppression of their history, there is no time in the modern era when the work would not seem timely.
As Frohawk Two Feathers, and now Umar Rashid, the artist re-imagines 18th century history in images that recall traditional portraiture, folk art and Native American art but updated with details from the contemporary world. The mash-up allows him to speak simultaneously about the past and the present, accompanied by a complicated written narrative that must be read to fully understand the work.
I sat down with Umar, about whom The New Yorker recently spoke of his drawings as having “the brisk functionality of a cocktail-napkin diagram inflected with the the arch self-consciousness of a comic strip,” to talk about his work, what happened to Frowhawk, and why he’s not phased by the peaceful transition of power from a black prince to an orange golem. [PL]
PANCHO LIPSCHITZ: When did you come to LA?
UMAR RASHID: I moved to LA in September 2000.
LIPSCHITZ: Why LA?
RASHID: Cost effectiveness. My wife Michio was in Japan and I’m from Chicago, and I wanted to be at an equidistant point within the Untied States where I can get to Japan easily and I can go back to Chicago easily. There was no real reason why I came here.
When I first moved to LA I got off the plane and I was like, Boyz in the Hood was about here? Blood in, Blood Out was about here? I saw mountains and oceans and little houses and sunshine and everybody not living on top of each other. Then I saw the first ghetto bird and I saw the bars on the windows. I was like, okay I get it, but there’s no way the murder rate should be as high as it is in this city because this city has everything. I think LA is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever been to.
I pretty much just stayed in the house and read all these history books that my grandmother would buy for me. My grandmother wouldn’t buy me any toys. She would buy me encyclopedias.
LIPSCHITZ: Was anyone in your family an artist?
RASHID: My father is an artist, but he does most of his work in the theater. So he’s a playwright, painter, and he’s an actor too. He does a lot of stuff. My mother was an actress, but she was also a good illustrator. I remember seeing my mother’s drawings when I was a kid. So I kind of knew that I was going to end up in some sort of art field.
LIPSCHITZ: You grew up in Chicago in the 80’s and 90’s, what was that like?
RASHID: Chicago, when I was a kid, we always lived in the hood. But when you’re a kid you don’t know you live in a hood. You don’t know you live in a hood until you watch television and see white people. Like, “Mom can we get a slip and slide?” “We don’t have a lawn and it don’t work on gravel.” “Okay.”
You know in the 80’s, crack happens. I had to go see a counselor because I’ve always been in tune to my feelings and so I was kind of diagnosed as manic depressive. I never liked to go outside because there were all these gangs. My brother was like, “C’mon man, stop being a punk.” But I was like, I don’t want to go outside. So I never learned how to play basketball or anything like that, which was the norm. I pretty much just stayed in the house and read all these history books that my grandmother would buy for me. My grandmother wouldn’t buy me any toys. She would buy me encyclopedias. I got into mythology first and through mythology I got into history.
I went to a school called the Institute of Positive Education, which in now the Betty Shabazz Academy and is still on the South Side of Chicago. It was really good going there because it taught me about my history first, and Black History beyond slavery. I feel the problem is with a lot of people of my generation is that you learn this Euro-centric history before you learn your own history. So how are you expected to advocate for your people without having the tools to advocate?
The cool thing about Chicago is that Chicago was a very artistic city. I learned how to rap there, I learned how to do graffiti there, and I learned how to do all these things that kind of helped me climb the ladder to where I am now in my life. I’m the greatest rapper in the world, the greatest graffiti artist, can’t nobody fuck with me. I’m the greatest. And I say that with such humility.
LIPSCHITZ: What was Southern Illinois Carbondale like as an art school?
RASHID: I actually went to the school of communications. I went for photography. I just hung out with the art students. I started off in film and I tried to do a double major in creative writing and photography. I ended up getting a degree in photography.
The art department and photography department were in opposite ends of town, but I would hang out with all the artists. I would paint a little bit in my house, put on salon shows with the artists. I was more interested in that than the program that I was in, because my program was more about making corn pops look great.
The racial situation down in Southern Illinois was intense. It’s just an hour north of Kentucky, an hour west of Indiana, and hour west of Missouri. So it was really Mason-Dixon, slave state, free state hinterlands. There was a massacre called the Herrin Massacre where they killed all the Italian immigrants that ended up there. It has a really fucked up history. There’s tons of white supremest groups that operate down there. But despite all of that being down there I managed to find the like-minded people of all races to create this kind of utopia that I wanted to see. So for me it wasn’t as bad as it was for a lot of people, but I will not sit here and give it a glowing review or advocate moving there for the down-home life.
People of color don’t see themselves in their own history. . .We don’t see ourselves in our own stories. How fucked up is that?
LIPSCHITZ: What is it about the 18th century that appeals to you?
RASHID: It was probably one of the last periods where it seemed like there was a malleability to the power structure. Everybody hated each other but you have all these micro-empires and that gives you greater room for autonomy. The European model had already begun to take hold, but still there was ways that you could hold your own shit together.
Most of the societies didn’t start to go down until the late nineteenth century, and that’s because of the invention of more powerful and crueler weapons like the gatling gun. The Maxim gun is what won the Congo for the Europeans. The Gatling gun is what mowed down the Lakota in the Black Hills. Before then, they were kicking ass, because, hey, I can shoot way more arrows than it takes to load up this single shot Remington.
So as technology advanced and the weaponry advanced. That’s when you start to see more of that European line become more solidified. But prior to that there were all sorts of autonomous communities. There was that freedom to do what you wanted to do. So that was what initially drew me to it.
But then also there was real craft. It wasn’t just all digital bullshit. Everything was like, you worked hard on it. And I like that because I like working with my hands and I like detail and I like going that extra mile. Because pretty soon, my kids are not even going to know how to write their fucking names anymore.
LIPSCHITZ: Is history a way to talk about race to people who can’t talk about race in the present?
RASHID: Yes and no. Not just to talk about race but to talk about everything in society. Race can be a major component of whatever maladies, but it’s everything else. Race effects class and culture. Because Europeans actually offer very little in terms of what they brought to the table. Except for revolutionizing killing and warfare.
Like paisley. You think of the pattern paisley. It comes from India, but they call it paisley because it was all stitched together in Paisley Scotland and then it was distributed from Scotland. The town called Paisley is where the print got its name, but it’s from India.
All the trade cloth that went to Africa came from Indonesia. It was all batik. So everyone thinks it’s African cloth but it’s actually from Indonesia. And the Dutch when they owned Jakarta, they would bring cloth and trade for real shit like gold and ivory tusks and salt. They were, like, here’s some cloth for the king. The rest of you motherfuckers go about your way.
LIPSCHITZ: But in your alternate histories you foreground women and people of color as historical actors in a way that is more real than the “real” history. I think about the history of LA punk rock, where in the beginning both the audience and the band members are gay, black, latino, women. But the official history gets distilled to be Henry Rollins and Black Flag.
RASHID: Well yeah, I had to do that because that’s part of the problem. People of color don’t see themselves in their own history because of that distillation that you’re talking about. We don’t see ourselves in our own stories. How fucked up is that? It creates a false sense of superiority for Europeans or people of European origin. And it’s not like putting people of color on a pedestal, but it’s like saying ‘hey, they were there’. They did things and they invented things, and I’ll make ups some fake inventions because I like to have fun with it because history is brutal. History is unforgiving and unrelenting.
People are reacting, and I believe that reactionary behavior is the worst thing you can do. I think it’s time to sit down and really, really, really look at the layout of what’s happening. There has to be some opposition. But in this day-in-age you cannot respond in the same way you would have responded 300 years ago to a modern problem.
LIPSCHITZ: Where did you come up with the name Frohawk Two Feathers?
RASHID: I came up with that name when I moved here. I was living over here on the East Side and one day I walked up the hill and I seen a hawk. The hawk came and screeched and I was like, Wow! the hawk is a majestic animal. And I cut my hair into a mohawk and I was like — Frohawk Two Feathers. Because originally Frowhawk Two Feathers was never supposed to be seen. I was going to make it a character that was never to be seen. I was never going to be present at any of the shows that I did, but my ego got the best of me.
Also at the time I was studying more about my native ancestry. I was talking to my great-aunt and my mother mostly. They would tell me about our family history, but they would always name these different tribes. So there is some native ancestry there, that was passed down to me from the oral tradition, but there is no record. It’s not in the Dawes Act because they didn’t put black people in the Dawes Act.
But one guy asked me to be in a show of Native artists and I was like, “Well, you should give this spot to somebody else. There’s some ancestry there but I’m pretty sure that there’s an artist that is more deserving or more in tune with the culture.” I identify as a black man.I don’t identify as anything else. I have white blood and native blood but I identify as black man.
A lot of Black Americans are so far removed from Africa. Yes, that’s our ancestral home, but you look at the people and everybody here is some sort of creole or mestizo. Because of the melanin people always see you as black, but you can be a lot of shit. History is not a monolith. It’s just tiny little pieces of whatever, all in this incredible tapestry. And that’s how I choose to see things.
So getting back to the name Frohawk Two Feathers, I felt that I was being disingenuous in appropriating that native sounding name. I just use it now in parenthesis so people will know this is who it is, and I go by Umar Rashid.
I’m more comfortable with this idea that everything has animus, everything has life or a spirit to it. That makes more sense. . .We have to make it back to that way of thinking because if you think that everything has life, there’s a reverence for everything that exists and you’ll be disinclined to want to see it destroyed.
LIPSCHITZ: It seemed like right after the election everything became political. Did you have that feeling?
RASHID: That first week I went around hugging white women in the streets, like, “It’s gonna be all right.” I felt like Michael Clarke Duncan in the Green Mile, this big black dude going around saying “It’s going to be all right, little white woman.”
LIPSCHITZ: But it’s not going to be all right. It feels like a Golem was let loose and every day is a new abomination.
RASHID: This is just the continuation of the same politics. I study history. None of this shit ever surprises me. It has all happened before in some shape, form or fashion. You look at the French Revolution, you look at the English Civil War, you look at the reconstruction of Germany and the subsequent annexation of Austria and all the German speaking lands out of the Holy Roman Empire into the German Empire that matriculated into the Nazi regime.
There is nothing new under the sun. That maxim bodes true every day, so I don’t get phased out by things. I’m just disheartened that people didn’t realize how complicit they were before. Now everybody’s crying.
The best thing about the Obama presidency is that I got to see a black president in my lifetime. That was it. I didn’t expect anything from Obama. Everybody expected him to be the great liberator, like “it’s all gonna be pie in the sky now because Obama’s President.”
But what the establishment did is that they got a black person who was in no shape, form or fashion related to African-American slavery, because his father was African and his mother was tied to slave owners.
People are reacting, and I believe that reactionary behavior is the worst thing you can do. I think it’s time to sit down and really, really, really look at the layout of what’s happening. There has to be some opposition. But in this day-in-age you cannot respond in the same way you would have responded 300 years ago to a modern problem. People are reacting the same way they would have reacted in 1793, but it is now 2017. People should be focusing on how we address these issues in the modern age.
LIPSCHITZ: Because corporate culture is globalized, but the reaction to it is localized.
RASHID: Ultimately we’re not ready to protest in a way that’s effective. It’s because a system — governmental system, political system, social system — all these systems are totally integrated. And these systems are self-aware: the system is organic and it requires us to function. So we inadvertently give our ideas to this system that governs us.
So the system, it saw the riots in the 60’s and people advocating for civil rights. It saw that whole neighborhoods can be burned down at the drop of a hat. The system learned, “Okay if we assassinate these people then the leadership will break down.” “Oh, if we give some of these people actual jobs then they’ll be on our side and be centrists.” The system knows what you’re going to do. The algorithm that has been created by the whole of human history has already decided what you are going to do. It has already alerted whoever the system lords are. And they just sit back and they profit off of misery and they profit off of pain. They profit off of suffering. They profit off of joy. They profit off of happiness.
LIPSCHITZ: They profit off of the misery and the escape from the misery.
RASHID: Right. So in making the art that I make I try to talk about that a lot. I’m not very explicit about it. Sometimes I am, but generally because all the work is so disjointed, you’ll see that recurring theme. Complicity to certain systems and certain laws and place that governs the collective mindset.
LIPSCHITZ: How has the work changed?
RASHID: Right now with the work I’m really getting into is spirituality, because I feel like that is somewhat of a problem in this society. We put too much focus on religion and not enough on spirituality. Coming from a Christian background growing up, and an Islamic background in my later years, and then an animist Shinto background by way of my wife, I’ve seen a whole spectrum of spirituality. I’m more comfortable with this idea that everything has animus, everything has life or a spirit to it. That makes more sense. Especially in this age of global warming and destroying the environment. We have to make it back to that way of thinking because if you think that everything has life, there’s a reverence for everything that exists and you’ll be disinclined to want to see it destroyed.
To see more of Umar Rashid’s work go to frohawktwofeathers.com
Find Pancho Lipschitz on Instagram @ pancho_lipschitz