at Blum and Poe, Los Angeles (through 18 December 2021)
Reviewed by Ellen C. Caldwell
In En Garde/On God, Blum & Poe showcases the work of artist Umar Rashid (also known by the pen name Frohawk Two Feathers). Featuring thirteen large paintings and one sculpture in Rashid’s hallmark style, the exhibition highlights works that are bold in both color and story, backed by lengthy titles which are equally vivid and emotive in their humor and wit. Using his imagined “Frenglish Empire” as key players in a revisionist history, Rashid uses biting humor to question, underline, and undermine contemporary and historical issues around the construction of race and class, the perpetual cycle of colonial violence, the historical erasure and survivance of Los Angeles’ Tongva and Chumash people, and the legacies of imperialism that haunt the present and future. Building on a practice of about 18 years, En Garde/On God moves Rashid’s work into decidedly new territory.
Rashid has been crafting the epic of the fictitious Frenglish Empire since 2003, as he imagined what the world might have looked like had France and England united. But this is not a strict or static revisionist history. Instead, Rashid recreates the past with malleable points in time, culled from colonial history and Afrofuturist imaginings. Through monumental history paintings, saturated colonial portraits, a faux-aged map, and even a satirical wooden coffin with mechanical features, he comments on the cyclical nature of history, on human foibles, and on an imagined temporality, featuring a host of expanded roles for people of color, who have often erased from colonial renderings of the historical record. In this way, he describes his work as existing in the past, present, and future. Rashid collapses time, reason, and traditional historical narrative in his work, as Franciscan and Jesuit priests intermingle with Black and white Jesus figures who preside over humanity from lowriders of the past or Landspeeders of the future. Indigenous Tongva characters are shapeshifters and Transformers, heroically battling and successfully attacking the priests’ international space station (which they had disguised as St. Basilica’s Cathedral).
Over this eighteen year period, Rashid has mapped out and detailed various parts of this ongoing historical saga, often tailoring each show to the location of the gallery or museum locale. Whether in Arizona, England, South Africa, or Tennessee, his epic empire will travel. This show acts as a prequel to Rashid’s recent work for Made in L.A. 2020: A Version at the Hammer, as his story takes place in Alta California and plants the seeds for Santa Monica.
There are certain tropes that Rashid has employed in the telling of his epics from the beginning: portraiture that mimics early colonial portraits, cartographical maps, and history paintings—all with deviously biting and humorous titles that give viewers an inside scoop on the story itself. But all of these tropes have transformed over time and space. Now, his detailed inked portraits are more colorful and larger, confidently taking up more space, at over four feet tall. These paintings provide viewers with clues about the person depicted and their various allegiances and traits. In Rashid’s words from a gallery walk-through, the portraits are “like a telenovela connecting 18 years of paintings.”
In the work Toine, the Lord of Baltimore (in California), crouched with his fancy, rose – colored lenses and his gaiters on, ready for someone to say something foolish (2021), Rashid presents Toine wearing khaki pants, a white sleeveless shirt, rose-tinted glasses, and a gold chain. He holds a long silver sword with a gold hilt in one hand and a red Solo cup in the other—as if pausing from a duel and attending a party simultaneously. Rashid positions Toine as if sitting on a bench, but he erases the background so it appears that he is floating and suspended in air, held up powerfully by the saturated marigold background.
There are three other portraits hung on this same intimate wall, all with their own color-blocked backgrounds, humorous run-on titles, and detailed ink and acrylic renderings. The sitters of the portraits are self-possessed and eagerly meet the viewers’ eyes with their gazes. They have photographic qualities to them, likely because of Rashid’s background and training in photography. Through their hanging and positioning, the portraits also interact with one another in playful ways, with the turns and angles of their heads facing one another and moving viewers’ eyes from one portrait to the next, and back around again.
With Rashid’s map, Didn’t we almost have it all? Map of Alta California. 1795. (2021), he brings viewers to an important part of his shows. Just as a legend on a map serves as the cypher to help communicate the scale and plot points of a map to its reader, his maps serve as legends for his shows, offering us the date, locale, and underpinnings of that specific installment of his story. With this nod to Whitney Houston’s 1987 hit “Didn’t we almost have it all?,” Rashid condenses a nearly two hundred year time span (between 1795-1987) and points out the underlying purpose of colonial maps: marking possession, staking (or taking) a claim, and, indeed, trying to have it all. Rashid began the narrative for this specific map about five years ago when he started visually examining and reinterpreting the Spanish mission system in California and Indigenous histories of America. He stains his maps with tea, coffee, or other commodities ubiquitous to both trade routes and the leaching of resources as a result of violent colonial endeavors. His maps are metaphors, quite literally steeped in colonial history, alchemized to appear aged and worn-down by the weight of time and loaded histories.
And then there are Rashid’s monumental history paintings (see installation view below). These works line the room and connect the epic from one wild story to another. There are two group portrait paintings in the show, wherein Rashid highlights three central figures in works such as F Anon Is Me (Fanon isme as an answer to the scourge of colonialism) However, sometimes it is difficult to get to the ringleaders atop the pyramid and one must be satisfied by dispatching proxies. Ultimately, a wasted effort. Or, red woman on a horse. With this title and a seemingly simplistic word play, Rashid brings the past to the present, poking fun at QAnon and referencing postcolonial theorist Franz Fanon in the same blow. The Indigenous “Fanonist” women in the painting fight back against the jaguar soldier who had previously subjugated them. As Rashid explains in his statement for the show, “only the proletariat was in any position to fight the system effectively, a fight that Fanon determined would have to be violent because it was born of violence.” Given that Rashid’s work and entire imperial saga is steeped in and informed by postcolonial and decolonial theory, this reference is layered and complex, offering viewers who are willing to play an opportunity to learn from and engage with history.
Left:Devastating Armaments Resistance Enterprise. Or, if we must die, let us be drunk and high.When one has given up and defeat is certain, it appears that the numbing of the senses can be a balm of sorts. It is not recommended however. War is wealth. Is entropy an enterprise? (2021). Right: F Anon Is Me (Fanonisme as an answer to the scourge of colonialism) However, sometimes it is difficult to get to the ringleaders atop the pyramid and one must be satisfied by dispatching proxies. Ultimately, a wasted effort. Or, red woman on a horse. (2021)
In another work (titled Devastating Armaments Resistance Enterprise. Or, if we must die, let us be drunk and high. When one has given up and defeat is certain, it appears that the numbing of the senses can be a balm of sorts. It is not recommended however. War is wealth. Is entropy an enterprise?), Rashid paints three more central figures with one sitting atop a black horse, casting a sword down at two people below. The woman brazenly chugs champagne from a bottle while the man smokes a joint. Across the painting, the letters “D.A.R.E.” are emblazoned in familiar handwriting, spray painted in red. The title’s first four words form an acronym that doubles by referencing the Reagan Administration’s war on drugs and their Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, known more commonly as “DARE” in the 1980s and aiming “to keep kids off drugs.” This is what Rashid calls “a let them eat cake moment” as the white colonialists party obliviously, meeting their demise when a Black rebel soldier attacks.
In both of these works, there are allusions to Rashid’s older, smaller works from his empires past. In an earlier 2011 show at Taylor De Cordoba titled Crocodile Company, Part I. La Guerre Des Machettes Danseuses (The War of The Dancing Machetes), for instance, Rashid contained most of his paintings inside a repeated cartouche shape. In En Garde/On God, there are nods to Rashid’s past practice as these cartouche shapes are lightly referenced through vestiges of faded arches and frames surrounding the paintings in a cement gray or ethereal aqua. This has the effect of aging the paintings in a different way than the tea-stained maps, giving them a hazy feeling, as if looking out a window to a faded memory, referencing both the artist’s own past and the historical past. There are also special moments in these works as the sides of the paintings extend the landscape to the wrapped edges of the canvases, as if carrying on their sordid history infinitely and beyond Rashid’s imposed framing mechanisms that encapsulate the facade of the canvases.
Finally, in some of Rashid’s remaining paintings there are a cacophony of characters, colors, and historical mashups. Afrofutrist references to Egyptian art and symbology dance with European space stations, Transformer robots, Mariachi bands, and playful but violent colonial vengeance on Franciscan priests left to the fate of the conversion machines that mimic torture devices of the Spanish Inquisition. These are densely packed paintings with numerous narratives and morals lined throughout. In The Battle of Coachella Part 1. Day 1. and Part 2. Day 2. (full titles are in the captions below), Rashid throws so many absurdist elements at the viewer that it might take days to unpack, track, and understand them all.
Left: The Battle of Coachella Part 1. Day 1. The Triumvirate turn against their former comrades in a daring daylight raid, goaded on by misinformation with new conversion therapists sent from a crippled mission control. Mariachis play a dirge at the end. (2021). Right: The Battle of Coachella Part 2 Day 2. The Triumvirate turn against their former comrades in a daring daylight raid, goaded on by misinformation with new conversion therapists sent from a crippled mission control. The Furious Five deliver a message. (2021).
But the beauty of it is that these elements also force a conversation and a grappling with history—both on an individual level and a collective one. In the mired days of debates around and attacks on critical race theory, Rashid’s unsuspecting juxtapositions give viewers an entry point to dissect and reflect upon our history and our future. This push and pull in Rashid’s work is at once unapologetic and cynical, while also humorous, inviting, and engaging. As Gregory Pierrot writes for the show, Rashid’s work “excavates the states buried in the margins of unread history books. It summons the truth that lurks between their lines.” He continues, “[t]he artifacts, the battle-worn flags, the ancient maps: the remains of days that, though they never were, will make you wonder how much you actually know about those that have been.”
In inspecting history’s past and historical falsities, Rashid encourages us to question our very understanding of history and historiography (or the telling of history). When discussing such works, he said, “I don’t want to hit people so hard that they don’t respond.” So he doles out kernels of truth, wild imaginings, and pieces of fact and fiction laced with humor, expletives, and explosives, all in order to pull people in to look closer, to do their own research, to grapple with history’s gaping holes, and to make them laugh.
As Rashid informs viewers, “you don’t have to worry about the narrative, but it’s always there.”
Featured Image: Umar Rashid. In the House of the Bear, the Jaguar, and the Crocodile, The Triumvirate. Or, the miracle at the Californian Alhambra. The rebel leaders hover above their acolytes adept in the ways of reverse conversion. The priests have a 50 percent survival rate. Meanwhile, some djinn show up to see what’s going on. Black and White Jesus in the El Camino appear shocked. 2021
Sculpture image from link in paragraph one: Umar Rashid. Eat Shit and die. A prison for the grossly unjust, forced into a perpetual cycle of death and rebirth. A rare Frenglish punishment. Picture the sun god rolling. 2021
Ellen C. Caldwell is Los Angeles Art Critic at Riot Material Magazine. An LA-born and -based art historian, writer, and educator, Ms. Caldwell also reflects upon art, visual culture, identity, memory, and history for JSTOR Daily and New American Paintings. To see more of her work, visit eclaire.me