The University of Arizona Museum of Art’s solo exhibition What is the Color, When Black is Burned? The Gold War. Part I features the work of master storyteller, artist, and historian Umar Rashid (also known under the alias of Frohawk Two Feathers).
Chicago-born and Los Angeles-based, Rashid has been sowing his saga of the Frenglish Empire for fifteen years. He began this body of work by imagining the unification of France and England, exploring visually how centuries of colonial history could have played out differently (or exactly the same in many ways) had this union occurred.
Combining allusions to pop culture, Egyptology, Classical mythology, Plains Indian ledger drawings, hip hop, Afrofuturism, grand history paintings, and portraiture, Rashid highlights historical narratives that are often overshadowed or ignored by the master narrative. As with all of his shows, he shifts the particular empirical episode to the location where his current exhibit opens. In this case, he focuses on Tucson’s history as an invented Lord Tyrone Penelope Cavendish makes his way from London in 1758. This is a tragic tale based partly upon the Mexican Apache Wars of 1782, as Cavendish sews the seeds of empire, violence, and loss in the American Southwest, working with and against the indigenous Tohono O’Odham, Pueblo, Navajo, Apache populations.
At his artist talk in November, Rashid explained that he began working under his pen name “Frohawk Two Feathers” donning the persona of an artist or scribe, documenting the Frenglish colonial endeavor. He did so in order to acknowledge and explore the violent roots and far-reaching effects of American colonialism — something that Americans do not often discuss or own up to. Rashid noted that until that history is acknowledged, it it is impossible to make a change, perhaps nationally or individually. Such insight echoes the words and aims of activist, lawyer, and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), Bryan Stevenson.
Stevenson has long argued that Americans need to acknowledge our darker past and legacy of racialized violence: “We lived through an era in America of racial terrorism, where thousands of African-Americans were burned alive and hung and murdered and beaten and mutilated, sometimes in the public square in front of thousands of people, who had the comfort of committing this terror with no risk of prosecution, no threat of arrest or adverse consequences. This period of violence and terror really shaped America’s development. And we don’t talk about it, we haven’t acknowledged it, we haven’t really explored the implications of it.” Through the EJI’s public projects such as placards to mark the historical spots of slave auctions and every lynching site across the United States, Stevenson aims to confront people and continue the conversation about the violent history of racial inequality.
While different in scope, medium, and audience, Rashid’s art and his Frenglish epic take on a similar message, as they aim to force viewers to take an active ownership of history in order to move through this history, to another side of healing.
Through his art and his retelling of history, he visually critiques historiography — the history of history — filling the voids that time and power wrote out.
In Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s famed 2009 TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” Adichie introduced and named something that most are familiar with — the power and danger implicit in storytelling. She challenges viewers to consider whose stories are told and who gets to tell stories, tying in the complicit role of power and narratives. The danger of a single story, then, is having one narrow definition of a people or a place based on a stereotype or restricted definition and worldview. “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” It is said that history is written by the victor, and so Adichie takes this further in emphasizing the importance of many stories. She argues that a multiplicity of stories can help to shift the master narrative and power structure implicit in history and storytelling.
Part of this concept underlies and fuels Rashid’s works — he is telling many stories, not only in each work of art, but also in every exhibition as he travels the United States and more largely the world (showing in cities ranging from Sacramento, Los Angeles, New York City, Hudson River, Memphis, New Jersey, and now Arizona; and internationally as far as Cape Town, South Africa and a forthcoming show in Terrento, Italy).
And in Arizona, Rashid tells a multiplicity of stories in numerous ways because the show is broken into two main parts, with the new works for Tucson in the title collection for What is the Color, When Black is Burned? and a second part entitled Frohawk Two Feathers: Signature Movements in Frengland History, representing landmark shows from the past decade and a half.
In the Tucson segment, Rashid’s signature biting humor is is alive and well throughout, found in his lengthy, but often telling, tongue in cheek titles (such as Uma and uta. Pussian. Twin girl assassins. To see them is a guarantee it will be your very last time breathing and Tyrone Motherfucking Penelope Cavendish, the devil you know. Or, some August emperor, chaos generator, and other ugly things. Phallic.). In The Belligerents. Illustrations of soldiers who took part in the Gold War. Artist unknown, Rashid includes twelve portraits of characters and descriptions indicating pivotal players in the Tucson show, including but not limited to the “Apache Hitter. (Boss),” the “Herald, Bearer of Bad News, Auxillary Roll,” and the “Colonial Governor, an avatar of a real enemy (the enemy you can’t get to).” Rashid’s humor acts in two ways here, both offering the viewer permission to laugh amidst the tragedy of history (a brief respite), while also teaching and informing the viewer in order to move the epic’s story (and history) forward.
With the addition of the second portion of the show, Rashid’s current paintings rest upon the foundation of his older works which ground his process and long-growing epic. The 2007 painting The effects of sugarcane on monarchy, for instance shows both an earlier painting and titling style. The work is smaller and more simplistic, the colors and shapes bolder, and the title shorter and more direct.
In contrast, new works like Sombre Vengeance (full title: Sombre Vengeance. An equestrian death dance born out of desperation and lack of functioning diplomacy. The end result of not really trying but it’s difficult to look away), are more monumental, towering at about six feet tall. Here, Rashid produces a dramatic portrait of war, detailing at least nine people and five horses in a variety of epic gestures of aggression and tortuous defeat. In the top left corner, one woman appears to have brought a child to war on her back and where the child’s face would be, Rashid has painted a smiley-face emoji to obscure their face, just as one might see obscuring a celebrity’s child in social media now.
In Rashid’s world, the past intermingles with the present, constantly reminding viewers of the history and many stories that have brought us to where we stand today.
What is the Color, When Black is Burned? is open through March 24th and is well worth a visit and ample consideration.
An LA-born and -based art historian, writer, and educator, Ellen C. Caldwell reflects upon art, visual culture, identity, memory, and history for JSTOR Daily and New American Paintings. To see more of Ms. Caldwell’s work, visit eclaire.me.