Dr. Fahamu Pecou: Trapademia
Kopeikin Gallery, Los Angeles
through June 22
Written by Shana Nys Dambrot
The topic of Dr. Fahamu Pecou’s new (all 2019) paintings at Kopeikin Gallery is ostensibly the phenomenology of trap music, and even while they are busy also being luxurious, richly hued, energetically charged portraits and object-stories, that remains their theme. Dr. Pecou references several actual songs and elements drawn from the general common parlance of slang and fashion associated with the trap scene. But despite the thoughtful specificity of its visual citations and energetic stances, the core of the exhibition is both deeper and more broad than even its timely lesson in hip-hop history.
By contextualizing the accoutrements of trap within an array of symbolic still life objects, palette megawattage, and evocative, informative titles, Dr. Pecou creates tableaux that place this controversial musical genre within art history, American politics, African spiritual traditions, tropes of masculinity, and capitalistic hustle. Trap itself comes out of a particular time and place, the South in the ‘90s and ‘00s, and a context of drug and crime dens, literally called traps. Dr. Pecou takes its attributes and values on their own terms, while at the same time expanding trap’s allegorical dimensions in to a wider progressive inquiry offering insights into the societal dynamics of struggling and underrepresented communities.
As trap’s vernacular language and visual stylings transcended its specific roots it has further come to offer a subversive version of machismo — which often includes highly stylized clothing, jewelry, and gender cues — in oppositional tandem with the hardcore center of its outlaw-inflected narrative lyrics. As for its musicological history, eccentric percussion and syncopated, glitchy rhythms are often linked to drum-based expressions of African music and its permutations in the diaspora, specifically America.
All of these interdisciplinary and intersectional vectors find physical expression in the paintings of Dr. Pecou, which in themselves are embodiments of these overlapping influences and discourses. Color, pattern, object, and language combine to present not only an exegesis but a holistic demonstration of resonant cultural developments — yet told, saliently, from the artist’s own singular point of view. Though not in a conventional sense self-portraits, Pecou does use himself as the model for the compositions. The paintings are based on carefully constructed photo sessions, the costumes and still life objects, the body language, the color field settings — all of it is made real, and with the music blasting in the studio, Dr. Pecou steps into his characters. He enacts them so that his own body — his black, male body, alive in Atlanta, GA — is an integral part of the narrative, but they are not, or not only, personal.
A few quick language-usage points relating to some of the most striking paintings could be helpful at this point, with gratitude to Dr. Pecou for the insight. The title of the work “No Cap” for example means “it’s all true,” as in, there’s nothing more maximally true than what I’m telling you, there’s no cap on my truthfulness. The figure in the painting is wearing that phrase stitched in white thread on what looks like a red MAGA hat and that’s deliberate, but he’s also holding animal horns, objects of ritualistic value in heritage cultures. And bien sur, it’s a quick art history pun of the “this is not a pipe” variety. The term drip is used like “bling,” as in dripping in diamonds; it’s more Marilyn Monroe than tough guy, but there it is. In the works “Drip” and “Most Expensivist” Dr. Pecou experiments with embroidered and dangled pooling tresses of glimmering gold thread, in a nod to both allegorical literalism and feminized labor tropes, as well as referencing his own previous installation-based work which he undertakes with a panoply of mediums and materials. The figures in the three works on paper exhale and dissipate like Longo’s falling businessmen, caught in an invisible tractor beam of entropic ecstasy, in works like “Trap God” and “Take Awf.”
Dr. Pecou’s titles do this work also, with wit and gusto. A pensive figure in the “The King in I” contemplates the dignity of circumstance and heritage, while “Jung Thug” is not only a very satisfying pun, but also the work with the most complex array of symbolic objects in the still life — the remnants of casual heavy drinking, an African mask (which itself points to looted heritage and the prevalence of African artifacts in the collections of psychoanalysts and Cubists alike), and a red-rose fabric print that like many of the patterns reappears across the show. Seeming both feminine and symbolically rich in their function within the images, this and other instances of bright, floral garments give a breezy nod to Kehinde Wiley’s sense of pattern and decoration, and that artist’s own work across the global African cultural diaspora. The men in these paintings are seen deep in contemplation, heads bowed, chins resting, gazes averted inward — towards considerations of the past perhaps, of themselves, their families, or maybe just a new lyric arriving from the muse.
In a way not unlike how drugs can (sometimes quite pleasantly) fracture consciousness, the beats and breaks of trap thwart mindless sway as they break apart the flow of the songs. The high and deep glitch is the meta-beat, it’s eccentric and self-referential, it demands constantly renewed attention with a hybridized counterpunch. Despite its best efforts at difficulty and resistance, it has pretty much gone mainstream now. Is this wider “appreciation” a form of pernicious or benign cultural appropriation, or the mark of a victorious inroad into the culture of the oppressors? Well, why not both — in the same way that these paintings work their own optical and semiotic magic on the paradigm of art historical representation.