Studio Visit: Umar Rashid

Umar Rashid; Photo credit Gary Brewer

Umar Rashid: Meta-Narratives and the Search for Cosmic Justice

First of all I express sincerity. There’s also that sense of humor, by which people sometimes learn to laugh about themselves. I mean, the situation is so serious that the people could go crazy because of it. They need to smile and realize how ridiculous everything is.

Sun Ra 

The written history of the world is largely a history of warfare, because the states within which we live came into existence largely through conquest, civil strife, or struggles for independence.

John Keegan, A History of Warfare

Written by Gary Brewer
Humor is a key that opens the door to our shared humanity. It is a quality of human consciousness that can be used to help us find a space where we can communicate about painful, difficult subjects. To transcend the cycles of violence that have shaped our world we need the influence of a trickster: Akan, Hermes, or Heyokha, who can reveal how human folly shackles us to patterns of action and reaction.

Umar Rashid has an encyclopedic knowledge of history: especially the history of colonialism. He uses images of cultures through time and space to create narrative works that seek to rewrite the histories of the oppressor and the oppressed. Despite the moral weight of his subject matter, there is a humor at play that reflects his humanity and joie de vivre.

We met at his studio, where he was working on a wooden sculpture, chipping away with a mallet and chisel as we spoke. His studio is filled with works in progress and the clutter of materials from which he creates his art. Umar has a warmth and generosity of spirit that his presence exudes. To talk with him is to open the floodgates of a deep reservoir of knowledge, and as the waters cut through the historical landscape- layers of history are revealed like the geological strata of time. His words come in a swift flow, punctuated with laughter and sorrow. Pausing here and there, forefinger on his chin, eyes looking up, as he searches his memory to pinpoint a date: “ The first rapid firing gun, the clip gun, was first used during the Franco-Prussian War in, was that 1870 or 1871?” From these rivers and streams of swift-flowing thoughts, he creates energetic complex compositions where histories collide, are rewritten, and filled with equal parts comedy and tragedy.

I asked Umar about his work and what he was trying to do. He said. “I create narrative paintings that have a meta-narrative and a meta-meta narrative beyond that. In my work I use humor and the bright, colorful, dynamic compositions to hold people’s attention and engage them in a conversation about the history of colonialism and oppression, in order to help create change and movement in the world. How can we undo all of this anger? We do it through opening up a space where we can communicate with each other. The way that we react to things can give them more energy, and make them more corporeal. I use humor to open up lines of communication. Racism, capitalism, colonialism, and oppressive religions- these are all just systems. These are not permanent realities- nothing is permanent. It is all a flow, and we have to work to change these systems. I was in Arizona a few years ago doing a talk and a performance. A white woman in the audience asked a question that was based on her ignorance of the history of Black people in Arizona. I corrected her by educating her about a history she was unaware of. When she sat down, the audience applauded me and I said. ‘Don’t do that, you are shaming her. She made a mistake, she did not know and now she does.’ I feel that all of this anger separates us. In my work, I try to engage people in a conversation and use humor to create a space in between the tension of opposites, and in this space a conversation can take place.”

Umar Rashid; Photo credit Gary Brewer

To have a conversation with Umar is to be entertained. He speaks through his body, animating his words with a comedic physicality. He is a scholar, an educator, an artist and a jester- imbuing the world with a radiant cosmic smile. He said, “In the past, rulers had jesters in their court, to remind them of just how ridiculous this all is. That nothing is permanent. Our world suffers in part because people try to hold on to ideas and systems as though they are permanent. We need more jesters in our world.”

Like his spoken words that ricochet freely through history and the myriad cultures and empires that have risen to impossible heights and then fallen like Ozymandias- Umar’s paintings, drawings, appliqué, and sculptures move in a quicksilver stream through time. There is a stylistic quality of folk art to his imagery and in some, a nod to Basquiat. In a work such as The Battle of Memphis there is a flood of competing symbols: Egyptian, Greek, Paleolithic, colonial soldiers, horses, camels and words such as “MISSISIPPI- MOABITE-PRAY-EXECUTE”. The graphic energy and conceptual cadence of his work comes at you in a flood of information. Umar said of his work. “My paintings are filled with information. Every time you look at my work you will see something different.”

His works are filled with graveyards and gardens. Graveyards of the dead ideas that fuel the ideologies that he is trying to transform and the gardens of his imagination, where cosmic justice prevails and people free themselves from these destructive patterns of behavior. A drum he made is adorned with these words. “ TO ALL THE PEOPLE OF THE UNIVERSE YEAH IT’S YOURS”

There were three paintings that Umar had just completed on a wall in his studio. The backgrounds are lush atmospheric passages of wet into wet flows of acrylic paint. The backgrounds alone could be complete color field abstractions, and in a sense, they create a timeless space, a nebulous landscape or a cosmic space where everything-everywhere: time- present, past, and future are all one. In, Bound 6 (After Kanye). Traveling the Orinoco delta. The jungle is on fire but there’s always time for a toast, there is a black man dressed as a colonial officer in full military regalia riding horseback; an aristocratic white woman dressed in an ornate dress rides on the horse with him. They each hold a red ‘solo cup’ from our time period; an indigenous Tapir man stands nearby also holding a ‘solo cup’. They are painted in a simple style- with humor and charm. Though the narrative is one of tragedy and hardship, it is delivered with an absurdist punch line. Absurdist humor is a way to express just how ridiculous the cruelty of life is. It lodges a space that allows one to disengage for a moment and see clearly the emptiness of the ideologies that perpetuate violence against one another.

We spoke about these reversals of history: inverting the power dynamic as a form of catharsis and as an exorcism of the history of European colonialism and other empires of oppression. These inversions also speak to the capricious nature of life: of the machinations of history. And as the wheels of power turn- whose turn it is to be the oppressed or the oppressor. “Through history these cycles of violence repeat. Often, as one dominant power is overthrown, those who were the oppressed become the oppressor. I am trying to find a space in between those two forces, a cosmic space that transcends those cycles- where spiritual freedom exists. I feel deeply for people who are suffering. It affects me and my work often develops in response to it. I feel for all people, not just my tribe but people of every race and culture. My empathy for the suffering of others fuels my work. It is a form of catharsis to transform that pain into these paintings filled with humor and vibrant life.”

Art has a transformative power that can affect change in a society and culture. There is a shamanic aspect to Umar’s work in his use of humor as a tool of magic and metamorphosis; the trickster whose antics force change in the world. Humor allows one to speak about subjects that are sensitive and painful, that others are too afraid to bring up.

Through paradox and parables, Umar Rashid holds up a mirror to our world. His work engages us with paintings whose rapid fire pattering of narratives, ideas and histories spill forth in a profusion of tragicomic images that express pathos through a heart big enough to contain multitudes.

During our long expansive conversation, Umar was working away on his sculpture, trying to carve through the block of wood, to create an opening- a space. As our conversation came to an end, his chisel finally made it through. He slid his fingers through the opening and expressed with joy, “ I cannot tell you how good it feels to make it through to the other side.”

Umar Rashid current exhibitions:

  • Solo exhibition PER CAPITA at Transformative Arts, 410 S. Spring St. Los Angeles, May 1 – June 30, 2021
  • Made In L.A. 2020: a version, Hammer, Los Angeles – and The Huntington, San Marino, CA. April 17 – August 1, 2021

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