Fahamu Pecou Egungun Masquerade 2016 Constructed by Grace Kisa Fabric, bells, cowries
Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University
The Phenomenology of Fahamu Pecou
By Opal Moore
The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the
exposition of its roots.
Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past
Black men’s bodies (in particular) have maintained a peculiar proximity to the
threat of death. This spectacle of death remains a visceral inevitability instilling
fear and panic, but perhaps worst of all, despair.
Fahamu Pecou, Visible Man
The artist seldom has the means or the motive to involve the viewer in the work of an artwork, its rationales, its arguments. Yet the importance of art depends not only upon our way of experiencing art as a made thing, but also engages our way of looking through art for what we believe to be true or important. What do we see when we watch video images, again and again, year after year, of a black man running, standing, walking, being brought down with gunshots, batons, asphyxiating chokeholds? What does the viewer consider important in these consumed visuals? Must the black man be unarmed to lay claim to his citizenship? Is he legally shootable if he is legally carrying? Is a black man’s assertion of personal dignity an affront to police authority? Does police authority require that a man “assume the position” of a slave? And what do these black men believe to be true of themselves, their efforts to belong—to the society, to themselves or each other? What are the terms of their acceptance? What are the conditions of their exile? Are their deaths intelligible? Who will narrate their journeys?
Fahamu Pecou , Do or Die, Installation view
With his multimedia exhibition, Do or Die: Affect, Ritual, Resistance, Dr. Fahamu Pecou seems to revel in the opportunity to transform the creative PhD dissertation requirement into both motive and opportunity to explore what may be the profoundest impulse of Art—to question what is known and assert what is human against the enormity of life’s challenges. Do or Die offers a complex, multilayered conversation that bridges time and space, body and mind. The show’s narrative is situated against the present strife of Black life and the troubled American social and cultural landscape, a culture of currency and violence.
The exhibit begins with the presumption of Death, which is complicated by the introduction of the Egungun mask ceremony and its underlying narrative—a psychologically and philosophically dense piece of cultural performance and material construction that operates throughout the exhibit as phenomenon, riddle and recipe. The Egun is the embodiment of the ancestor spirit. The Egungun dance and ritual, its theatricality and rich performances of poetry and sound, symbolize the Yoruba belief that the world of the living is connected to the world of spirit—the ancestors are interested in the affairs of their descendants. One scholar explains that Egungun celebrates the power and presence of the ancestors in the lives of the living. Another offers a translation, Egungun: the power concealed. All agree that the Egun is not the brilliantly conceived mask—itself a work of abstract art, a celebration of cultural accumulation and craft. Though masks differ, one consistent feature is the arrangement of multiple panels made of various kinds of cloth and other rich materials. The panels are designed to lift and fly when the mask is put into motion, movement being the mask’s truest essence. The Egun mask must be in performance, in motion, to have meaning. It must have asè (life force, the power to bring things into existence). In Do or Die, Pecou has, in effect, summoned something old and new into our midst. In other words, Pecou’s Egun is not a simple call to modern Black America to return to an ancient religious belief and practice. Pecou proposes a “New World Egungun.” The mask’s panels are stitched with names: Martin. Medgar. George. Malcolm. Jordan. Tamir. The list of ancestor names lengthens as the exhibit unfolds. Viewers can mentally add other names, whether those names have been in the newspapers or history books or not. The Egun dances. The names flash. And who is the dancer of the mask?
Do or Die performs an art ritual. It issues a call for asè, the ascendency of life as a force, as movement, as the hidden power of the human will to bring a new thing into existence. Pecou asserts the Egun masquerade as what might here be termed an ‘art act.’ The Egungun masquerade involves the entire process of building the mask, selecting its diverse elements (which contribute to the expressiveness and power of the mask) and its ultimate “performance”—its assumption of spirit, body, music, choreographic intent, life. All together the masquerade contains and achieves in performance the Yoruba peoples’ cultural understanding of art works as ritual objects with asé (the ability to make something happen). It is understood that the Egun mask is a “thing” until it achieves spirit. The ritual power is not in the mask but in its enactment. Such an explanation is inevitably a simplification, but insight into the depth of cultural investment in the Egun as receptacle or host provides the exhibition viewers a non-Western perspective on the figure or essence beneath the mask and the minimized importance of the artist behind it.
Fahamu Pecou, Untitled 3 2016 Archival pigment print 40 x 40 inches Courtesy of the Artist
As earlier stated, Egungun has been translated as “the power concealed”. It is cryptic as a koan. Whose power? Concealed from whom? What is the nature of power? In four gallery rooms, the Do or Die exhibit design creates a sense of movement through its use of space and thoughtful shifts in the ways that different art media are deployed to mark or suggest a development in the narrative.
The first adjoining rooms reveal a series of imposing allegorical paintings (the largest is god, 78 x 96 in., 2016). The three female figures represent the orisha, or female divinities. They wear ritual white. These paintings, acrylic and gold leaf on canvas, suggest a female ideal—cool, deliberate, static. The familiar made unfamiliar. The primary god (perhaps Oshun, the orisha of fertility, love, beauty) is spangled with gold leaf, naked and pregnant. Nakedness here does not suggest vulnerability or eroticism, but the innate force of the female body. The orisha paintings—god, the way, and something eternal have the feel of the tableaux vivant. The figures all strike symbolic ritual poses. In the way and something eternal (2016) the male figure—our spirit traveler— is the supplicant. Oshun blesses our journeying spirit, making his journey possible. In old gods, new names (2016), the supplicant rises, blessed. His identity is not discernible; his head is covered with a mask of white cowry shells. Cowry shells were once used for money; they also have significance in divination and other ritual uses. The spirit traveler holds in each hand the traditional flywhisks of Ifá divination ceremonies and royalty. Of this figure, Arturo Lindsay writes: “[Pecou] created an all-white “New” World Egungun costume, consisting of a hoodie, sweat pants, athletic shoes, a flywhisk, and a beaded cowry-shell mask. Sixteen brass bells wrap his ankles, completing the costume. Pecou performed his version of an Egungun dance for a photo shoot, the results of which became the basis for his drawings” (Visible Man 123).
Fahamu Pecou, god 2016 ,Acrylic and gold leaf on canvas 96 x 78 inches Courtesy of the Artist
If the figure in white in the first gallery is the “New” World Egungun, the second gallery suggests a more layered reading of the Egun figure; perhaps the Egun’s altered appearance is the achievement of asé. The figure in gallery two, Water and Spirit (2016), is a video projection of the performed New World Egungun mask. The ethereal, almost ghostly, performance of the Egungun emphasizes the shift from illustration and allegory to movement, embodiment of spirit. In the dim room, the video projects onto a pool of water; the water refracts the image onto the ceiling (or the sky?). Perhaps it refers to the waters of the Middle Passage, the mass death and massive cultural disruption of slavery. One imagines the Egungun spirit mask dancing over the Atlantic. But this is not a dance of despair. The presence of the Egun is the very essence of asè, the life force in all things. Across the room, in the opposing space, the Egun mask appears in a series of high-gloss, dramatic photo prints. In three of the prints, Egun is still, posed. In the fourth, the mask lives, captured in full motion. In this room one is able to see, for the first time, the mask of accumulation with its panels and the names of the new world ancestors stitched onto them —different names come into view with each movement of the masked dancer. One also notes that the dancer beneath the sweeping panels of the Egungun mask wears “new world” sweat pants, athletic shoes and the mask of white cowries.
Fahamu Pecou, Water and Spirit 2016 Video projection on elevated water basin 49 x 64 x 20 inches Courtesy of the Artist
The walls of the corridor leading to the next gallery space are hung with large gestural drawings splashed with acrylic color washes. Cowry shells line the base of the frames. These works seem joyous despite the undergirding narrative of violence that drives Pecou’s exhibit. The drawings, Egun Dance 1- 4, suggest camera stop-action of the dancer’s movements. The video captures that moment of “becoming” when the spirit achieves form and takes over the Egun mask. The drawings effectively convey the energy and confidence of the dancer, the life that energizes the mask. The figure we met in gallery one has arrived. It is the spirit and the body that move the mask.
Fahamu Pecou, Egun Dance 2 2016 Graphite and acrylic on paper, framed with cowries 60 x 48 inches. Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University
The closing gesture of the exhibit is the screening of the short film, Emmett Still (2016). The soundtrack features original music by Pecou and contributions by guest artists. If the opening gallery gives us allegory, the film closes with parable, or perhaps the language of myth? The film provides what the exhibit does not—a direct connection to the contemporary agony of violent and senseless death, the vulnerability of Black men and boys in particular. The story is spare—a young man is walking home and, for no reason apparent in the story, is shot. He dies. The viewer must insert this death into the already experienced exhibit narrative. Perhaps the most singular moment of the video occurs when the young man, killed but not spirit-dead, looks in the mirror and sees the facial markings left upon him from an ancient ceremony. The marks are indelible but invisible to the eyes of others. The ceremony that revives the spirit of the killed young man is primarily performed by women.
If allegory utilizes symbolic figures to represent history or perform valued human qualities, myth references a people’s worldview—the culture’s organizing truths and beliefs. Cultural myths suggest what is possible, and perhaps what behaviors are respected. Parable (or fable) tucks that cultural knowledge inside a riddle. In oral traditions, the riddle-story can teach shared values in community or group settings; it can invite questioning, challenge, or refinement of a received wisdom. New stories or interpretations can upend cultural norms altogether. What myths are being referenced, reviewed, upended in Emmett Still? The video opens with James Baldwin’s sonorous, apocalyptic plaint on racism. It ends with a voice-over chant by rapper, Killer Mike: I am a God! I told you who I think I am! I told you who I thought I was! I told you who I think I am! What power does the artist summon with this text-laden Egungun? What does our new/old Egun summon forth into this new/old place?
Fahamu Pecou, Emmett Still, 2016, video, 15:12 minutes
Do or Die will challenge those viewers familiar with Pecou’s earlier works as presented in Fahamenon: Special Collector’s Issue (2008), an art book manifesto fusing visual wit, explorations of our neo-pop culture of materialism and self-commodification, hip hop inspired word play, class irreverence, and a direct challenge to both Black and white cultural assumptions and priorities. Fahamenon collects many of Pecou’s “I am the shit” posters, graffiti, satires and parodic/sympathetic representations of Fahamu as Black body, as commodity and as critique of both black representation and the viewing eye/I. The works are simultaneously multilayered social critique and masterful examples of trickster wit signifying on media saturation while exploiting and deploying the hip-hop heightened language of self-commodification. This slender book also gives tribute to the art-centered space as a location of cultural coherence, critical conversation and intellectual sparring via the energy and camaraderie of its members and its audiences suggesting co-production. It feels like a “jam session” of cultural dissonance, visual complexity, humor, joy and self-questioning—the drivers of Pecou’s creative vision, play and art making. In exhibitions such as All Dat Glitters Ain’t Goals, Pecou cultivates a wicked and complex use of language and persona that occupies the plane between artwork and viewer, inviting wonder: What is this? Is it Art, or is it advertising? Is he serious? Do I laugh or do I get mad? However, the hip hop frameworks and postures captured in Fahamenon, its wit, wisecracking and wisdom, do not grapple, visually, with the saturation of gendered readings and assumptions woven into hip hop’s visual and verbal vocabulary. His visual punning relies upon our understanding of our inherited cultural givens.
A similar hesitation arises in relation to the cultural contexts and visual language of Egungun tradition and practice as undergirding text for Do or Die. The Egungun masquerade is a ritual masquerade performed by men. In the current Western conversation—a diverse environment with competing languages— can the Black male body serve as avatar for all members of the ritual community?
Egungun Masquerade Dance Costume: Ekuu Egungun
Early 20th century
Yoruba peoples, Oyo region, Nigeria
Cloth, metallic thread, glass beads, cowrie shells
Museum purchase: Friends of Ethnographic Art Fund, 92.54
How then to read the New World Egungun? Is gender a fact or aspect of spirit? Are female ancestor spirits ever summoned in this ritual? Does the hidden power of the Egun connect to the lives of women? Does historical context obviate gender? If so, how does the masquerade expand the language? Such questions challenge the framework established by the artist, his cultural vocabulary, and his corpus. These questions arise organically as Do or Die mines the ancient in search of the new.
Do or Die: Affect, Ritual, Resistance performs Black affect, and summons it. The exhibit is something to see, feel, think and talk about—it riddles. What is the root, the discipline of its power? Of ours? This is the agony. This is do or die.
Opal Moore is a poet and writer. She lives in Atlanta.
DO or DIE: Affect, Ritual, Resistance by Dr. Fahamu Pecou