Art of survival


The lone air conditioning vent inside the sealed garage is about rusted shut, but Fahamu Pecou is sitting here battling in the heat because he has to.

He has already completed a graphite and acrylic drawing for a group show at the High Museum. Now he’s racing to complete a series of paintings for his solo show in Dallas. The opening isn’t for another three weeks, but Fahamu has 10 days left to compose, crate and ship to the gallery three life-sized paintings and two poster-sized sketches.

It’s temperate for early June, but inside the Decatur garage, spotlights sear white-hot against the canvas in front of Fahamu. Hip-hop music pulses from his laptop. Sweat wells into dark pools on his oversized T-shirt and sends his glasses on a perpetual slide down the bridge of his nose.

Yet, Fahamu (pronounced fuh-HA-moo), 38, is relaxed. The No. 2 pencil in his left hand inches along the canvas without hesitation. An outline of a black man in a dinner jacket takes shape swiftly on the 5-foot-by-4-foot cloth stretched as taut as skin on a fist.

Not long ago, he was a player in Atlanta’s underground arts scene, a bantam-weight man plastering stickers on billboards, bus shelters, any flat surface in sight. The stickers bore his name and a profanely confident four-letter word declaration that he believed was true of his work, if not the man he’d become. That was back when nobody seemed to share his conviction and he was lucky to sell a painting for $100.

They go for as much as 200 times that now. His work has been highlighted in Art in America magazine. It has sold out within hours at the Pulse Miami art show, where careers can be made. His buyers are among some of the world’s savviest, including Japanese contemporary artist Takashi Murakami and Parisian gallery owner Daniel Templon.

This is the way it is before every show — whether the gallery is in Paris, New York or Atlanta — music pumping and him sketching against the clock, rendering three dimensional views of black manhood in a world that often sees it in only one.

He has always been fast, ever since he was a kid trying to draw cartoon characters before they moved on the television screen. Ever since he discovered that a pencil and a note pad could help a little boy escape the insults and the beatings that rumbled through the walls of the tiny house where he grew up, a house in a scant South Carolina town that felt like the definition of nowhere.

With paper and lead he could enter a realm where there was always affection and never sorrow, a place where every family was as flush, handsome and happy as the Huxtables on “The Cosby Show,” a place where black men saved the day and mothers never slipped away.

Last night, in his living room, he knelt before a shrine as big as the canvases he was going to paint. He’d asked for guidance from the gaze of people who exist now only in black-and-white snapshots on top of the altar. They rest there among a cluster of white candles, their lives burning deep in Fahamu’s memory.

This morning, when he’d entered the two-car attached garage that serves as his studio, he began his work, as always, with a short prayer for blessings from the Divine. A small petition for something big: Let the viewers see not my image, but the greater thing within them.


2
Childhood interrupted
From the fourth-floor walk-up on Vanderbilt Avenue in Brooklyn, N.Y., Fahamu’s world in 1979 stretched south from Prospect Park to the bustle of Atlantic Avenue a few blocks north.

Years before his birth, New York had offered its shimmering promise to his parents, Alphonso Pecou (pronounced pay-COO) and Betty Ann Ridges.

Alphonso had followed his extended family from Panama to Brooklyn. Betty Ann had fled her dusty hometown of Hartsville, S.C., to live with her older brother, Robert Ridges, in the same borough.

Betty Ann and her brother rented an apartment in a brownstone the Pecous owned, and Betty Ann caught Alphonso’s eye. Marriage came soon, as did their first son, Kwasi.

As the 1970s dawned, the Black Power Movement rose and swept up the young family. Alphonso enlisted and became an officer in the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Its improbable mission: Reclaim colonized land, from the Caribbean to Africa, and build independent black nations.

With Betty Ann’s older brother, Robert, the Pecous moved to the 8-square mile British West Indian island of Virgin Gorda. They built their own home and grew their own food, but the isolation and poverty grew faster than their dream.

Robert stayed. The family — now with baby daughter, Namibia, in tow — returned to Brooklyn.

But Alphonso came back broken.

Fahamu was born later, in 1975, and his sister, Nefateri, came 11 months after him. Both his mother and father were artistic, Betty Ann a seamstress and Alphonso a jewelry maker and musician. Fahamu took after them. The little boy’s drawings were wild and bright.

But the young father, the one who had built kites from brown paper bags and scraps from Betty Ann’s sewing projects, the one who picked African names for his children and told them there was nothing they couldn’t do or be, that father was vanishing.

The Bible now obsessed Alphonso. Each reading of scripture seemed to delude him. A terrible rhythm took hold.

One day he wrapped himself in sheets and walked barefoot in the snow to the Brooklyn Bridge, on a mission to save the city. He was arrested and locked up. Days later, he returned to the apartment. His diagnosis was schizophrenia paranoia, but he didn’t like the way the drugs prescribed to help him made him feel.

So he started taking illegal ones.

Relatives told Betty Ann she should flee with the children. She refused. She believed she could help him and they could remain a family.

An episode, then a lockup. An episode, then a lockup. On it went.

A tag-team of snow and rain hit Brooklyn on Jan. 11, 1980. Alphonso, who’d just been discharged from a psychiatric ward, had tried to get himself recommitted that day because everything inside his head felt off.

He was sent home.

While he rested in the bedroom, Betty Ann made dinner. Since it was Friday, Fahamu and the other children were allowed to stay up and watch an episode of “The Dukes of Hazzard.” That would keep the kids occupied and quiet while she slipped into the bedroom to check on Alphonso.

She slid the door closed.

The children had grown used to hearing their parents argue. But this fight had new ferocity. Fahamu and his little sister began to cry. The older ones tried to calm them.

 “Kwasi!”

The shriek from the bedroom silenced all sound but the drone of the television.

Their mother had wailed the oldest child’s name like a plea.

The sliding door rolled back. Their father stepped out and told them to be ready to run. Then the door slipped shut.

When it opened again Fahamu stood frozen, dazzled by the orange light of flames gathering in the bedroom.

Go! Go now! his father yelled.

There, at 4 years old, Fahamu was about to take his first solo steps in his passage toward manhood.


3
Life with Aunt Punch
The children were sent to Hartsville to live with Betty Ann’s aunt in a public housing project of brick townhomes.

Mary Ella Ridges didn’t just take in Fahamu and his siblings. She’d also made room for one of her grown daughters, several of her young grandchildren, and relatives who used the place as a pit stop when life got awful. At any time there might be more than a dozen people in the four-bedroom townhouse trying to eke out a life. Things got even tighter when, to escape the drugs overtaking the projects, she moved them all to a 940-square-foot rental house.

Fahamu had no idea how to find his place in it. How could he when he and his siblings couldn’t find words to talk about that night in Brooklyn, the one that had landed them in Hartsville with a short, sturdy, sour woman everybody called “Aunt Punch.” She gave out what life had given her, which was grief.

Children were meant to be seen, not heard, and if the rule was broken, Punch would demonstrate what her nickname was for. Whippings were served as regularly as meals.

Completed chores were rewarded, never with an allowance or praise, only with demands for more work. Her wrath was indiscriminate when it came to the four kids she couldn’t send back to New York.

But something about Fahamu seemed to set her off. The more she yelled, the more he withdrew. And the more he withdrew, the more he sketched. Doodles at first. Over time the images refined. He tested his speed, trying to sketch Bugs Bunny from the TV screen before the rabbit could say, “What’s up, Doc?” At school he was known as the kid who could draw.

Yet Punch thought there was something wrong with a boy who spent hours watching television and making pictures. A boy who was terrible at basketball and who played games with girls as happily as he did boys. A boy who spent hours reading volumes of the 1968 World Book Encyclopedia because there were no other books in the house.

So Punch started calling him “faggot.”

She called him that if he cried. She called him that when she made him stand naked in the living room all day after wetting his bed. She called him that because he drew pictures all day. It didn’t matter that he liked girls. He heard the epithet about as often as he heard his true name.

Tears couldn’t dull the shame or the pain, so after a while, Fahamu just stopped crying.

Neither Fahamu nor his siblings said a word to anyone about what was happening to them at Punch’s, not even to their grandfather, Isaac Mayshack, Betty Ann’s father.

Fahamu always listened for the roar of Mayshack’s Dodge Ram. It was chocolate brown with a streak of cream and Fahamu thought the driver was the king of the town. His hair was cropped tight. His clothes were just right. The cab of his truck smelled like cologne.

Into the back of the pick-up the Pecou kids would pile. Mayshack would ride them around town, stopping at the ice cream parlor if they were good. Fahamu chased streams of butter pecan down his arm with his tongue as he and the other kids bounced around in the bed of the truck.

Sweeter still were Sundays after church. Fahamu would sprawl on the floor of his grandfather’s house and read the comics section. Mayshack would be in his recliner watching football. Few words were ever spoken, but comfort and love filled the empty spaces.

Not so at the puny house on Bell Avenue.

To console himself, Fahamu would pull up a chair to the encyclopedia bookcase, which served as his desk and the family’s ironing board, and he’d create superheroes like “Black Man,” a black boy who could transform himself into a strong black man and save the world.

Yet he was only real in the comics Fahamu sold for 50 cents. Each Pecou child, on his or her own, made a pact with themselves that they would be their own saviors and get out of Punch’s house as soon as they could.

If the bookcase was Fahamu’s province, then he was its sentry, protecting the C-Ch volume, in particular. In it he’d found the four-page entry for “cartoonist.” It said they made $1,000 a week. The volume was 20 years old, and Fahamu figured they could be making triple, even quarduple that figure at that point.

In it, Fahamu saw a way out.

He could draw, the best in school. He was already winning awards to prove it. So at least for a while, it didn’t matter that the other black guys at school called him “nerd,” or “white boy,” because he made good grades. He was going to be the black Walt Disney and “Black Man” would be the star.

What he wanted most of all, though, was the life he saw every week on “The Cosby Show”: To be back in Brooklyn with a funny dad, a pretty mom, cool brother and sisters, all in a brownstone full of art and jazz music.

But the taunts at school didn’t let up and something inside him started to break. If he wouldn’t cry for Punch anymore, Fahamu certainly wasn’t going to cry in front the kids who teased him. To get them off his back he started getting Cs on purpose. He learned to rap and dance so well  he was able to pass the “black-enough” test.

Fahamu didn’t see why he couldn’t be black and smart. He made a solid SAT score without much effort, and the Atlanta College of Art promised him admission, even with average grades. Maybe half-hearted effort was all the world expected of him.

Just before he left for college, one of Punch’s sons got Fahamu a job with him on a road repair crew to make some spending cash for school.

For years the uncle had cycled in and out of Punch’s house. He’d seen the boy at the bookcase. Now he saw an indifferent teen.

On his first morning on the crew Fahamu grabbed a sledgehammer.

BAM! BAM! BAM!

His uncle told him to pace himself, but there was no slowing him.

BAM! BAM! BAM!

His ears started to hurt.

BAM! BAM!

The sidewalk tilted.

BAM!

Everything went black.

He was revived and sent home.

Later that day his uncle showed up with $100 and gave it to him. He’d taken Fahamu out there to prove a point and he gave him this warning: If Fahamu went to college and didn’t give it his all, he’d find himself back in Hartsville, slamming concrete.


4
The artist debuts
At Atlanta College of Art, Fahamu discovered there were more possibilities than cartoons. There was Picasso, Warhol and Rauschenberg. Off campus there was the city’s growing hip-hop scene. Arrested Development, OutKast and Goodie Mob weren’t bragging about guns like gangsta rappers. Their music during the early 1990s embodied a new black creative aesthetic. The work was thoughtful. It was ironic. It was playful. It was smart.

He told anyone who would listen that he was tired of being taught by “white folks” who didn’t know anything about black art. So he signed up for an independent study painting class at Spelman College with Arturo Lindsay. Lindsay had a reputation for being relentless. He locked his classroom door so latecomers couldn’t enter. Students weren’t allowed to buy pre-made canvases. He required students to build their own. Excuses were rewarded with an “F.”

Fahamu swaggered into the first class, eyeing Lindsay, judging him. Afterward, Lindsay asked him why he was there. Fahamu said because Lindsay was black. Lindsay looked at him like he was daft.

“You don’t come to me because I’m black, you come to me because I’m good,” he said.

He sent Fahamu on his way.

It wasn’t rap lyrics that rang in his head when Fahamu walked out of the classroom that day, but his grandfather’s last words of advice to him before he left for college.

“Whatever you do in life, be the best at it. If you gonna mop floors, mop ’em better than anyone has ever mopped a floor,” he’d said. “If you not gonna be the best, you’re wasting your time and everybody else’s.”

For the next three semesters, Fahamu showed up at Lindsay’s classes. He’d stay afterward just to talk.

Fahamu thought Lindsay had a Cosby vibe. He was creative. Accomplished. Opinionated. And he was from Panama, just like Fahamu’s father.

Lindsay would not let Fahamu cut corners. His admonishments held a challenge.

The cartoons are good, but make them say something. A self-portrait must be a window to something more. If the corners are not square, start over.

Lindsay knew a swagger was empty if a man was not in command of his talent. To command it he had to be honest with himself and Fahamu hadn’t done that for a long time.

He was broke. He thought he was unattractive. He was angry and could find no fix.

In his dorm one night in his junior year, he was lying there listening to Goodie Mob’s “Soul Food” CD. The song “Guess Who?” made him sit bolt upright.

The only one that cares for real and really understands how I feel,

Help me overcome my fears...

There will never be another that will love me like my mother.

He played the song for what felt like hours.

When he finally stopped, he wanted to cry. The tears wouldn’t come. But he knew it was time to finally face what happened when he was 4 years old.

♦♦♦

To graduate from Atlanta College of Art, seniors had to do a final project to present in a student show.

On the day of Fahamu’s senior show, he was worried how everyone would receive the work. Total strangers walked out of the gallery, some in tears, some blank and silent.

His brother, sisters, friends and extended family from New York showed up, but not Aunt Punch. It didn’t matter, he’d written her out of his story. In the gallery he was telling another one, the one the Pecou children had held in for too long.

Fahamu had turned back time, transforming the space into that day in January 1980, rendering it in symbols and fragments. On one wall was a large pixilated picture of Betty Ann. On the opposite was a composite of Alphonso. On another were four scorched cabinets, representing each child. Inside they told the story of the moment they’d run at their father’s command.

Betty Ann had been trying to escape from the bedroom when she wailed Kwasi’s name.

The door to the room slid open. Alphonso stepped out and ordered the children to run.

One flight. Two. Three. Four. Until finally they were on the sidewalk.

Their pajamas as useless as raw skin against the cold. Kwasi walked barefoot, numb from cold, numb from knowing. The girls’ tears mixed with light rain against their cheeks.

After a few yards, Fahamu asked his father to “ride his neck.” Shifting a book in his hands, Alphonso hoisted the 4-year-old onto his shoulders. His son’s legs dangled above the stains on his white T-shirt.

As they entered the 78th Precinct two blocks away, he put Fahamu down.

Alphonso approached a sergeant. Officers had begun to look at him.

“I am Jesus Christ,” he said.

He told them he had just killed the devil.

“It’s all in here,” he said, and he placed on the counter a blood-damp Bible.

Phones at the station began to ring in chorus. Callers reported flames visible through a fourth floor apartment window on Vanderbilt Avenue.

Betty Ann lay there on a bed of fire. The machete Alphonso used to kill her still lodged in her chest.

♦♦♦

Their father was convicted but found not responsible by reason of insanity. He would live most of his life in a psychiatric hospital. He was only 28 when he entered the ward and the doors behind him clicked shut, locked tight for 33 years.

Betty Ann was 32 when she was buried in the South Carolina soil.

On the way to the funeral, Fahamu and his little sister danced and did a skit in the train station to entertain the relatives accompanying the children from Brooklyn to Hartsville.

Fahamu knew his mother wasn’t coming, but he danced as though she was there, watching and laughing as he leapt.

5
An art star emerges
Before he left Atlanta for the show in Dallas, Fahamu knelt before the shrine in the living room. Punch was not up there, though she died in 2002. His grandfather’s photograph anchors the left corner. And, there, in the center is Betty Ann’s picture, bigger than all the rest.

Now, outside the Conduit Gallery in Dallas, it is sweltering. Inside, Fahamu Pecou is cool, moving easily through the crowd there to see his lastest work, “How to Eat Your Watermelon.” It’s a meditation on the stereotypes and self-imposed fetters that hold black men back. He’s quietly explaining the meaning of each piece to clusters of interested buyers. The pencil drawings in the corner are half crow, half man, like the creatures who tormented the timid scarecrow in the movie “The Wiz.” They were bullies telling him he could never make it, that he could never win. Three of the paintings are of Fahamu in a white dinner jacket, preening, strutting and unbowed.

For six years after the senior show, Fahamu’s work mirrored his attempt to address his loss. At first there were paintings of African women as angels, another depicting the aftermath of the murder, even a Cubist portrait of his mother with the words, “I know, I know, I know, She watches” scribbled in the negative space. It wasn’t until he entered his first marriage and later became a father that he had a breakthrough. Just as hip-hop acts represented one sort of black male identity, so could he as a fine artist, like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Glenn Ligon and Barkley Hendricks before him. He would be his subject.

First came the sticker campaign and soon after the oversized self-portaits. In them was not the soft-spoken father of two little ones who’s about to embark on his second marriage. Not the student earning his doctorate at Emory University. No, not that guy, but an alter ego. A brother with swagger. Swagger for days. Boxer shorts bragging above the lip of low-riding jeans. His slim, newel of a chest hitched with fat, gold chains. Dapper in a gray suit and a 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor in his grip. But in the negative space of each canvas he has scrawled messages: “not behind bars and “I aint been shot a whole bunch of times.”

It took a while to catch on but by 2009 his work was in galleries around the world. Viewers were taken by this neo-pop vision of a black man, each image asking bold as day: Are you giving it your best?

 When he completes his doctorate he doesn’t necessarily want to teach. He wants to use his degree as Bill Cosby used his — to develop programming to help young black men wandering without a guide.

“I got a superpower,” he said not long ago, laughing as he said it. “I gotta use it for good.”

Four years ago, when he was still institutionalized, Alphonso got a chance to see his son’s artwork in a solo show at the Lyons Wier Gallery in Manhattan. Fahamu arranged for his father to get a chaperoned pass for a few hours to see it.

The two had not had much contact over the years — a handful of phone calls; some letters; three brief, awkward visits. Fahamu was still working through forgiveness but he had decided to give his father a glimpse of the life he’d made, of the man he’d become.

Alphonso studied every line, every drip, every word on the portraits of his son. Fahamu waited. Finally his father spoke. Alphonso told him he was proud of him. And that Betty Ann would have been, too. Fahamu smiled.

“Every boy wants to please his father,” he said later.

Years ago, in one of those phone conversations, Alphonso told his son the meaning of the name Fahamu: Understanding.

The artist has finally captured a bit of it for himself.


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