By nature, artist Fahamu Pecou is quiet and soft spoken, except when he’s headlining one of his signature artist talks or performance art events. On stage he can be kinetic, funny, the ultimate hype man. So when he walked into a restaurant to talk with fellow artist and provocateur Camille Billops, at first it wasn’t clear which persona would manifest.
Within minutes it was clear the reflective Pecou had shown up, the Emory University doctoral student whose work is part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture. Pecou’s career as a painter and filmmaker is ascendant. Last year he headlined a show at the High Museum. This summer his latest series of portraits, “Do or Die: Affect, Ritual, Resistance,” opened in a major exhibition at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art in Charleston, S.C. He just completed the rap single and short film, “Emmett Still,” with Atlanta rapper and activist Killer Mike, a project that’s a meditation on the lives of young black men in an age of violence from within and without.
And yet, Pecou was still nervous to meet the diminutive, gray-haired, 83-year-old Billops. And maybe he should have been. Billops, in long partnership with her husband and collaborator James V. Hatch, has been a celebrated painter, sculptor, filmmaker, educator and, above all, historian of 20th-century African-American art. She’s bold, smart, profane and still passionate about black artistic expression. Her and Hatch’s life’s work is the subject of “Still Raising Hell,” a major exhibition of their films, papers and artwork at Emory University’s Rose Library. For nearly 50 years, Billops and Hatch published interviews with some of the most prominent names in black art, as well as many who were obscure but who had, as Billops said, “something important to say.”
So Pecou and Billops sat down as two artists from different generations, each dealing with the eternal struggle of creating work that helps a group of people claim their space in the world.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Can you talk about your earliest influences that showed you the artist’s way, stretching as far back as you can remember, because this path doesn’t start when you’re a teenager but long before.
Pecou: The encyclopedia. In South Carolina we were really poor, we didn’t have a lot of anything, but there was a set of encyclopedias from 1969, and I used to sit and read these encyclopedias all the time and dream about being in the encyclopedia one day.
Billops: How old were you?
Pecou: I was 7 or 8.
Billops: That’s a good age, because you’re a little sharper than 4.
Pecou: At the same time, I really wanted to be an artist because I really loved drawing. People said you’ll be a starving artist. But in that encyclopedia, it said that a cartoon animator could make $1,000 a week. And I’m like, if they were making $1,000 a week in 1969, they have to be making a lot more now.
Billops: My godbrother was the first black animator to work for Warner Brothers, Frank Braxton. We grew up together and all of our parents were maids and domestics. He was my early inspiration. He said, “Why don’t you draw from your imagination?” And I said, “Well, how do you do that?” And that’s what he did to push me off the edge.
Let’s talk about your work now. Both are rooted in resistance. Fahamu, your work is grounded in African-American male identity. Camille you’ve described your work as feminist.
Billops: That’s an intellectual thing that occurs later. The life that you lived, and how you manipulated that life, what you did with things, how you discovered sex. I’m talking about the pieces, the things that go to make art, of ideas of where you are in time and space.
Pecou: So, the idea of resistance isn’t just an intellectual thing, but it comes from actual living and experience.
Billops: Yes! Living. When I was 11, I was in a talent show and I wanted to sing “Wrap it Up and Put it Away Until Daddy Comes Home from the Army.” I wanted to sing that up on stage and they said, “Baby Camille, that’s not a song for you to sing.” I didn’t know what “it” was. So I’m on the stage, at the age of 11 trying to be sexy and I’m singing. I’m saying, all of these elements make the art. All of it. A piece of that, your visit here, your grandmother. So it’s not like art school. It’s the life thing. It’s what you discover.
Fahamu: That resonates. It’s about how you chose to live. This idea of resistance in my work is a reflection of this understanding of how the world operates, but choosing how you want to operate within it as opposed to letting the world dictate how you should move. Which we see a lot in hip-hop culture. You have this image that looks antithetical — “Why are the kids wearing their pants sagging?” Well, that sagging is a kind of resistance, because the world wants to erase you, for you to dress a certain way and carry yourself a certain way, and look a certain way so that they are comfortable with you. But their comfort should not dictate how you express yourself and live your life. So resistance in my work refers to that sense of, “I’m here and you have to take me for who I am.”
Billops: But that hair you’re wearing now (pointing to Fahamu’s angular Gumby afro) that’s a contemporary expression. When I was growing up they were “conkin’” it, putting grease in it. But this is an expression of your contemporary self.
Pecou: What I’m attempting to do in my work is to provide a crucial intervention in the ways in which black men see themselves. We’re constantly bombarded with images and ideas that suggest that black masculinity is prone to violence, prone to crime. I began to mark my own birthdays by the tragedies I avoided: 18, “Whew, never been shot”; 21, “I haven’t been arrested”; 25, “No children.” Thinking that was my reality, but when I got to be 28, 29, looking back I thought, “well that was all some bull.” None of that stuff happened and it didn’t have to happen. Part of the reason I’m invested in the type of work I do is to show young boys, “Yeah, you might hear all that stuff, but there are myriad ways for you to live, and many opportunities available to you. All you have to do is see that those things are possible.” My work is about representing what can be.
Billops: Rather than repeat.
Camille, you made a difficult choice in terms of children. When your daughter was 4 you decided—
Billops: I didn’t want to be a mother.
For some women to hear you say that will be jarring. (Billops put her daughter up for adoption when she was 4 years old).
Billops: You create family, you create friends, you create a new life. I stepped across … into my new life as I saw it. Then … wanting to create something that was very important, we started Hatch-Billops Collection.
Pecou: The relationships that I have with my children have given my work voice. When my daughter was born, I had practically given up being an artist. But it was like, “Because you’re here now, I have to do this. I don’t want to look back in 10 years and blame you for a career that I didn’t have.” And when my son was born that gave me the perspective to think about the way society influences our young black men.
Billops: I said I want to give Christa up for adoption because she has no mother or father. And we did a film about it. (Years later after her daughter found her.) Our relationship did not go into some happy result.
Camille comes out of the Black Arts movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and Fahamu, you come from the tradition of hip-hop. How do they both influence you?
Pecou: I am a child of the Black Arts Movement. It’s the same thing (as hip-hop), they just gave it a different name.
Billops: Has your movement started to fade yet?
Pecou: It’s funny that you ask that because there’s this new group coming up, and I see people my age coming down really hard on these 17-, 18-, 19-years-olds about the music that they’re making. Like, “That’s not real hip-hop.” And I’m like, it couldn’t be more real. Maybe it’s not your aesthetic, but it’s no less hip-hop than the stuff that you made.
Billops: That’s right! It’s right there, all over you.
“Still Raising Hell: The Art, Activism, and Archives of Camille Billops and James V. Hatch”
9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday- Saturday, through May 14, 2017. Free. Schatten Gallery, Woodruff Library at Emory University, 540 Asbury Circle, Atlanta., 404-727-3668, www.emory.edu.