Art finds inspiration from so many sources. Cultural experiences including music, television, movies, and mass media inform and influence artistic expression in many ways. Dr. Fahamu Pecou’s artwork demonstrates just how much these cultural experiences can shape an artist’s body of work, and therefore their career.
Pecou is one of the most respected Black artists working in America today. He is an interdisciplinary artist whose work inspires dialogue about the Black experience, often highlighting male youth. Pulling from his own storied life, a wealth of experience working with hip-hop artists, and an undeniable passion for art, his work has captivated and intrigued viewers since his first solo show in 2005.
“Ever since I could hold a pencil I’ve been drawing and making things,” Pecou said during our meeting in his West Atlanta studio. Large-scale paintings surrounded us, mostly of him in various poses. A wall was plastered with bright and colorful photographs, which he uses for planning and testing, canvases were propped up in one corner, and paint splatter on the wall and floor outlined his workspace.
Though he is one of the most well-known artists in the city, Pecou is effortlessly convivial, approachable, and kind. His intellect and wit are immediately apparent, and conversation flows easily from one subject to the next.
Pecou, who earned his Ph.D. at Emory University with the first-ever visual dissertation, has been a working artist in Atlanta for nearly two decades. Born in Brooklyn but raised by adoptive parents in Hartsville, North Carolina, he gleaned inspiration from whatever media he could find. As a child, it was mostly television shows and Saturday morning cartoons that inspired his art. He became known as the artsy kid and from an early age, he made up his mind that he was going to be an artist.
When he was in fourth grade he read a description of Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts, which referred to him as an animator. He had never heard the term before but after looking it up in the encyclopedia he decided that one day this would be his path. Throughout his youth, he worked to become the “Black Walt Disney” and spent many hours developing characters and coming up with stories for his comic books. “At night I would write and illustrate, then I’d get to school as early as I could to xerox the pages and then sell them to my friends for 50 cents at lunch.”
After high school in 1993, Pecou got a scholarship to attend the Atlanta College of Art (ACA) where he studied animation. He made friends with other creatives who introduced him to the world of fine art – prior to moving to Atlanta he had never stepped foot inside any art galleries or museums. It opened his eyes to a whole world of opportunities for him as an artist. One of Pecou’s greatest inspirations in popular culture was J.J. from the hit television show “Good Times.” He had not seen examples of Black men working as artists in popular culture otherwise. Once he was here in Atlanta that all began to change, and Pecou officially switched his major to painting.
In the years following his graduation from ACA, Pecou found his way back to New York City. He needed a job, and he had become interested in the magazines that he found on the racks at Tower Records. He essentially taught himself graphic design through this self-directed study. Combined with a basic knowledge of Photoshop, he got a job working at a boutique creative agency in Manhattan that did a lot of the media and collateral for the who’s who of hip-hop artists in the late 90s.
“Puff Daddy had just opened his restaurant Justin’s, which was on the block just behind our office, so I designed the signage and menu. That ended up being a really dope learning experience, it really was kind of like my master’s program in a lot of ways,” recalled Pecou.
Inspired, he began to consider ways those skills could translate into the world of fine art. “I started thinking about what would happen if someone marketed a visual artist the way you do a hip-hop artist.”
Pecou eventually grew tired of living in New York City and found himself missing Atlanta. “There’s something special about this city; I knew I wanted to be here and be a part of this art scene,” he said.
When he got settled here again, this time with extensive graphic design and marketing experience under his belt, he decided to try out some of the same techniques he had seen while working at the agency. He began doing guerrilla marketing throughout the city and developed a catchphrase and fake committee called “Committee to Make Fahamu Pecou the Shit” just to see if it might work. And it did. People came to know his name and soon he was getting opportunities to exhibit his work.
He wanted to put Black people on the cover of magazines because at that time it was rare to see any Black people featured in popular culture unless they were hip-hop artists or athletes.
“It was rare to see a Black artist written about within a magazine, and you certainly didn’t see that on the cover. There was also the juxtaposition of the type of character that I was playing or portraying. While it would be these very sterile high-end art magazines, my character would be all about the attitude and swag of hip-hop. No shirt, gold chains, smoking a cigar. It was creating this tension around race and representation and what is expected. I was really interested in manipulating people’s interpretations around Black men specifically.”
He took this idea of guerilla marketing to a whole new level when he began adding a performance element to his appearances by enlisting fake bodyguards and fans to attend events with him. His first gallery show took place in 2005 at Ty Stokes Gallery in Castleberry Hill. It was a huge success and served to launch his artistic career.
“While I had this show at Ty Stokes the gallery owner reached out to Conduit Gallery in Dallas, and three weeks later I opened a completely new body of work with the gallery in Dallas. That show sold out, and one of the collectors owned a gallery in San Francisco. I also got picked up by a gallery in New York. By December of 2006, I had my first show at Art Basel. “
Pecou is now working on a collection that will debut at the grand opening of the United Talent Agency (UTA) gallery that is set to open in Midtown this March. This series, called If Heaven Had Heights, is all about sagging and its importance in Black youth culture.
“My ideas around sagging have evolved. In 2014 I did a show at MOCA GA called Gravity, it explored sagging but also the tension surrounding it. I used it as an allegory to talk about the tension that Black male youth experience as a result of the deficit language that we use to talk about Black masculinity. I equated that deficit language to a sort of diminished possibilities. Rather than being inspiring, telling people that young Black men are going to end up in jail is going to make young Black men feel like there’s no point. So, what happens if we change the language, could Black men defy gravity?”
While his paintings are certainly some of the most well-known of his works, Pecou is still a multidisciplinary artist. He explained that he likes to allow the concept at hand to dictate what medium it requires. Sometimes an idea might better translate into film or a photograph rather than a painting, for example. He’s also acutely aware that when he is making artwork about and for Black male youths that they are often not going to experience those works in a traditional gallery setting. He wants to use his platform and his artistic talents to help people to heal through the confrontation of prejudice and preconceived notions about Blackness, and so he considers where and how the people he wants to reach might find his works.
“I don’t just want to make pretty pictures, I want to make art that heals people, helps people, art that is soul food. That really became the impetus for the type of artist that I consider myself to be. It continues to be an important part of the work that I do; I feel a responsibility as an image maker to create images, produce works, and tell stories that humanize people who look like me.” To learn more about Pecou and his work visit fahamupecouart.com.