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Acclaimed artist Fahamu Pecou earns Emory PhD with innovative project exploring black identity

By Melissa Gilstrap | Emory Report | May 8, 2018

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A rising star in the art world, Fahamu Pecou found an intellectual home in Emory’s Laney Graduate School. He will receive his PhD on May 14 at the university’s 173rd Commencement Exercises. Emory/Photo Video

Not every PhD candidate has elements of their dissertation displayed in an art gallery, but Fahamu Pecou has never followed the typical path for a doctoral student.

Among the 275 students set to receive PhDs from Emory’s Laney Graduate School next week, Pecou has already been making headlines — a thinking person’s artist and an emerging force in the art world with works that explore challenging issues of black identity and cultural representation.

Pecou was already a successful visual artist when he came to Emory, drawn by a deep yearning to be challenged in an intellectual environment. His scholarship, he reasoned, would inform his art, which weaves his observations about hip-hop, fine art and popular culture among intersections of racial identity and black masculinity.

Throughout his time in the classroom, the fast-rising artist-scholar also continued to produce visual works that have attracted a wide audience, from solo shows in galleries around the world to the acquisition of one of his paintings by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and a commission to produce large-scale public art installations (murals) for four Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) stations.

So when it came to a PhD dissertation, it wasn’t surprising that Pecou took an innovative approach that would build upon the power of both words and images. “Do or Die: Affect, Ritual, Resistance” embeds original artwork, video and performance within a traditional text-based framework, confronting the spectacle of black death while exploring new approaches that challenge current narratives associated with black masculinity, identity and death.

Through his dissertation, Pecou uses his art and scholarship to invoke “an innovative and relentlessly hopeful approach to confronting and transforming the ways that the black male body is inextricably linked with death,” explains his dissertation director and adviser Kimberly Wallace-Sanders, associate professor of American and African American studies. “We use the term ‘ground-breaking’ all the time, but in this case, new intellectual and artistic ground was truly broken with his dissertation.”

His work is already receiving critical acclaim. Presented at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art in Charleston, South Carolina, in collaboration with the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory, “Do or Die” is now touring the country and will be installed at the Carlos Museum in January 2019.

“At the Laney Graduate School, we challenge our students to expand their thinking and discover the unexpected,” says Laney Graduate School Dean Lisa Tedesco. “Fahamu has done that, and with the construction of this dissertation, challenged us to do the same.”

Emory Report recently caught up with Pecou to learn more about what brought him to Emory and his next direction.

Tell us a bit about your background. How did you come to this journey? 

I lost my parents at four years old. I was adopted by relatives who lived in a small town in South Carolina called Hartsville. There weren’t any cultural spaces such as museums or galleries, but I loved art from the time I could hold a pencil. 

As a senior in high school, I won the state art competition in South Carolina, and I was visited by a recruiter from the Atlanta College of Art who convinced me to pursue a broader fine arts education. It was a good decision, and I was introduced to a different lane of creative expression through the fine arts, which I had not been exposed to. What was missing, however, was a focus on black art, and that was frustrating. I discovered a program that would allow me to take courses at other Atlanta schools, and I ended up in a course at Spelman College where I met my mentor, Professor Emeritus of Art and Art History Arturo Lindsay.

Arturo is sort of the “wind beneath my academic wings.” He said, “Sure, you can draw and paint, but what are you thinking about? What are you trying to say?” He encouraged me to take the academic journey further

So even though my art career was taking off, I found myself thirsty for more knowledge, especially as I began focusing my work on issues of black identity and masculinity. I would put together pieces and exhibitions, and friends would say, “Hey, the ideas you’re talking about are very similar to what so-and-so is doing, so get this book.”

People were reading these academic references in my work that I didn’t know about, and most of the people I was being referred to about work on black masculinity were neither black nor male. I knew I had something to offer, and I wanted to be a contributor. 

What is the impact of your dissertation? Does “Do or Die” keep going?

Most of the work in “Do or Die” was developed in 2016 when police shootings of unarmed black men were a central focus of conversation in the media and society. But it’s not limited to those conversations. The #MeToo movement is also explicit of the ways that black bodies are subjected to certain types of violence and then left to fend for themselves.

What “Do or Die” does is provides a way for us to think about notions of death beyond the spectacle of black death — beyond this idea that systemic, racialized violence is the end of the black body. That idea keeps the black body operating and moving in a certain space that it can’t go beyond lest it be killed.

But what happens if we put that aside and imagine what concepts of black death were like before European oppression and marginalization? How did we approach death, deal with death and fold it into the very livelihood of blackness? “Do or Die” tries to get us to a place where the threat of death is rendered ineffective — it can’t hold us back.

One of the things I’m most proud of about this dissertation and the unconventionality of it is that in addition to living in the academy, it’s also a traveling exhibition. It has already been to two locations and has another three scheduled. So the work continues to move and generate conversation as a living organism, and I can continue to add pieces to it to push the dialogue.

What’s next for you?

The exhibition is going to continue to tour through 2019, and it might go beyond that. Right now, I am very focused on aspects of memory and how we might subvert the collective black memory around trauma by reintroducing other ideas, primarily from African philosophies, as part of our memory. 

Because we are a culture that is so reliant on visual communication, the visual arts are a powerful way to interject into the conversation, and I want to make this work and these conversations more accessible to those who need it. I consider my work to be public scholarship, and that’s the lane I want to stay in.

Why was Emory the right place for this work?

At Emory, I was allowed to do the kind of work I might not have been allowed to do somewhere else. The professors I worked with have pushed me and encouraged me.

When I first started this journey, I was very intimidated even though I was already accomplished. The mentors I worked with helped me to see the value in what I was bringing to the table and gave me the courage to do what someone else hasn’t done. 

I’m proud to say that I walked the halls at Emory and contributed to the intellectual conversation. It wasn’t without challenges, but I had a great time.