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Artist Fahamu Pecou brings creativity and controversy to the Harvey Gantt Center



Trust the dude with the gumby haircut — the guy with a penchant for wearing sunglasses while inside, painting his likeness onto six-foot canvases, going by the moniker "Fahamu Pecou is the Shit!" and holding WWE-like press conferences that demonstrate the level of his fo-shitness — to tell you he began his life as an artist with an eraser.

Not a pencil or a paintbrush or crayon or chalk or a marker. But an eraser.

"You remember those spiral notebooks [with] different-colored covers? Well I figured out if I took an eraser, I could erase the color out of it," says Pecou. "I would draw cartoon characters and stuff on the covers of these notebooks, but I would like — in essence — color them or shade them by using an eraser to take out color where I wanted to have a highlight."

Pecou is still using color — and the absence of it — to highlight his work. He is, after all, a black male artist who paints his black male body onto white stretched canvases to challenge the perceptions (and mis-perceptions) of black males in popular culture. And where once Pecou's work centered on animated characters, it is now the focus of animated discussions.

"I think he finds the way to, in some cases, address difficult subjects or address reality in a satirical way," says David Taylor, president and CEO of the Harvey Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. "You certainly walk away with an impression about the statement he's trying to make. And I think that's what art should do."

The Gantt Center — in partnership with Charlotte's McColl Center for Visual Art — will host Pecou as its inaugural artist-in-residence next month. Ce Scott, the creative director for both centers and director of the artist-in-residence programs, says when the discussion came up about the McColl and Gantt centers launching joint programming, she was eager to launch it with Pecou (who's moving to the Q.C. from Atlanta). It didn't hurt either, that the selection panel voted Pecou in with a perfect score.

"He draws on things that many people, whether they're followers of art or not, are familiar with," says Scott. "He uses popular culture and playing on a little bit on some stereotypes about black masculinity and what that means, and hip-hop culture and stereotypes about that; he's using all of that as a social commentary. And the work is beautifully done, and it's also accessible.

"It's going to be an honor, I think, for Gantt to be able to say that Fahamu was their first artist-in-residence because of his talent and his energy and his willingness to work," she continues. "[He wants] to be that artist that demystifies the artistic process and connects with community as well. Not just his artist community, but the community as a whole."

The Making of a Superstar

At 11 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, a status update on Fahamu Pecou's Facebook page reads: "Fahamu Pecou is less talk, more action. Except for this statement right here. But seriously this is all I'm going to say. Except for that last part. So now I'm done talking. Except for what I just said."

Though Pecou's alter-ego can have quite a lot to say, Pecou, himself, can be pretty shy in social situations. Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., to a Panamanian father and an American mother, he was a quiet "nerdy dude" who sold comic books in high school and read encyclopedias as a favorite pastime.

"I used to like to read the profiles about artists, and I used to fantasize about being in the encyclopedia one day," he says. "I just thought that was the ultimate of success — it wasn't to be on TV or to be in a magazine — it was to be in an encyclopedia. That, to me, felt more significant; that you would go down in history, as opposed to being popular at a certain point in time."

At the Atlanta College of Art, Pecou (whose first name is Swahili for "understanding") majored in painting and computer art, though he says it wasn't until college that he visited his first art gallery. His original desire, upon graduating, was to open his own animation studio and create black cartoons; however "a pretty girl introduced me to paintings and galleries, and that changed my whole life." After receiving his B.F.A., Pecou worked for a graphic design studio for two years then started his own venture, the Red Creative Agency.

Though his agency was picking up work with a notable list of clients (including a number of hip-hop artists), Pecou still struggled to get recognized as a painter. At some point, he says he "got tired of waiting on the bus to pick me up, so I just started walking." Taking a page from the hip-hop playbook, he decided to incorporate the stance, style and strut of these musicians into his persona as a fine artist. A verb, article and four-letter-word later, Fahamu Pecou became "Fahamu Pecou is the Shit!," thus launching himself and his work into the cyber/global/big-baller stratosphere.