Blum & Poe presents En Garde / On God, Umar Rashid’s first solo exhibition with the gallery. A new chapter in Rashid’s ongoing project of documenting the forgotten history of the Frenglish Empire, the exhibition presents new paintings, drawings, and sculptural work from the artist. Focusing especially on those who were omitted from the historical record, the works take images from hip hop, ancient and modern pop culture, gang and prison life, and revolutionary movements throughout time, to underline the roles of race, gender, class, and power in the problematic history of recounting history.
Previously known as Frohawk Two Feathers, Rashid most recently took part in the biennial Made in LA 2020: a version, and his work is included in the public collections of many museums including the Brooklyn Museum in New York, the Jorge Pérez Collection in Miami, the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in California, and the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art in Cape Town, South Africa.
Flaunt talked to the artist about his newest exhibit, the narrative that follows his works, and his interest in the Frenglish Empire.
What can we expect from your new show En Garde / On God at Blum & Poe?
En Garde / On God is a continuation from the narrative of the show I did at Made in LA, and then the long show that I have been working on for the past 5 years about the California mission system, and the colonization efforts by imperial Spain in that region before it became Mexico. En Garde / On God, specifically, is about what happens to revolutions. What makes this show different is that I am trying to switch over before I do all of these European shows, because I want to get the New World set in stone, so that I can cross pollinate.
It really is about what happens when you achieve all the goals of a particular revolution, or when you think you achieve all the goals, so it mirrors what is happening in the United States, and all over the world, right now with marginalized groups saying "we want this" and "we want this representation" and "we want to be seen," and that’s all well and good, but ultimately, in most people’s pursuit of that particular goal, they tend to leave out everybody else, because it becomes a very myopic view of the world. And yeah it makes us feel well, because somebody is winning, but if somebody is winning that means somebody else is losing.
We tend to operate from this binary perspective, but life, in and of itself, is a nonbinary existance. So there is no good, there is no true pure good, because it all depends on what side of the aisle you are sitting on. What’s good for somebody might not be what’s good for somebody else.
As a Black American of the diaspora and also a descendant of enslaved human beings, there is a certain narrative that I want to tell and I want to include the marginalized people. I want to talk about race, class, gender, everything within that work. However, there is this other side of me that wants to tell the whole story, so ultimately, what ends up happening in En Garde / On God is that they end up falling victim to the same revolutionary fervor that they began with, and so nothing, ultimately, gets done, and it is just repeating another cycle of violence. But it looks cool. I am just trying to figure out how, as human beings, do we break this cyclical nature of ups, downs, highs, and lows.
This is your first solo exhibition with the gallery, how has it been working with them?
I was happy that finally I got picked up by a really good gallery, and I am still alive, you know I am not dead. Because in this particular time, I think, there is enough room for people to be celebrated while they are still alive, whereas back in the day, if you were Monet or people like that, I’m sure millions of people painted like him, but they just never made it to that upper tier because of the speed of information. I literally hate the internet, but I am also grateful for it in the sense that it allowed me to matriculate a lot easier, I would say, and a lot faster than it would take, because people still don’t know what I am doing, they really don’t know, and they won’t know until I come up with this book, or make a sort of film, but yeah.
I’ve been doing this for so long, about 18 years, and I am self-taught, so I am glad to have had this opportunity to grow into my practice, rather than being picked straight out of college, and then go, go go.
What I do is I kind of condense time and space, so it’s past, present, future, so you’ll see some cosmic elements, like transformers, the international space station, and all these other crazy stuff, and then people on horses, and parties. I don’t know, it’s just crazy.
For 15 years now, you have been documenting the fictitious history of the Frenglish Empire, but give a special focus to those who were marginalized and omitted from the historical record. Can you give us a short summary of the history you have unveiled in that time?
The winners write the history. All the time. And now we are starting to see the other side, you know, Netflix just had that cowboy movie, The Harder They Fall, so now people are starting to go to these alternative sources, and the internet does provide a lot of different actual sources of people existing in this time. Because if you look at it you would think it’s just a bunch of Maria Antoinettes running around with powdered wigs, you know, but everybody was there, and I try to present everyone in a way that they have agency. That’s what I do, give them agency. But it’s not a revenge fantasy, because that’s counterproductive for the current narrative. Right now, we are all stuck. Now you can be anywhere on the planet within 24 hours by plane, so the world is very small. But I also do believe in the sanctity of culture, culture identity, and things of that nature, so I am trying to do a bunch of stuff, but I am still learning. I am always learning, and sometimes I’ll get it wrong in the eyes of some people, and sometimes I’ll get it right in the eyes of others. I am just telling my narrative, and I am not saying I am speaking my truth because truth is also relative. Basically I am just telling this narrative to show that we all have contributed to whatever this is. We’ve had a role in the good parts, and we’ve had a role in the bad parts, and we’ve had a role in the gray area. Everybody is important. Except, from my perspective, because I am a Black American male, I want to talk about that. I want to put that at the forefront, because that’s how I identify. But I don’t have to stand on anyone else to make myself feel higher.
What topics and themes do these paintings and drawings touch on? And how do you use them to make a commentary on the present, past, and future?
In a lot of indigenous cultures, there is this whole belief system of once you perfect your soul, and this is pre-christian ideology, you can transform, almost shape shift, and become something greater than your physical body. So instead of transforming into a jaguar or a coyote or a wolf or a bird, I had them actually transform into transformers. It’s still using this very ancient belief system but putting it into a modern perspective. The Coachella valley, having a peace and freedom concert in Coachella, and then you have Phil Spector’s wall of sound and then there is a mariachi band playing.
So those are the more crazy elements of the show and then you got the solo cups, the little red party cups. In the beginning I would have bottles of alcohol. There was this rum that I invented called "purpura," which was this purple rum, because all the rappers are drinking purple stuff, and I would also have different wines and hors devours and aperitifs and things of that nature. So I was like "let me just condense this to its simplest form. What is something that everybody has in their hand at every party?" And that’s a red solo cup. So that’s me being funny, because you can’t talk about all this horrible colonial history that involves violence against people of color, violence against people in general, violence against women, and many marginalized groups. In telling this narrative I feel that it is also necessary that I inject a bit of humor into it. Because even when things are so terrible and down, you always have to allow yourself the ability to laugh and to enjoy your time.
And then there’s a lot of critique, in this show in particular, on religion. I just find it incredibly ridiculous how certain people can be so bold in their associations to a religion that originated in one part of the world and was forcibly spread throughout all other parts of the world, and how it can be the only thing that exists. And especially the theocratic nature of the United States as it is right now. It is very concerning to me. I critique the institution, but I don’t critique the faith. I think faith is a beautiful thing. However I think about it, faith helps people get where they need to be, it helps people tend to themselves. My critique isn’t in faith itself, it’s in the way it has been disseminated throughout the centuries. Especially from the colonial period on. That also plays heavily into the narrative.
What sparked your interest in the Frenglish Empire?
It’s always been there. I remember being a kid reading about the Haitian Revolution, and most of the United States history is just slavery, slavery, slavery, but then when you look at the Haitian Revolution, it was amazing because they defeated the French military and then they loaned money to Simon Bolivar for his campaign to free Colombia and Venezuela. It’s such a massive thing, but it was never really talked about in a lot of circles, because, given how world politics are, you have to always keep your foot on somebody’s neck in order to elevate yourself.
That’s why my story is a global narrative, because everyone has a very similar background, you know, no matter how we ended up today, some people ended up on top, some ended up at the bottom, some ended up in the middle of the sandwich, became the salami in the sandwich, but ultimately we all ended up somewhere but we are not fixed to these places, and that’s what I want to share. I mean I know it doesn’t happen like this, because people look at art and they say ‘oh this is cool,’ and ‘I like it because it has these colors,’ but I am thinking of it on such a meta level, and I made it so that it exists in three levels. It exists where you can appreciate it aesthetically, you look on the wall, you like the colors, you like the composition. You can look at it from the historical perspective and say ‘oh this is a history painting.’ And then you can look at it from a cosmic perspective - all these things blended in.
Can you walk us through the process of doing the research and then transforming that into a painting?
I take references from everything. From old illuminated manuscripts, Native American ledger drawings, primitive art paintings, Mughal Persian miniature paintings, Indonesian Batik, Hmong story cloth and of course African sculpture, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Sumerian Babylonian cuneiform, Roman mosaics, Greek black-line pottery, Japanese wood block prints. I draw from the wealth of the planet, and then I’ll research things and be like "okay, I’ll keep this here. I’ll put this in the mind right now and file it away under this," and then I give myself a little time to meditate. I usually do lucid dreaming. I’ll go to sleep with an idea in mind and by the time that I wake up I have a whole story. I have the narrative. But then the hard part is the actual execution. Sometimes I’ll do a part one and part two. And sometimes I’ll have way too many ideas so I’ll have to separate them. However, I do so that people know this is an Umar Rashid painting. People know it’s mine because of certain things that exist in the painting. There are always going to be certain motifs like the solo cup, so I had to develop certain iconographic things that appear in the work all the time, just so that people know that it’s me. Or the way that it’s drawn, the angles, the flatness of it. The work is very flat. There’s a lot of different ways in which I do it, but since it’s a narrative I don’t feel constrained, I never have writer’s block, I never have artist’s block, the only thing I have is drinker’s block. No, I am just joking. I work every day. There’s not a time where I don’t see anything, meet a person, have a 5 minute conversation, and something inspires me.
What do you have in the works for the future?
So I have Ancien Regime Change: Part One up at Half Gallery in New York right now, and then I am going to Miami for Art Basel. And the last thing, I have more Ancien Regime Change shows planned for the future in New York, the Netherlands, and Paris. The one I did in New York was part one and I am going to do up to part six.