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Stone Center exhibit aims to reframe Black existence

Art from Fahamu Pecou's "DO or DIE: Affect, Ritual, Resistance" on display at the Stone Center. Photo courtesy of The Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston.

As a researcher and as an artist, Fahamu Pecou’s work is centered on representations of the Black male identity. In his dissertation, the multimedia exhibit “DO or DIE: Affect, Ritual, Resistance” on display at the Sonja Haynes Stone Center, Pecou combines the academic with the artistic to ask: "What kind of life could you live if you weren’t afraid to die?"

This multimedia exhibit combines paintings, drawings, videos and sculpture, and fuses hip hop culture with traditional West African spiritual practices. Pecou said this project addresses the spectacle of Black death and the long history of violence against Black existence.

“This idea that these narratives around Black existence are so intertwined and bound up in these specters of death is something that I wanted to use my research and my work to combat,” Pecou said. 

Pecou said that he wants to reframe the understanding of Black existence, turning away from violence, pain and destruction, and towards hope — a story of survival, resilience and beauty. 

“When you’re constantly bombarded with images of trauma, your own sense of self begins to be shaped and defined by that trauma,” Pecou said. “I wanted to do something that would help us to move beyond that trauma.” 

For Pecou, art is a powerful medium for these themes because it transcends language itself. 

“Art operates at a level of language that goes beyond words,” Pecou said. “It is a form of communication that doesn’t speak any particular language or dialect. It is something that is innately human.” 

The title of this exhibit, “DO or DIE: Affect, Ritual, Resistance,” addresses the multi-faceted nature of this exhibit’s themes. Pecou said the name “DO or DIE” comes from the idiom within hip-hop culture, expressing the sentiment of either taking direct action or not. Affect refers to affect theory and his goal of using theoretical concepts to connect to individual emotions. Ritual refers to the African spiritual tradition at the heart of his research. Resistance addresses the sense of resistance embedded within the project — the sentiment that despite trauma, one can find hope.

This exhibit is a part of the Stone Center’s larger project “The 1619 Collective Memory(ies).” 1619 marks the year when the first group of enslaved Africans was brought to the Jamestown settlement, which many consider to be the beginning of slavery in the US. "The 1619 Collective Memory(ies)" examines the beginning of slavery from the points of view of all affected — not only Africans, but also Native Americans and Europeans, said Stephanie Cobert, public communications officer for the Stone Center.

Part of this exploration features Pecou’s exhibit, bringing art to the forefront of how to think and reframe understandings of culture and history. Pecou said this exhibit addresses the resilience of this collective memory. 

“The fact that these traditions survived despite the very violent, forceful attempts to strip away any sense of identity from these people is a powerful testament to who they were and who we continue to be,” Pecou said. 

Joseph Jordan, director of the Stone Center, said art is just one of mediums through which people can recall this collective memory. 

“When people of African descent in the U.S. have legacies of being torn from another place, who have legacies of being in situations when people have tried to erase memory, that the struggle to maintain it has often been a collective effort,” Jordan said. 

Collective memory transcends the temporal, Jordan said. Pecou's exhibit illustrates collective memory because it exists outside of time, not specific to one time or place.

“The images are very much something from the mind of the author, influenced by his rootedness in the diaspora,” Jordan said. “That’s a triumph on the part of the artist, that he was able to take it past that time and place, and history and memory, and forgetting and commemorating, that all happen at the same time.” 

This exhibit presents attendees with the resources to transform their thinking and facilitate discussion. Jordan said their job is to offer the seed material conducive to learning and forming connections with the work, both visually and thematically.

“We try to create those conditions for people to connect, both aesthetically and on a deeper level intellectually, with the work that we present,” Jordan said. 

Pecou hopes that his exhibit above all sparks dialogue. 

“This is how we affect change, by opening up our world to perspectives that go beyond the experiences we’ve already had but that can introduce us to new ones,” Pecou said. 

UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences is also exploring race reconciliation and how to contextualize history with the “Reckoning: Race, Memory and Reimagining the Public University” project — a series of classes, gatherings and discussions about how to consider UNC’s part in the history of slavery and injustice. Relating the Stone Center’s project with the Reckoning program, Cobert said the projects coincide thematically but differ in scale. 

“With the Reckoning project, while that focuses on remembrance at the university level, our focus will be memory and memorial on the national level, and even international,” Cobert said.

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Jordan said this exhibit represents UNC’s participation in a national movement of commemorating 1619. 

“These commemorations have been going on all across the country, all year, and many of them are picking up right now in a lot of places,” Jordan said. “This is us. This is our set of events.”