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Whether you recognize the Independent Kingdom of Harlem or the band of Caribbean mercenaries known as the Sugar Cane Army while attending one of Umar Rashid’s exhibitions might depend on how much you know what we call history, how much you trust it, and on which side of it you stand. With its tongue-in-cheek layering of global Black references, Atlantic history and ancient mythology, Rashid’s oeuvre resonates with Ishmael Reed’s Neo-HooDoo, and beyond it the centuries of iconoclastic syncretism, historical revisionism and secret counter-memory that characterize African diasporic life in the Americas. His art chronicles the Frenglish Empire, a parallel history in which France and England merged in the late seventeenth century, leading to the rise, fall and mix of a flurry of alternative states, conflicts, figures, and people. Although none of it ever happened, much of it looks, sounds, feels like it could have. An ever-expanding flotsam of chronicles, paintings, sculptures, flags, articles of clothing presented as artifacts left over from a parallel or perhaps just ill-known history, Rashid’s art is a facetious work in paradox: though it affects to blur the border between art, artifice and invention and history, fact and event, by drawing our attention to all in his work that sticks out—anachronistic details, uncanny titles—he dares us to find the lost edge between the historical record and the fictions it constantly generates. Rashid’s art posits our engagement to Black history in the West as a game of hide-and-seek on perpetually shifting ground.
Museums have long been engines of national mythology, a notion Rashid reflects on with each new exhibition. A particular piece from En Garde/On God, Rashid’s 2021 exhibition at the Blum and Poe gallery in Los Angeles is a case in point: the sculpture entitled Eat Shit and die. A prison for the grossly unjust, forced into a perpetual cycle of death and rebirth. A rare Frenglish punishment. Picture the sun god rolling (Figure1). In shape and design, it seems a simplification of a wooden sarcophagus from Ancient Egypt, its lid adorned with an abstracted, almost robotic, pharaoh-like figure with a cross for eyes (Figure 2); carried on a chain along a groove cut into the lid, a scarab cycles, perpetually traveling from the figure’s mouth to its nether regions (Figure 3).
As a gallery exhibit, it also evokes European powers’ pillage of Egypt, most notably during the Napoleonic era. I chose the title for this essay—pilfered from “Ozymandias,” Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous reflection on the passing of history—to evoke what I see at work in Rashid’s sculpture: a playful reversal of the dynamic of appropriation from which Shelley’s poem issued; a counter-appropriation of sorts. White Romantics infamously loved ruins, medieval and otherwise; along with Romanticism rose a view of history as a long line of extinctions, with Egypt the increasingly whitewashed mother of them all. Yet, in those years, as Egyptian monuments and artifacts started flooding Europe, Egypt also played a central role in an abolitionist counter-discourse notably used by people of African descent living in the white West. Haitian thinker and statesman Baron de Vastey wrote in 1814 “perhaps one day the North will return the gifts it received from the South; then those goddesses [agriculture, learning, the arts] will take wing and return to their homeland of old, where they will revive the wondrous marvels that draw the admiring gaze of travellers and that still bear witness, the lapse of centuries notwithstanding, to the glory of ancient Egypt and its learning.”1
As African American newspaper agent and abolitionist pamphleteer David Walker later pointed out in his 1829 Appeal, “the Egyptians, were Africans or coloured people, such as we are;” his assertion meant to claim Egypt for Black Africa and combat the whitening of the ancient land then washing over historical representation.2 Abolitionist authors used the historical record against history. They pointed at evidence of African excellence in documents recognized by the white West for a political purpose: the abolition of slavery. The models they provided set standards that influenced the arts just as early; but making political art as a Black diasporic artist living in the bellies of the slaveholding beast was never an easy matter. Pieces must be crafted that seem to be easily digestible fare but retain a core of truth that might, eventually, cycle out whole, and who knows: maybe tear the beast’s guts on its way. A crass metaphor, no doubt; but also one that invites the question then and now: how to achieve this? In what ways can the arts weaponize inappropriate edges?
Rashid has an edge on many of his forebears: his impropriety. “Eat Shit and Die,” the vulgar idiom that makes the piece’s title, is made literal, a punishment of divine dimensions. The sarcophagus itself is the torture contraption, in which the “grossly unjust”—who knows what warrants such a label in Frengland—are forced to endure an endless cycle of death and rebirth. This cycle simultaneously evokes Osiris’ own daily circuit of death and rebirth and the work of his symbol, the golden scarab, dutifully pushing a ball of excrement sublimated as a representation of the Sun. The endless repetition, in all that it is humanly unfathomable, is the divine signature, a circle to the supposed straight line of human time.
There’s something uncanny and hellish about the idea that situations and events might repeat forever. Think of the punishments meted by Gods of ancient Greece: Prometheus growing a new liver nightly only for it to be consumed by the Caucasian eagle every day; Sisyphus, endlessly pushing his boulder, a monadic dung beetle making only his own world go round, forever and ever. Albert Camus famously saw Sisyphus’s fate as a metaphor for human life, but he asked that we imagine Sisyphus happy—having resolved, as it were, the question Nietzsche asked:
What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness, and say to you, “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence […].” Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine” […]. [H]ow well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave for nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?3
Of course, Sisyphus was punished for loving life so much that he cheated death on two occasions. His eternal torment is a negation of his “passion for life.”4 In the time it takes him to walk down the hill before picking up his burden again, Camus tells us, Sisyphus’ awareness of eternal torment allows him to own his fate and “[silence] all the idols.”5 The absurd hero moves forever on that edge between the eternity which is not of his human world and his necessarily flawed historical time, secure in the terrible knowledge that straight lines are lies and circles are hopeless. There, in that moment before he starts pushing his ball of dung again, is when we could catch a glimpse of Sisyphus’ happiness. And fine: as punishments go, pushing it certainly beats having to eat it over and over again.
Rashid’s sculpture builds on the formidable hubris of the conqueror, who in Camus’ words declares: “Between history and the eternal I have chosen history because I like certainties.”6 Camus’ outlook on conquerors carries something of the Romantic fascination for Great Men of History. Here and in his other work, Rashid reminds us that choosing the certainty of history and history-writing has not been an option for all of us, or in any case not quite in the same terms, nor quite in the same position. African American writer Chester Himes opens his autobiography with the following riff on existentialism: “Albert Camus once said that racism is absurd. Racism introduces absurdity into the human condition.”7 Camus saw absurdity as an essential element of the individual human condition; but the absurdity Himes evokes is a condition imposed onto a group of people. There seems to be no record that Camus said this—but in a parallel world, he might have. Quoted frequently, Himes’s line sits on the edge between fact and fiction, an extra layer of meaning added gratis, tongue-in-cheek.
Black presence at the heart of the Eurocentric West has long been willfully ignored and obscured. Imagining ways to recover the memory of the thousands of anonymous people ground in the Atlantic slave trade from the “tomb” that is the archive, Saidiya Hartman explains her goal of “enacting the impossibility of representing the lives of the captives precisely through the process of narration,” and places her own technique of ‘critical fabulation’ in a “history of black counter-historical projects [that] is one of failure, precisely because these accounts have never been able to install themselves as history, but rather are insurgent, disruptive narratives that are marginalized and derailed before they ever gain a footing.” I would contend that Rashid’s work echoes Hartman’s “effort to reconstruct the past [that] is, as well, an attempt to describe obliquely the forms of violence licensed in the present.”8 But as an artist, and though his works are clearly informed by historical research, Rashid labors under no obligation to abide by the rules of historical scholarship. He engages with the issues of representation invoked by Hartman from an entirely different direction: daring gallery-goers to find in his work the lost edge between the credible and the factual, where so much of Black history has been made to sit for so long.
Thus, most of Umar Rashid’s Frenglish chronicles take place in a parallel Age of Revolution, reminiscent of ours but also shockingly different, notably in how matter-of-factly it features people of color in roles and poses we mostly associate with the great white men of that historical period. His works then necessarily evoke those rare painted exceptions—say, representations of Pushkin’s ancestor Abram Gannibal, born in Africa, enslaved in the Ottoman empire, and turned Russian general, or the few portraits of the leaders of the Haitian Revolution. Rashid’s work is an invitation to self-awareness, to question our knowledge. What do we know about Black presence in the eighteenth century? How well do we know it? Black people appear in the background of classic European portraiture as signs of wealth, human faces turned into status symbols, but they simultaneously attest to Black presence throughout the Eurocentric West. Scholars have increasingly tried to recover the people and historical context behind such art, finding clarity in the awareness of this blur. There is nothing new in the fact that art pieces are also historical artifacts, of course, but there is something unique and different in the recovery of Black life through them. Because it has been so thoroughly and pointedly ignored when not erased, recovering it often demands an extra layer of narrative invention. A form of critical fabulation, “playing with and rearranging the basic elements of the story, by re-presenting the sequence of events in divergent stories and from contested points of view” so as “to jeopardize the status of the event,” but bereft of narrative restraint; one by which the work of art self-consciously and provocatively endorses its inevitable nature as evidence of the “afterlife of property.”9
I see in Rashid’s sarcophagus a willfully crude copy of the original, ancient Egyptian ones around which European pillagers built their museums and capital cities. Rashid’s crudeness (in design, title, concept) draws attention to the absent models, the puzzling fact that most of us have encountered them in Paris, London, Berlin, New York City or a number of other non-Egyptian locales; to the very fact of copying, repurposing, appropriating, and the history of these practices. As such, it enacts not a counter-history so much as a practice counter to history as we have known it. Cultural reappropriation, possibly; an exorcism sings throughout Rashid’s oeuvre, resounding with the longstanding efforts by people of African descent kidnapped into Western societies to tell Europe of the Africanness not just of Egypt, but of the rest of the world as well.
A counter-curse then, with a dash of revenge. Works of art are often bought by the very people they mock; they might be errant fishbones in the belly of the beast, small irritations eventually digested. Maybe the hope is that they hurt on the way down, cycle out and back in, over and over again. At a most fundamental, visceral level (I said it), Rashid’s piece gestures toward the collective in suggesting that an important contribution of art may be to allow communities to imagine the unjust unhappy.
This is part of the cluster Hard/Soft/Lost: The Edges of Contemporary Culture. Read the other posts here.
- Baron de Vastey, The Colonial System Unveiled, ed., trans. Chris Bongie (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2016), 96.
- David Walker, Walker’s Appeal, in Four Articles, together with a Preamble to the Colored Citizens of the World, but in particular and very expressly to those of the United States of America (Boston, 1829), 10.
- Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs, trans. Walter Kaufmann (Vintage Books: New York, 1974), 273-4.
- Albert Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, trans. Justin O’Brien (New York: Vintage Books, 1983), 120.
- Ibid., 123.
- Ibid., 86.
- Chester Himes, My Life of Absurdity: The Autobiography of Chester Himes vol. II (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1976), 1.
- Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts.” Small Axe 12.2 (2008): 1-14; 13.
- Ibid., 11; 13.