NORTHEAST LOS ANGELES
It’s early afternoon when we arrive at the home of Umar Rashid, known by his contemporaries as Frohawk TwoFeathers. His two young children peek shyly from behind curtains and dart to their rooms to avoid introductions. His wife is polite but hurried, getting their children dressed for a trip to Target. Later, his daughter reveals her father’s same mischievous spirit when she sassily demands from behind the screen window, “Who are you?”
Umar resides on a quiet street on the hillside, and a flimsy chain link fence is all that separates him from once-lush hills now overrun with coyotes. Perhaps they are dissuaded by the elk hide he has stretched taut against the fence in anticipation of another project. He cuts it down in front of us, looking like a character from Jumanji with his woven wicker helmet and camouflage-green cape flapping in the wind.
Umar inserts a bit of drama and flair into everything he does, and it’s soon obvious why he’s refused to settle for any single artistic medium. Outside of the paintings and sculptures he’s created as Frohawk TwoFeathers, he’s performed as a hip hop artist under the alias High Fidel and as a performance artist under Kid Cyclone. Umar looks forward to experimenting with theatre and puppets in the future.
For now he shares a studio space with several local artists a few minutes drive from his Highland Park bungalow. Frohawk’s work is immediately recognizable upon entering their unit in the nondescript office building: the pile of painted hydes and mechanical tomb, the portrait painting of brown-skinned aristocrats, various spears and bows, and one piece that dominates an entire wall and seems to encompass the entire rise and fall of a civilization. Like archeologists at a fresh dig site, we hunker down and begin to explore.
Words by Danielle Dorsey, Photos by B. Justine Jaime
Video by Johny Gray, Editing by Britt Harrison
The Birth of Frohawk TwoFeathers
Initially I went to school for film, and I flunked out of most of my courses just because I was more interested in throwing parties. The next logical progression from film was photography and I loved Malik Sidibe and James Van Dee Zee, I was really taken by their portraits and their style of portrait making which was very candid and fun so I started doing that.
The transition from photography to Frohawk Two Feathers is whiskey, pain, suffering, and loss. When I got out of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale I was kind of lost. The interim between school and actual work is so fast, and once I was out of school I didn’t have a studio, I couldn’t print my own pictures anymore, I couldn’t paint at my own leisure. It was very difficult for me to make that transition, and so I went on this journey of self-discovery because I felt like it was necessary after being in an environment where I had all these resources and people available to me and then being bereft of that support. Then when I moved to Los Angeles in 2000 it took me about 4 years to get back into the rotation, but when I did it was good.
The Windy City vs The City of Angels
The move was rough, but how it translates in the work is that when I moved to Los Angeles, wherever I went there was this Latino influence whereas in Chicago it’s very segregated so I grew up a quarter of my life just surrounded by Black people and living the Black experience. So leaving one culture and falling into another there was a different learning curve so it was necessary to feel that displacement. That’s where the impetus to create this global narrative came from because I realized how easy it is for a person to go from one place to another and be in an environment that is so completely alien to them. What I really try to project in the work is the alienness of the world but also not discounting the extreme adaptability of human beings.
The History of the Frenglish Empire
Frengland is a combination of France and England and initially when I created the Frenglish Empire I was trying to figure out how to interject this actuality of race and class and gender into one period and so it seemed fitting to use the colonial period.
As a child I studied a lot of history because I was always trying to figure out where my narrative came from. All of history is a highlight reel, but American history is even more of a highlight reel, because it discounts and marginalizes a lot of people and events that are important to what has been created. I can trace my ancestry to a state in the south or perhaps an island in the Caribbean, but I can’t trace my ancestry beyond that and so I felt like well if I can’t trace it I’m going to fucking invent it. So I delved through all these history books and decided to create this trajectory that links me back to the continent of Africa. That’s how the Frenglish Empire began, but since then it’s become this incredible soap opera of “You killed my husband!” and “But you killed my sister!”
You see, when you’re taking something as serious as race and class and gender, it’s rather difficult to just throw it out there because then it seems like it’s in your face and that does not encourage dialogue that encourages confrontation, and confrontation is not what I want to put out there initially. We can’t go back and change these events because not only have they already taken place, they’ve been codified within a system. So in my opinion, in order to truly break down and correct all of the historical wrongs we have to first have a dialogue and so I created Frengland to be just that, to be a dialogue, to be a bridge.
The Convergence of Umar Rashid and Frohawk TwoFeathers
I’ve always created aliases. I’ve never gone by one name for more than 2-3 years. Frohawk was the longest persona, before that it was High Fidel that I did rap under. My whole alternate persona thing began in high school when I joined a graffiti crew and my name was Gras, pronounced like grass.
Then when I started to do the whole story of Frengland and making it about identity politics and finding my own identity, I invented Frohawk because I didn’t really want to talk about myself and I wanted to create a culturally ambiguous character, an immortal storyteller. As High Fidel, Kid Cyclone, Frohawk TwoFeathers, Alarm, all of these people, as I got older everything started to converge so now I feel like the convergence is complete. Within the music that I do I’ve established myself as that person, within the art world I’ve established myself as that person, so now I feel complete. It took me 40 years, but I’ve finally made peace with all of these different aspects of myself.