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.



Storyteller First


The stories start off as impulses and actually, with the whole Frenglish narrative I started at the end, and then worked my way back to the beginning. I wrote this short story called The Rise and the Fall of the Frenglish Empire and it chronicles the inception and dissolution of the Frenglish empire. That became the framework, and now I’m doing a historical highlight reel and going through the highlights of Frengland. I’ve created something that I can continue for the rest of my natural life and there might still be unanswered questions when I die.


The reason I say I’m a storyteller first is because I don’t want to discount all of those incredible artists who went to school for illustration and painting and are really good at their craft. I’m not saying I’m not good, I’m in a continuous process of learning, I just think what’s lacking in the art world and what’s lacking in a lot of practices is imagination.


We’re in a period of time where people aren’t cultivating ideas, they are cultivating the emotions of ideas. New ideas get thrown to the wayside and it’s just horrible. There are so many stories to tell and maybe it’s the gatekeepers that aren’t letting those people in, but I think that everyone has a story to tell. As human beings we only have very few things to offer, either duplicates of ourselves in the form of children or good ideas, and I’m not seeing as much of the latter as I would like.


The Soil that Binds Us


When I first moved to Los Angeles I worked at a framing company in Inglewood. I was building frames and one of the clients wanted the mats to match the artwork so I sat in the room and used Lipton tea bags to stain the mats. That was about 3 or 4 years before I invented Frengland so when I started the Frenglish practice I was like wow, I’m using these colonial commodities to stain works to make them be more representational of the time to support this inherently false narrative that is based on actual events. So using tea and coffee just became my thing, and the dirt is the binder because it’s everywhere. Dirt shows the commonality of all the cultures around the world.


The Balancing Act


I do believe that there is a way to be a working artist and to support family, but it’s extremely difficult. I can’t go to all of the parties or artist residencies that my single friends go to. Some people don’t mind abandoning their children, but I would never do that. They’re the reason why I do what I do with such fervor. I put a lot of time and effort into securing a good future for them. I really love them and when I look at them I realize my purpose, but it’s also very difficult. However, I have a wife that works, which helps so that I don’t have to focus so much on the commercial aspects of art.


At the end of the day I’m catching up on bills just like everyone else. You can have a 9-5 and be broke and you can be making art and be broke, you know? It’s just the way you spend money. Another thing that most people don’t acknowledge is the nepotism and favoritism within the art world, but also, if you’re a good fucking person, people will come to your show. People I love? Even if I hate their work I’ll go to their show and support them.


The Transcendence of Hip Hop


I think I use hip hop as a more celebratory motif rather than a device to get you to feel any specific way about hip hop. You don’t have to like hip hop at all to get the meanings and a lot of it is just from my upbringing. It reminds me of my childhood and that fun camaraderie, because when I was listening to hip hop it was still political, it was still forward-thinking. Hip hop is where I rediscovered ancient Egypt and all of the historical Black Americans that were denied to me growing up in the American public school system. It was an affirmation of my unapologetic Blackness.


It’s funny because some people will come to my show and it’ll be like an investment banker and he’ll point to a painting and be like, “That’s a Nas lyric!” and so it also has this very transcending effect. In a sense it is a device, but really it’s just me putting it out there. I really try hard not to read too far into anything because I think what I do is innate, and people can say whatever they’re going to say about it, but I like to leave it somewhat ambiguous and vague. As Khalil Gibran said, “Vague and nebulous is the beginning of all things, but not their end.”