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Beyond the White Cube: Time Traveling with Artist Frohawk Two Feathers

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Artist Frohawk Two Feathers has a gift. In his paintings and illustrations, he weaves a story that keeps his audience riveted and on their toes. Frangland? Is that a tiny forgotten island in the Caribbean? What about Batavia? That's a little country nestled somewhere in Northern or Eastern Europe, right? No, neither of those places exist, they're both instances of Frohawk Two Feathers creating fictional worlds through his art. With his singular voice, Frohawk creates luscious and highly detailed artwork, breathing fresh air into contemporary art's stuffy climate. Born Umar Rashid in Chicago in 1976, he one day began looking into his own heritage and was disappointed at the meager information he uncovered. So, he started inventing his own ancestry. This then informed his work, in which he weaves actual history and fabricated history together to create an original narrative dealing with issues of colonialism and imperialism. I stopped by his studio recently and time traveled to the 18th century battlefield of Cape Colony...

Yasmine Mohseni: What are you working on right now?

Frohawk Two Feathers: Currently, I'm working on a solo that will open in Cape Town, South Africa this October. The show is called The Edge Of The Earth Isn't Far From Here and deals with an invasion of the Cape Colony (rather a retaking) by Batavian (Dutch) forces in 1792. Of course it never really happened but in 1792 (in my re-imagined history) the Frenglish Empire (France, The United Kingdom, and Ireland) becomes a republic. All of the Frenglish colonies are in shambles or open revolt. And since news traveled slowly back then, the remote frontier colonies were unaware of the collapse of the empire. So after a lengthy guerrilla war the Batavian army (Batavia is the Roman name for the area that is now called the Netherlands) succeed in ending a 40 year long occupation of their country and set out to retake their former colonial holdings. It's decided that South Africa is the most strategic place to strike as it is rich in arable land, divides the eastern and western hemispheres and is easily defended from the sea. So the battle-hardened Admiral Antoon DeVries leads an armada to retake and occupy the Cape Colony. Meanwhile Captain Didier Lamontagne, the low-born, tactical genius, governor of the Cape Colony catches wind of this action (and the collapse of the empire) and assembles a large defensive force with his erstwhile Xhosa allies under the command of Daluxolo "King Gorgeous". Battles ensue by land and sea, alliances are forged and the dead pile up. This is part one of a three part series about the Cape Colony.

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Describe your style.

I'm more of an illustrator but I refer to my work as paintings (because there's paint on them). I don't think that I have any one style. It's kind of like a hodgepodge of high and lowbrow leanings, coupled with a heavy emphasis on text, narrative, and symbolism. I draw a lot of inspiration from Romanticism and Neo-Classicism as well as hip-hop, military/gang/prison culture, outmoded social anthropology, maps and magic.

Where does the name Frohawk Two Feathers come from?

That [answer] is a long one that changes every time I answer it. Frohawk Two-Feathers is the name that I gave myself after moving to Los Angeles 11 years ago and adopting the red-tailed hawk as my spirit animal. It's an homage to my distant Native American ancestry (Blackfoot and Choctaw). It's my sietch name (for all of the Dune fans). Plus, it's got a cool ring to it.

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What inspires you?

I'm inspired and amazed by everything. But to be specific I'm inspired by struggle in the face of adversity and eventual triumph. The people and things I surround myself with.

Which artists do you admire the most (living or dead)?

Too many to name, but here's the short list. Goya, Gericault, Delacroix, Rubens, Van DerZee, Malick Sidibe, Jamel Shabazz, Basquiat, Twombly, Ricardo Martins, Augustine Kofie, Runako Jahi (my dad), Carmi Grau, Eric Beltz, Yashua Klos, Robert Pruitt, Estevan Oriol. And all of the cave painters across the planet.

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Why did you become an artist?

I became an artist because I thought I'd be good at it. And I'm bad with taking orders. I love the degree of autonomy it affords but don't be fooled. It's a lot of work and sometimes gallerists can be like your worst boss. And sometimes you are the worst employee-E-O. Now I treat my life as an artist as I treat life on Earth: Take care of yourself and the things closest to you. Don't get too worked up or carried away. Pace yourself and be productive but don't ever be too afraid to change. Two drink minimum.

Frohawk Two Feather's solo exhibition The Edge Of The Earth Isn't Far From Here opens at Stevenson Gallery in Capetown on October 25, 2011.

This interview is based on an original posting featured on ArtistVisit.