Umar Rashid: Ancien Regime Change: Part One / Can You Dig It? / A Dirge For Cyrus And His Band Of Warriors
November 17 through December 22, 2021
By EMANN ODUFU, December 2021
Umar Rashid’s exhibition at Half Gallery engages us in a complicated meditation that reevaluates the past and reinterprets age-old stories and assumptions. With the precision of a master magician or illusionist, Umar condenses the past, present, and future into a single plane, investigating the interconnection of the global human experience and giving voice to narratives specifically about Black and Brown people that have been deemed unfit or unimportant in the telling of the Human story. Much of Umar’s work deals with the period between 1300 and 1900, a time in which conventional history portrays the Black experience as a monolithic entity dominated by transatlantic slavery and colonialism. However, Umar’s work sheds light on the fact that there were also Black Knights, and black popes, black pirates, and black lawyers and heads of state in this time period. The importance of this being that Black people in this time were not just victims of European Imperialism, but unknown to many, were active players who were influential in shaping our modern society. Using a style reminiscent of the literary and satirical mastermind Ishmael Reed, Umar Rashid constructs new mythologies, fusing African and Eurocentric methodologies and reminding us that what we know as reality is in many cases rooted in fantasy. He accomplishes this by creating alternate realities guided by his mumbo jumbo of cultural influences that range from African Spirituality to contemporary Hotep ideology, to more traditional Eurocentric influences and present-day pop culture; all syncretized into a new and compelling narrative.
“What I do is take all that information I know about our people and I juxtapose that with what I was taught from Eurocentric sources. But it doesn’t stop there, because our existence as humans is all interconnected, whether it's Chinese history, Korean history or Greek or Scandinavian history. Especially because Black people are and were all over the planet. So, Black history is world history,” says Rashid.
Loosely based on the cult classic film, The Warriors, Umar’s exhibition at Half Gallery submerges us into his created world of the Frenglish Empire (a mix of the French and English empires), but specifically into the region of New York within that narrative. It is a period after his fictitious Battle Of New York where the Dutch have lost their power and influence over New York and where various military factions and crews are vying for control of the region. Reminiscent of the film The Warriors, with its portrayal of the different street gangs of 1970’s New York, a large part of his exhibition documents these warring crews or posses through portraits of them in their identifying uniforms and military regalia. In one image, Umar portrays the Harlem Knights in their armor, a play on words harkening back to the 80’s film Harlem Nights.
“I love to play with images and syncretism, but I also like to play with language. From the film Harlem Nights, I was like 'Aha! why don’t I give them armor?' You know in The Warriors there was the one gang who had baseball bats and clown makeup. I just wanted everybody in the paintings to be like military companies and to have their own identifying markers,” Rashid says.
In another image, Umar immortalizes the Park Side Killaz, a street gang from Philly made popular by '80s rapper Schooly D. In Umar's Frenglish narrative, they are mercenaries from Philadelphia who came to New York to assist the Harlem Knights in their quest to take control of Harlem.
Umar delves deeper into this narrative, creating individual portraits of essential characters in his Frenglish storyline. For these images, he enlisted his friends to sit down for portraits, basing these characters off of people in his actual life and inserting them into his mythology. The portrait of Kweku is of a high-ranking official who served under Horace, the Guyanese Warlord and King of Harlem. Horace, the King of Harlem is an important figure in Umar’s Frenglish narrative. He arrived in New York from Guyana by way of the Dutch and, with his military crew, the Bartica Brigade, sacked the city of Harlem during the Battle of New York. There he created his own fiefdom before being assassinated and leaving his stronghold in Harlem up for grabs.
In the image entitled (We Got) Djed Homies, Royal Sigil of the House of Horace and Isabel, the former rulers of Harlem, we see the sigil of Horace the Guyanese King. The 18th and 19th centuries were a time when European rulers were going to Africa and specifically Egypt, excavating and looting the pyramids, unearthing mummies, and attributing themselves to Egyptian gods. In the creation of this sigil, Umar wanted to show that Horace, whose name is similar to the Egyptian god, Horus, was doing the same things to commemorate the growth of his fiefdom in Harlem. The sigil is evocative of the cult of Osiris, the god of the dead and lord of resurrection. In the center of the image is the Atef Crown, the crown of Osiris, and two brothers in a Kangol and newspaper boy hat are seen holding the Egyptian Djed columns. In the title of this piece, Umar once again plays with language, attributing the term Djed homies to the popular colloquial term “dead homies.” In this image, the two brothers are being resurrected by Osiris so that they can fight again. This piece is also evocative of a new dichromatic style that Umar has been experimenting with in his more recent works and which we will see more of in the future.
In the image entitled The Death of Cyrus by the Coward Luther. He was the best of us. Our Shanhasha, Umar Rashid pulls directly from the storyline of The Warriors. The plot of this cult classic revolves around the murder of Cyrus, the Warlord of the Grammercy Riffs. Rival gang member Luther murdered Cyrus after calling a meeting to unite the street gangs of 1970’s New York City. In this piece, Umar portrays Cyrus as an Afro Persian man who traveled to New York as a mercenary and tried to unite all the factions of New York to challenge the rule of Joe, the current King of New York, before being tragically assassinated. All the motifs in the painting are from Persian rugs and utilize Persian iconography. Umar also included hobo symbols. In the writing system of Hobo Hieroglyphics, a pyramid with hands up, which is seen in Umar's painting, is a warning to alert hobos of danger and to let them know that a man with a gun lives in that location. In this piece, you can also see a depiction of Megatron, which Umar describes as a perfect villain and whose usage in his works exists as an all-encompassing representation of the evils of European Imperialism. By making Cyrus an Afro Persian, Umar was choosing to shed light on a lesser-known aspect of history surrounding the Afro Persians that inhabit the South of Iran.
“A lot of people don’t talk about the Afro Persian legacy. There’s tons of them in the South. People don’t know about the Zanj Rebellion. That was mostly done by the Marsh Arabs, who were mostly Black people working in that region because nobody else could work there because you would get malaria. So somewhere along the line, Bantu speaking people from the Eastern Coast of Africa were imported long ago to work in Iran. Whenever they show the war, they never show all the Black people there. When you talk about Iran, you think about the Ayatollah and their pale skin and all that, but there’s history that we don’t know about. But then again, if you hate somebody, it’s easier to make it seem as if they are one thing, as if they have one face," says Rashid.
In a time when historians are actively reevaluating what is considered canonical history, Umar Rashid’s work exists as a powerful road map to identify some of the gaps that still exist within the fabric of the stories we tell about the history of the world. This is especially true when talking about Africa and its interconnection with Eurasia or even the stories of freed Blacks in the Americas. Historians routinely reject the whole notion that Black people could have existed in some regions of the world and further, were influential in shaping the culture of these regions, although all evidence points to the contrary. Further, our stories, histories, and cultures, regardless of race or ethnic background, are far more interconnected than conventional history would make it seem. This exhibition at Half Gallery is the first of a six-part series where Umar is filing in the last gaps in his created narrative of the Frenglish Empire in America. He has been exploring this narrative in the Americas for the last decade. Going forward, he will begin focusing on relocating the story to Europe and Africa in future exhibitions. Ancien Regime Change, Part One / Can you Dig It? / A Dirge for Cyrus and his Band of Warriors is on view to the public at the Half Gallery in the East Village until Dec 22nd. WM
Emann Odufu is a freelance, emerging art and culture critic, curator, and filmaker who has written articles about assorted art shows over the past year. His work can be found in publications such as the NY Times, Hyperallergic, Brooklyn Rail, Office Magazine and Document Journal. Most recently he has curated Money, a solo exhibition of artist Samuel Stabler, currently on display at the National Arts Club.
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