Fahamu Pecou and Jose Parla in a parallel universe

Two painters reflect on Wifredo Lam's influence in 'Imagining New Worlds'

Fahamu Pecou and José Parlá had never met before collaborating for the High Museum of Art's current Wifredo Lam retrospective, Imagining New Worlds. But it didn't take long for them to find common ground — and discover they had common friends in the art world. "It felt like we'd known each other forever," Pecou says. While Atlanta-based Pecou has used self-portraiture to explore the fractured state of black male identity, Brooklyn-based Parlá focuses on the cultural upheaval of urban landscapes through his sculptural paintings. In conversation, they talked about their individual and collective response to the legacy of Lam, a Cuban-born, multiracial artist whose career spanned cultures while encompassing the breadth of the 20th century's artistic sweep — from realism to surrealism on down to postmodernism.

Wifredo Lam was heavily influenced by political goings-on in the world around him. How do you all see your work as a direct reflection of the current times?

José Parlá: Fahamu and I are probably in a position as young men that is probably incomparable to the struggles that people were having in the '40s, '50s, and '60s. There are still struggles, but the landscape is so different. That being said, in my work the kind of struggle that I project onto the paintings deals with a certain political state of mind that comes from the position of class, and I see some correlation to that in Lam's work, and also in Fahamu's work, dealing with class but also with race.

Fahamu Pecou: And my particular work is an ongoing look at the politics of identity. Thinking about notions of blackness, what it means to be black, and black masculinity — all of these different kinds of intersections around identity are really what I'm thinking about. Lam's work, as well, was also dealing with ideas around identity and blackness.

How did considering the evolution of Lam's work challenge you both to think about your own artistic growth or ways to expand upon your own palette?

FP: One of the things that really resonated in Lam's work is the way he syncretizes different movements. You see all of these different elements come together in his work and I really appreciate that. It's kind of like sampling. He's taking these different pieces and putting them together to create these new compositions and these new perspectives. This is, again, kind of the way that I began to approach my work. One of the things that I've been thinking about for a long time but haven't quite figured out how to bring into my work is my own relationship with Yoruba spirituality. I've kind of been masking it in some of my work in the past, but this exhibition allowed me to be a little bit more forthcoming with it and to deal with some of the notions of Orisha in Yoruba cosmology more directly. So that was really kind of liberating in a lot of ways. It gave me an ability to talk about that and to talk about how it connects to larger issues around blackness and how it has parallels to hip-hop and Negritude.

JP: When I started thinking about this project, I was working on a project called Segmented Realities at the same time and it made me think of how surrealism comes from the idea of heightened reality and dreams. I've always been interested in looking at cities in a way where I study the cities by studying the surfaces of walls. So I decided to do 10 sculptures that reflect different places that I've traveled to or lived in and documented. Each of these sculptural paintings that are presented as walls in the exhibition reflect a kind of heightened reality of a place. It is a work made-up to feel like a document from memory and it is built to look like a realistic wall. But the idea is always present that it's not real, that it is a piece of art, that it allows the imagination to conjure up this world. That was the connection that I found with Imagining New Worlds and the project with looking at Wifredo Lam, not only as a painter that I admire but also as someone who lived a migratory life.

A big thread in Lam's life and career was the influence of his peers. You see his work evolve as he comes into contact with other artists and schools of thought. How do you all think this collaboration might influence you individually, and what do you foresee yourselves taking away from this as a result of having worked together?

FP: On a professional level, being able to work with José has given me insight into some potential as far as being a practicing artist. Some of the accomplishments José has had are really amazing. I joke around with him [that] going to his studio in New York felt like when Martin [Lawrence said he] went to Eddie Murphy's house for the first time. [Martin] walked in and just turned into a little girl, like, "Wow, this is real nice, Eddie." Being able to see someone who is my contemporary, and to see what commitment and diligence to one's craft can yield has been really inspiring for me. I think this is the first major museum exhibition for both of us, and to be able to share that experience has been nothing short of amazing.

JP: Thank you, Fahamu. I look up to you, man. And I think everything that you're doing and everything that you've achieved on your own, too, is tremendous. Collaborating in the museum was also a really great way to understand each other and also to sort of put together some ideas that weren't just planned as we expected. We were able to communicate and figure out how to move things forward, and you always take away something from that. That kind of experience always resonates in future projects because you know you've been there before and you learn how to do new things.

FP: As you can hear, the bromance is real. But I also have a great deal of respect for Jose's entire aesthetic. I've learned a lot about his particular form of painting and the way he approaches the canvas or a wall or a surface. I think it was a mutual exchange in terms of just process, especially working together on the collaborative altar space. As he was saying we had a rough idea of what we wanted to do, but it would have been very difficult for us to articulate that prior to going into the room and putting paint on the wall. It really evolved. And I think there was also a lot of unspoken communication between the two of us. It just built from there.

This interview has been edited and condensed.