In the study of history, documents reign supreme. The legacy of an entire people can hinge on what was—and wasn’t—written. But for Los Angeles-based artist Umar Rashid (also known by the moniker Frohawk Two Feathers), the most powerful question a historian can ask is, “how?” What would the past look like if marginalized voices buried in the footnotes of history spoke for themselves?
These possibilities come alive in Rashid’s fabulist alternate history of colonization in America. His narrative puts Black perspectives in particular front and center—an antidote to the absence of his own ancestors in the official national record. “Growing up, I realized I didn’t necessarily belong to this world where I couldn’t see myself,” explains Rashid. “For most Black Americans, we think our history began in slavery. But there is such a rich cultural tapestry that we have to own. It benefits the whole world to know that this singular narrative is not the only truth.”
Set between 1658 and 1880 in Frengland (a portmanteau for his invented union of French and English colonies), his legend features a swashbuckling cast of characters entangled in epic romances and rivalries, from tyrannical lords to formerly enslaved rebels. Though tied to a specific colonial period, this world is an anachronistic remix of aesthetics: where ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and French Romantic paintings meld with comic books and 1990s hip-hop. As such, Rashid’s output runs the gamut in style and medium; his paintings range from formal portraiture to sweeping battlefield tableaux. He fleshes out this invented universe with relics of empires like flags and maps.
The artist’s world-building deepens in dimension with his ongoing saga depicting Indigenous insurrection in the Spanish colonial missions of Los Angeles, as shown in the recent “Made in L.A. 2020: a version” exhibition at the Hammer. This marks just the latest thread in the annals he has written outlining this parallel universe, which he grounds in extensive research into our reality. These stories implicitly question how we remember the past. “What we know as history is a small fraction of what really took place because we get this sanitized version by our conquerors,” notes Rashid. His works suggest that perhaps with more inclusive viewpoints, history’s imperial violence doesn’t have to repeat itself. “Because ultimately,” says Rashid, “what I want is to see a different future.”
PHOTOS BY CHRISTINA GANDOLFO