It’s not hard to forget the allure of old maps in history textbooks. Spidery script scratched out with quill pens on sheets of yellowed leather and old-fashioned papyrus with all the menacing curls and cuts of a pirate’s treasure map. Bloody beheadings, naval battles, and first contacts dance in small pictures over the wavy lines and curving contours representing oceans and islands, mountains and rivers. Unknown treasures and almost certain death. Here there be lions. Faced with the mysteries of the world we have, history books tempt the curious with facts and educated guessing about all the secrets of how the world came to be, or even hinting perhaps at others ways it could have been.
Umar Rashid goes by many names. Kent Cyclone, The Grim Teachaz, and most often Frohawk Two Feathers. This last name arrived according to its bearer on the wings of a hawk swooping through the hard blue of a Los Angeles afternoon when this Chicagoan, far from home, looked skyward for a direction, a voice, a story. A nom-de-guerre, a persona, one part punk Afrofuturism, one part indigenous homage, Two Feathers is a tireless visual chronicler of a history that Rashid’s invented.
The artist has crafted an alternative history of the Americas, cast with villains and heroes, soldiers and warriors, aristocrats and chiefs, their faces usually modeled after those of Rashid’s friends and colleagues in Los Angeles. His visual inspiration pulls from the art of the indigenous nations of the Great Plains, Mayan codices, George Catlin’s ethnographic paintings of the 1800s, and 18th century European portraiture, all this along with the tattered maps and simple sketches of colonists and explorers coming to the Americas from across the Atlantic. Americans collectively live in the debris of that collision.
A few of Rashid’s predecessors have also found force in rethinking the corruptions of the past and the present with a dream of alternatives, reflections on who we are and where we might go. Sun Ra’s Arkestra took us to outerspace, Iain M. Banks imagined a civilization without scarcity, Octavia Butler remade the hierarchies of society with hybridities of sexuality, ethnicity, and species.
Two Feathers largely chronicles the history of the Frenglish Empire (the imagined political union of France and England, of course) during the colonial period with all the ethnic mixing, strange turns, and wild inventions that come out of such a proposition. His histories have all the nerdy joy of a kid wide-eyed over a textbook, eyeballing with glee the maps and uniforms of admirals and warriors, medicine men and murderers, but also the fervor to conceive of a world. Rashid remixes what we know into something else, equally complex and violent, but different and with all the possibility that can come with that.
Though he only began exhibiting recently under his birth name, Rashid has found a practice outside of his Frenglish speculations via Two Feathers, an investigation of his own history. His Southern family migrated to Chicago and this work reflects the negotiations and often harsh realities of being black in the United States during a long, tragic period of American history. Still in progress, this series promises to add another rich layer to Rashid’s beautifully fresh and geeky speculative fictions, deepening the strange stories of what might have been with the sharpness of what was and is.