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Umar Rashid has spent 15 years developing a complex, epic, invented colonial history he calls the Frenglish Empire (1648–1880). This fictitious realm of Rashid’s creation reimagines the horrific global-colonial foundations on which much of the globalized world has been built. En Garde / On God, his latest exhibition at Blum & Poe, brought this narrative closer to home: Southern California at the end of the 18th century. Unflinching life-sized portraits, intricate battle scenes littered with anachronisms, and “historical” artifacts build out Rashid’s invented narrative, making the experience something like stepping into an alternate universe, albeit one that transmitted a biting critique of this one.
Recurring motifs emerge through the paintings with cartoonish, hard-edge facture: smirking three-headed friars observe territorial battles over native lands wherein casually depicted beheadings and amputations play out beneath looming California palm trees. Strewn amongst the conquerors, fighters, and victims, whose races and genders are often flipped in unexpected ways, buoyant touchstones of American culture of the past half-century appear: Megatron, the Silver Surfer, a Star Destroyer, and various automotive icons of the 1970s (always driven by a hip Black Jesus/white Jesus duo). Surreal and Afrofuturist characters in goggles and spacesuits join the everything-at-once, chaotic scenes like conduits between the past and future. Yet this funhouse of references also depicts the atrocities of history that the Saturday morning cartoon crowd has been spared.
Still, rather than trivialize the more atrocious battle scenes Rashid portrays, these near-forgotten nuggets of pop and cartoon nostalgia emphasize the inextricable link between historical brutality and the making of culture in that they are strung along the same timeline, depicted here with seemingly effortless strokes of paint. Time, space, politics, pop culture, violence, and levity collapse and foreground the profound interconnectedness of historical events to our present and future. Rashid implements a tilted picture plane, eliminating illusionistic depth, which seems to emphasize this further. The five battle paintings, for instance—each 72 inches square—spill their contents forward so that they’re all visible in one flattened plane, the relative scale between the elements blurred and irrelevant. In this compression of spatial and relative perspective, it seems fitting that historical time, reality, and fiction follow suit.
The two Battle of Coachella paintings, Part 1. Day 1. and Part 2. Day 2. (all works 2021; Rashid’s lengthy titles referencing misinformation, raids, and conversion therapy have been abbreviated for readability) depict a fictitious 18th-century battle in the Inland Empire, running concurrent to the eponymous music festival. In Part 1, the stage, its monolithic speakers, and a mariachi band dwarf the mayhem below. Judging by the many uniforms and styles of dress, more than two sides are fighting—although fighting may not be the best word, as many of the figures are simultaneously crowd surfing and lopping heads and arms off as the band goads them on. The “battle” conveys little sense of fury: the figures are in ambiguous poses that could be read as dancing or fighting, and their facial expressions do little to communicate anything more than a passive acceptance of their predicament. By mixing up the presumed understanding of events and pushing subjective experience to the fringes of coherence, Rashid not only makes a larger statement about history as being one-sided—and typically told by the victor—but also about the ease with which real brutality and violence are often erased or repackaged as entertainment.
This is possibly why Rashid’s speculative and extreme reimagination of history is so provocative and disarming: it is brazen and prods uncomfortable truths about those who have and continue to structurally benefit from the earliest appetites of empire. Perhaps the point is made in the title of the map first encountered when entering the gallery: Didn’t we almost have it all? Map of Alta California. 1795. The map, “aged” (and not insignificantly) with tea and coffee—two commodities that symbolize the distillation of conquest into capital and the ease with which price tags omit their violent costs—presents as a revised colonial map. Ships approaching from the West are dwarfed by the size of the figures on the mainland who raise their swords toward the sky. Their postures, paired with a banner emblazoned by the words “RISE UP RISE,” suggest that this land is not for the taking.
Together, the looming confrontation on the map and the scene in the painting ISS is Mission Control. Or, We won? bring the overarching narrative of the exhibition into focus. On a cosmic black and blue background, sci-fi references and floating mixtapes share space with Brown-skinned astronauts and Indigenous motifs painted on the side of a space capsule. A Star Destroyer crashes in a fiery explosion at the center of the canvas beneath an ominous red hand that reaches out to the viewer. Far from a utopian vision of the future, the work creates a loop that links the past, present, and future, both in Rashid’s imagined history and in reality. Presumably a vision of a world long after the defeat of the Frenglish, ISS portrays a time brimming with its own battles against alien and cybernetic forces, provoking possibilities for futures far different from those imagined by Star Wars audiences in 1977, 1999, and 2021. By slamming seemingly disparate elements together, Rashid’s paintings emphasize the brutal link between cultural production and human atrocity throughout American history. While this uncomfortable reality can and often is warped, reinterpreted, or ignored altogether, acknowledging it while imagining a more intersectional future may be a step toward creating a more liberated present.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 27