Umar Rashid: The Frenglish, Black Jesus, and the Battle of Malibu
Umar Rashid (also known as Frohawk Two Feathers) compares his triptych The Battle of Malibu (In Three Parts) 1795 to a cheese pizza in our conversation in in early 2022. It is the flavor, that, in his words, “everybody can partake and enjoy” and there is indeed something for everyone in the panoply of pop cultural and historical invocations appearing on part 1 from the series, the painting depicted on the artist’s Kinstler puzzle: See battle. Little red corvette.
Colonial-era redcoats battle warriors from tribes native to coastal Southern California (Chumash and Gabrielino-Tongva, according to the artist). Other creatures also brawl: a heroically proportioned Zeus in the Greek classical style; the kind of mythical sea monster found on an old map; giant flying tigers; monks levitating like in The Matrix; and, per the title, a Black Jesus in a little red Corvette. The cheese pizza line came from a moment when Rashid made himself laugh as he imagined this cast of characters: “When I thought about the Franciscan monks and The Matrix, I was like, “oh my God, this is gonna be so hilarious.” That popular recognition is, in his works, “ a desire to have this dialogue with all these people.”
With this mixing of historical and fictional protagonists, it is often unclear in the painting who is on each side of the fight over Malibu, and there is certainly no way of knowing the winner. When I bring this up to the artist he responds “In war nobody wins” following with, “I mean, In The Battle of Malibu the uprising does actually manage to turn the tide a bit. But it’s not meant to be super clear.”
The Battle of Malibu, according to history books, never took place in 1795. Or ever, really. Rashid’s statement about winners and losers follows the logic of a timeline of the artist’s own creation, which tracks the formation of a super-force imperial army (the “Frenglish” is Britain's navy merged with France’s army) and their conquesting exploits across North America. It is a counterhistory Rashid has been forming for almost twenty years, and each piece of the saga often relates to the region where the artist exhibits: the Hudson River Museum; the University of Arizona Museum of Art; and finally to Southern California, where the Battle of Malibu premiered at the UCLA Hammer Museum for their biennial show Made in L.A. 2020: a version.
While the scene of See battle. Little red corvette is fantastical, Rashid’s imagining is also a reminder that history is, indeed, a retelling. The mechanizations of storymaking are therefore already in play in all constructions of history, and Rashid’s extreme renditions throw into focus the central questions of any revisitist project: Who are the major players? What did it look like? What are the consequences?
Rashid adds one more consideration: can it be funny?