Kinstler Conversation with Umar Rashid
By Maddie Klett
The following is a conversation with Los Angeles based artist Umar Rashid. This interview took place in January 2022 and has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you begin this triptych The Battle of Malibu (In Three Parts) 1795? You made it for Made in L.A. at the Hammer Museum in 2020, and you do a period of research for each series, could you talk about that process?
Let's start with some background information. I recreate a slightly skewed version of actual history. A lot of people say it is a reinvention, but I basically draw from actual historical sources to bring light to other people and narratives. It’s not about depicting the Europeans and all the luminaries, or the trope of the noble savage or anything like that. I make it look more like walking down the street today. Because one day in the future, when you look at what's happening now, some people ain't gonna make the cut and I get it. They're not gonna make the history books, but they exist and they're here and they contributed to this moment as much as anyone else.
I wanted to do that with history because, being a Black American, I never saw myself in the history books. So that's where I started this thing a long time ago. I also love meeting people, and I get more connected to people by reading their histories. So it's not just a history about African Americans, it's a history of the world. There are a lot of horrible things that happened in history-land, but also some really amazing things that we don't really talk about.
With this triptych, I actually started this story in like 2002 with a series called The Tales of Heroism. They were these little comic strips I would do. And I would talk about the race to get to the Northwest Passage. All of these countries were trying to find another route to Asia. And the whole reason why the Spanish sought this route was because they didn't wanna pay the Ottoman’s taxes to go through the Mediterranean. The Spanish just happened to land in a place where there were people, and all of that went up in flames, like real fast. A lot of these things aren't really planned, there are some happy accidents and there are some horrible accidents.
Since then, I’ve made work about the period after the death of Oliver Cromwell and the death of Louis XIV of France, and I created this big empire called Frenglish with Britain's navy and France’s land army—a totally unstoppable force. They go to all these places, make treaties, make deals. After that I focused on a Dutch English conflict for like 10 years and that culminated in the show at the Hudson River Museum in 2015, where I did a publication called Kill Your Best Ideas - The Battle for New York and its Lifeline, the Hudson River. After that I returned to a California narrative with a show that opened in Sacramento at the Crocker Museum. And then I did exhibitions in Los Angeles and in San Francisco, and I thought that I was ending that narrative with a show in Tucson called What is the Color, When Black is Burned?
When the Hammer Museum called, they were like, the work is for our Made in L.A. exhibition, so it's gotta be about LA. So I took something outta all these California stories I did. I also wanted to do something hilarious, so I thought “The Battle of Malibu let's do that!” because I was in Malibu, hanging with friends. That battle never happened. So why not? I had done research on the Chumash, and the Gabrielino-Tongva, the indigenous politic of present day Los Angeles. LA was also populated by mestizos, Blacks from Mexico, at the time. Then the missionaries got here and, as they always do, spread disease, brought about the brutality of conversion, the loss of culture. But there were several uprisings against them, and you never hear about the uprisings. One in particular was in Los Angeles. I think the culprits were punished, but I wanted to do a story where everyone got together and fought against the Spanish in some spectacular way. The Battle of Malibu, just crazy stuff: people on surfboards, Aztec warriors, Spanish missionaries flying around like Neo from The Matrix with energy fields and trying to convert people, sea monsters coming in and a Black Jesus floating in a Corvette.
Are there art historical inspirations for this painting style? With all of these micro-narratives taking place?
Hieronymus Bosch is one of my favorite painters. I just love the scope of his imagination. And The Battle of Malibu was meant to be informative in a sense that it was a triumph we never got a chance to see for the indigenous politic of California. But also a hilarious look at how ridiculous colonialism truly is. We still do the same things today, ruining people for profit.
That whole area would’ve been New Spain in 1975, when I placed the battle. Because the Mexican War of independence happened in 1810. The Battle of Malibu is meant to be about what leads up to that revolution. I write all of these stories down.
You follow such an ardent timeline, in terms of historical time. Those parameters seem to allow for some freedom for imagination, for you to depict scenarios that are in some ways based on known or accepted histories and are, in other ways, fantastical.
With the timeline thing… how I think… I'm just a weird dude. I just love being weird and changing people's perception of things. I didn't go to art school, but my dad's a playwright, so I grew up in the theater. In terms of the language that I use, a lot of it is informed by theatrical stuff. Even when I go to openings, I'll come through in a cape. It's always very grandiose because I grew up in this realm. So with the work that I create, it mirrors me. I always tell people that I am my art. I've been doing these historical works for twenty years. It is nothing new to me. And I've been trying to explain it through my work for years.
I'll always try to sneak a little joke in. Like in The Battle of Malibu it also references a lot of pop culture. When I thought about the Franciscan monks and The Matrix, I was like, “oh my God, this is gonna be so hilarious.” I have a desire to have this dialogue with all these people, so everybody can partake and enjoy some aspect of it… it's like a cheese pizza.
How did you decide that you were done with this triptych?
I've never done, man.
You had to ship it to the museum at some point.
Sometimes that’s the only way. Because I'm never done. I will just marinate on it forever and wanna keep working. And this one has three parts. For the first part, the painting for the puzzle [Part One, See battle. Little red corvette] I knew I wanted to come from the East. For the middle work [Part Two, The death of Father Wiyot. If we can do this to a god, imagine what we'll do to you] it represents all the cosmic information. And then the last one is from the West [Part three, Surfriders vs the Jaguars from Mars].
The colors are just dizzy, because it's such a busy work. I loved working in this way. My daughter would paint some parts and I had my friend who I shared a studio with helped me with some of it. It was really fun to make. I would be in my living room making all of these drawings, every last single one of them. And it just turned into The Battle of Malibu one day.
You sketch things out first and then put those on the canvas?
Yeah. I don’t tell people I'm a painter so much, I'm more of a storyteller-illustrator. I paint and I like putting colors together, but I'm not classically trained. I pretty much learned as I went along, I take from a lot of different sources. So for this one, things were taken from Native American legends, Turkish miniature painting, and some Neolithic art; these people who lived thousands of years ago telling stories. That's what we do as human beings. We tell our stories. I work in the tradition of the original storyteller… nothing too complex, but something very complex, but also very simple at the same time.
Thinking about the hero narrative, with a winner and the loser… I can't tell who is winning and losing at any point in The Battle of Malibu. Which is very exciting.
In war nobody wins. 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.
Do you like puzzles? Do your kids like puzzles?
No, I don't. I don't really have time because of the puzzles I make… if you look carefully at The Battle of Malibu you can see where I made all the drawings on letter sized paper. It's all a puzzle. It's all pieced together with 8 ½ x 11 sheets of paper. It is a puzzle, so I guess I do like puzzles.
What is puzzling you today?
What puzzles me the most is why can't we have a moratorium on ignorance? Why does the government still pursue wars when they are peaceful methods out there where you can still profit? Why is everything so over sexualized but kids can't wash dishes? <laugh> That's a list of what puzzles me at the moment.
That's a good list. I’ve gotta think on some of those, especially the dishes one. I need to do some myself…