Atlanta’s civil rights legacy is a message of hope and of the persisting struggle so many have fought and died for to safeguard equality for all. Starting in the 1960s, the city stood as the cultural epicenter for a movement that would change the world as we see it today. From being the home of iconic civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the multitude of African-American churches and historically black colleges that have endured to this day, Atlanta’s civil rights story is one told through a wide variety of mediums, art being one of them.
Artist and scholar Fahamu Pecou describes how his style, influenced by creating for hip-hop culture and graphic design, took off in Atlanta, a place where artists can carve out their niche.
Take Atlanta artist, Fahamu Pecou. His inspired works speak volumes with an inherent bravado steeped in hip-hop and addressing common misconceptions about African-American culture. His stirring body of work has appeared in various collections including the Smithsonian National Museum of African American Art and Culture, the High Museum of Art and more. You can also see his most recent mural, titled "Rise Above" at the King Memorial MARTA station. We sat down with the scholar and artistic vanguard to explore ATL’s place in civil rights history, where he sees the city going and his favorite haunts.
See the "Rise Above" mural by Fahamu Pecou at King Memorial MARTA station.
What are top places and landmarks that represent Atlanta's civil rights legacy and progress?
Certainly, the MLK Historic District is a significant landmark in the city. My Inman Park Studio is walking distance from Auburn Avenue and its rich and storied history. I am also immensely impressed by the Center for Civil and Human Rights in downtown Atlanta. However, one of my favorite landmarks and examples of public art is the MLK sculpture on Freedom Parkway. It was one of the first pieces of public art I saw when I arrived in Atlanta. As an artist, the composition, design, material and simplicity of the piece are striking to me.
Visit the MLK Jr. birth home in Historic Old Fourth Ward.
What are your favorite places that you would take a visitor to explore the city's civil rights history?
Aside from the MLK District, I like to show parts of Atlanta that often get overlooked, especially as it pertains to the legacy of civil rights and the advancement of black people. Particularly, Atlanta’s West End community comes to mind. The Atlanta University Center (AUC), home to Spelman, Morehouse, Clark Atlanta University (CAU) and Morris Brown is a treasure, but a lot of people never get to experience it. The history of the AUC alone should be enough to keep that area jumping with tourists, but for now it remains my little secret. There are several gems in terms of art, culture and history that go beyond the student experience and really speak to the legacy of great voices, minds and hands that have helped shape this city. The Spelman College Museum of Fine Art has a dynamic exhibition program focused on the work of black women artists, in addition to various programs and events. The famed Hale Woodruff murals and extensive collection of African-American art at the CAU galleries are out of this world. Anybody interested in art and especially black art must visit CAU to see the collection. It's a bit surreal to have such a significant representation of black art in the city, but it remains relatively untapped.
The West End is also home to the Hammonds House Museum and The Wren’s Nest. Both institutions provide a wealth of culture and context in the city. I enjoy deviating from the beaten path and sharing parts of Atlanta that are essential to the bigger picture.
What does Atlanta mean to you?
Although I didn’t grow up in Atlanta; I "grew up" in Atlanta. By that I mean, the man I’ve become -- the way I move in the world, my voice, my vision, my identity have all been informed by my experiences in this city. This was the city I landed in when I took off on my own at 18. For some people, their identities are shaped over time through experiences in a variety of places. For others, the place they were born and raised holds deep, deep significance. But I feel lucky that I was able to discover myself here, and the impact has been substantial. Atlanta is a place of dynamic energy. The city is constantly reinventing, renewing, regenerating. As a creative person, that kind of energy is both refreshing and encouraging, and it has allowed me to reinvent myself while staying true at the same time.
It's worth a trip to see the new MLK Jr. statue at the Georgia State Capitol.
What is your “dream” version of Atlanta? What’s the vibe like?
It’s difficult to say that I have any dream for Atlanta that isn’t already a reality. But I’ll say this: My hope is that Atlanta will see the value it brings rather than fixating on aspirations to be like someplace else. Over the years I’ve heard Atlantans compare the city to New York, Houston, Charlotte and, now at times, L.A. But we already have an L.A. and a Houston; Atlanta doesn’t need to aspire to be the New York of the South. My dream would be that Atlanta recognizes Atlanta as the unique and beautiful gem that it is. I am proud to say I’m from Atlanta when I travel because there is no place else like it.
What’s your favorite memory since you’ve lived in ATL?
Besides meeting my wife and the birth of my children, I would say one of my most favorite memories was working with Organized Noise and the Dungeon Family in 2015 to curate the exhibit “The Art of Organized Noise” as a part of Elevate 2015. When I arrived here in ’93, the Dungeon Family was just starting to make a name for itself. I was deeply inspired by their music, consciousness, innovation, creativity -- you name it. I honestly credit Outkast and Goodie Mob for getting me over and through some trying times. So it was a pleasure to work with Rico Wade, Sleepy Brown and Ray Murray among others and go through their archives to produce an exhibit telling the story of the collective and its impact on the city and hip-hop at large. It's not often one gets to work so intimately with his heroes, and that experience is definitely up there with me for being my most favorite memory and proudest moment.
What are your go-to eats in the A? Drinks?
I’m vegan (though I do occasionally eat fish) and my wife is a celebrity vegan chef so I don’t eat out too often. But when I do I love going the unconventional route. My wife and I typically explore the more international side of Atlanta to try foods from different cultures. We frequent Buford Highway to try new restaurants or to just go to the different Farmers Markets and stores. We also love Jia in Ponce City Market and Ghion Cultural Hall for Ethiopian food. My favorite place to go for drinks and ambiance is The Consulate, my boy Mike Jones (aka Mike the Mix-Logic) is a wizard behind the bar. My (not-so) guilty pleasure is Revolution Doughnuts or Southern Sweets Bakery because your boy loves cake like a fat kid loves cake.
The "Homage to King" sculpture resides on Freedom Parkway.
What’s song should be Atlanta’s city anthem?
I actually would love to see Killer Mike and 2 Chainz do an Atlanta anthem produced by Mike Will Made -- It. Maybe they’ll let me get a verse in, too.
Last, you mentioned in your video that your Atlanta is “milk.” Can you explain that?
Atlanta is "Mother’s Milk." By that I mean everything you need to nurture, grow and feed your dreams is right here in this city. Atlanta gave life to me and she’s getting the most amazing card come Mother’s Day.
Chris Watkins is an Atlanta-based writer and photographer and serves as the voice of Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau (@DiscoverAtlanta) on social media. You can follow him on Instagram @christopherbw.
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