London

Umar Rashid (Frohawk Two Feathers), An Occidental Incident at the Oriental Gardens at Kew. A failed assassination attempt on Helen, the Crimson Queen, by disgruntled members of the Force Liberté, a guerilla unit operating in the African and Caribbean theatre. Atari., 2020, acrylic and ink on canvas, 44 × 30".

Umar Rashid (Frohawk Two Feathers), An Occidental Incident at the Oriental Gardens at Kew. A failed assassination attempt on Helen, the Crimson Queen, by disgruntled members of the Force Liberté, a guerilla unit operating in the African and Caribbean theatre. Atari., 2020, acrylic and ink on canvas, 44 × 30".

Umar Rashid (Frohawk Two Feathers)

Tiwani Contemporary

The botanical gardens of Kew were founded in 1759—roughly the midpoint of Umar Rashid’s epic, image-and-text fiction about the Frenglish Empire, an imagined colonial superpower that lasted from 1658 through 1880. The canvas whose very long title begins An Occidental Incident at the Oriental Gardens at Kew, 2020, presents rows of warring white and Black soldiers, all dressed in hybrid military costumes combining British redcoat elegance with Napoleonic finery. These stylized armies of nearly identical Black or white men—sometimes repeated like paper-doll cutouts, a few curiously sporting today’s pandemic-busting face mask—are principally engaged in hand-to-hand combat. Interspersed amid this strangely bloodless carnage are a few grinning ladies; the crowned woman in red is the fictitious Lady Helen Sidney of London, subject of the exhibition’s title, “In the Court of the Crimson Queen or White Lady on a Horse.” In a greenhouse at the picture’s top, a fallen white soldier prepares to die at the hand of his sword-thrusting Black opponent. The site is perhaps Kew’s actual Palm House, built in the mid-1840s to store what was often exotic botanical booty collected in pluck-and-keep empire-building missions around the globe.

Created since 2003 under Rashid’s pseudonym Frohawk Two Feathers, the centuries-long narrative of this imaginary empire combines invented peoples and events with real-life referents, such as Kew itself. Contrasting with An Occidental Incident’s flat, shadowless style—reminiscent of Native American ledger art or the work of Japanese-inspired painter Paul Jacoulet, whom Rashid admires—are the artist’s hyperdetailed, pen-and-ink-based paintings. These works include a suite of six small, glittering portraits, all dated 2020, depicting characters such as the beautiful Boudicca, a spy for the Force Liberté (an “ironically named” Black army, the artist writes). Rashid usually soaks his panels, canvases, and paper in black tea and coffee, which produce the black and brown hues of his characters’ skin color while recalling the cash crops of plantations dependent on enslaved people. Faces bear tattoos drawn from the artist’s “imperial tattoo system”: inked symbols (pyramids, coffins) that often signal membership in powerful paramilitary orders, perhaps a counter to the “epidermalization of inferiority” that Frantz Fanon theorized in Black Skin, White Masks (1952).

“I’m writing a history that I would have liked to have seen,” Rashid has said. His is not a sanitized retelling of the Age of Empire but a fiction foregrounding invented lives for the period’s erased people of color. Rashid’s project sits alongside many time-traveling constructs that retell and reimagine the world, assembling “countermemories that contest the colonial archive,” as theorist and filmmaker Kodwo Eshun has written of Afrofuturism. Artists and storytellers such as Rashid work like hackers, inserting themselves within history to reprogram it from the inside; meanwhile, historians reexamine records to correct “official” accounts. For example, two damning books reassessing Britain’s role in the slave trade, Michael Taylor’s The Interest and Padraic X. Scanlan’s Slave Empire, came out last year around the time of this exhibition—both timely reminders that passed-down history, too, is a semifictitious concoction.

Though some of Rashid’s artworks display the cartoonish, linear style of An Occidental Incident, others, such as A flag of the independent Kingdom of Harlem, 2020, are stitched textile works sometimes combining Egyptian motifs, stylized snakes, and gothic script. Some paintings feature exquisitely wrought detailing, for instance the mosaiclike folds and drapery of a beloved’s pink gown in You and me baby and nothing else. (Suite for young lovers) H lvs AL forever, 2018. Given the anachronisms, contrasting visual styles, and wildly complicated backstory, one might wonder how Rashid keeps his ambitious project so coherently together. What unifies his art is the warm dignity shared by his players and the spirit of triumph evident throughout: triumph in battle, but also the triumph of love, freedom, and the divine.