LOS ANGELES — The Ishtar Gate is painted Dodger blue, the shade named after the Los Angeles baseball team. Instead of lions and dragons, Umar Rashid’s recreation of the ancient Babylonian passageway features pitbulls and rattlesnakes as its sacred protectors. PER CAPITA, Rashid’s solo exhibition at Transformative Arts, is a playful, but critical, tribute to Los Angeles that rewrites its colonial history.
In Rashid’s paintings and sculptures, he scrambles cultural symbols and historical signifiers to invent an alternate timeline that shows Black and Indigenous people defeating colonizers. On “Per Capita” (2021), Black cavalrymen in European uniforms spar with a white army, the scene captured in a bright, ledger painting on cow hide, a traditional art of the Indigenous peoples of the Great Plains. Each soldier has a brushstroke covering his eyes, but on the two largest heads, those strokes become dueling laser beams, transporting the historical battle into the world of Afrofuturism.
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The series of drawings 40 Views of Colonial Fabric Softener (2019) reimagines the story of westward expansion. Instead of Lewis and Clarke and Sacagewea, our protagonists are Sydney and St. Marc and Mugwayan. Over 40 pages, drawn simplistically and reminiscent of a City Hall mural, the explorers — described as “trespassers” in Rashid’s titles — trade poison, poach bison, and attack Dakota warriors.
Despite the multilayered reference points, PER CAPITA always points back to Los Angeles. Rashid uses materials common to city life, like in “I Found the A” (2018), in which a prism is constructed from broken windshields and spray painted black so it shines like marble. In “Nancy Boi” (2020), Rashid has carved Anansi the trickster, the West African God known for changing into a spider to outwit his enemies, into a large slab of walnut, a tree native to Southern California. A small Dodger blue sculpture, “Yves Klein Garden Collection: Paws for the Kaws” (2021), portrays a guardian who protects the home, sporting a thick gold chain. In Rashid’s universe, old world spirituality has new world swagger.
Umar Rashid: PER CAPITA continues at Transformative Arts (410 S Spring Street, Downtown, Los Angeles) through June 30.