BRUCE CLARKE ¦ BIRTH OF AN ICON ¦ AN ARTISTIC INVESTIGATION OF OUR HISTORY
I met Bruce Clarke by chance. He was standing in a moving bus in Dakar. We were both about to fly back to Brussels. Our brief chat informed me that Bruce was coming back from the island of Gorée, where he was showing his life-size works of Sea Ghosts. This travelling series of paintings by Clarke is foremost a homage to the political and economic refugees who fall victim to trans-Mediterranean human trafficking. Men and women are painted into the water; Clarke artistically merging their body and soul with the sea that claimed them, forever. Although I missed the exhibition at that time, I discovered it later, on the artist’s website, and could not help but noticing the disturbing echo with Gorée’s darkest history. The island was once a very active hub for the trans-Atlantic slave trade, mostly from the XVIIth - XIXth Century. In some way we are all witnesses of the human drama going on every day all over the planet and while most of us stay fatalistically on the sidelines, many men, women and children are actively trying to better things, for themselves and for others. Bruce Clarke is one of them. Without label, I would consider him to be an activist artist, moved by a soul and a spirit that he translates into artistic gesture and shares with passion.
Months later I asked Bruce if he would want to create paintings for this exhibition, to narrate a visual story with his most recent work. What surfaced was a triangle of the human condition, a sort of philosophical questioning of what makes us who we are. And although this combination of three series of paintings offers some answers, it rather raises more questions, engaging the viewer’s subjective reading of the visual narration, and hopefully debate and sharing. For only through engaging into thoughtful communication can such world issues (as migration, resistance, genocide…) be deciphered and perhaps healed and prevented.
Such engaging reactions to works of art could seem abstract and blurry to many but Clarke’s murals and installations of his works in public spaces leaves no viewer idle. His visual style is solidly figurative, thus championing its subject matter. A second visual layer revolves around the use of language, extracted from real news titles and written media coverage of current affairs mostly, deeply anchoring each series of paintings into its own time, sometimes more, sometimes less. The third dimension of his art as I see it is color. Notably, his remarkable orange that I personally associate with fire, the fire of the heart, the fire of the mind, the fire that needs to spread for things to change.
This Fire, Bruce talks about it in his gripping portrait of Angela Davis, which he titled after James Baldwin’s novel The Fire Next Time. Perhaps it is interesting to start with her Icon (from the 8 Icons Series paintings in our show) as she is the only one of them still living. The other human beings he portrays, who became Icons through their actions and ideas, now mostly live on through the spectrum of their very icons. Angela Davis, like nearly all others in this series of Clarke, was an outcast, an undesired, a hunted exile. These icons that we so often look up to in order to illustrate or emulate ideals of human resolve, of revolutionary spirit against injustice, these “modern martyrs”, were once outcasts, non grata, forced into exile, retreat, imprisonment or crime before society selectively altered its view of what they stood for.
Clarke’s other portraits of Mandela, Devi, Sankara, Fanon, Lumumba, Pankhurst, Michel and Louverture have in common their proportional iconic frontality as if filmed by the same lens, while in reality their lives were uniquely different, yet icons are often pantheonized according to History’s fragmentary standardization of the truth. As much as we long to be told tales of the prevailing of justice, each of the struggles that brought justice were and are in fact unique journeys, most personal and complex. For me, Clarke’s seemingly uniform formal approach of these Icons is an invitation to look deeper into who they were and what they stood for, to dive into the literature extracts in their background and the washed-out images hiding in their shadows.
Discovering that first series led me to question who these people were before they became activists and revolutionaries? How did their intent form and why? In common, our icons traveled around, by will or by force, and moving has always been a trigger for thinking outside of the box. The grass is certainly not always greener elsewhere but there is greatness everywhere and there are other models that we can learn from to help our societies at home - a sort of societal biodiversity that has been vital to our species’ survival. Thousands of migrants reach the European shores every year, in hope of a better future. This ongoing phenomenon that has been peaking again this last decade has exacerbated political divide throughout Europe, threatening perhaps the Union’s very existence, while the fundamental question has been blinded out by the intestine debate over the migrants. Who are these faces coming off the boats? What is the intention of these men walking in our direction? What do these women and children want? A better life, sure, but what better life? In Ready for This (2016), about 20 men walk towards us, some of them mere shadows. As their faces and the title suggest (a title which appears in a dark shadowed newspaper collage in the center), their mind is set on something – intent generating movement, after what must have been a heavy choice, to risk all, leave everything behind and embrace hope.
Is it not their intentions rather than the men that scare us? We instinctively fear what we don’t know. Without dialogue it goes without saying we’ll never know. Perhaps it is a recurring historical irony that our downfall may once again be the result of our stubborn ignorance. What Bruce Clarke proposes with this second series dedicated to Migrants is a study of people in movement, both physical and intellectual. Each of his group portraits plays with our perception of an undefined human mass in a different way, sometimes capturing specific expressions in detail, sometimes blurring them slightly or completely to remove our understanding of what these people want. The Migrants Series has been one of the artist’s main subjects of research over the past ten years. Human beings have always migrated, throughout history, often clashing over territory, water, resources and beliefs. Clarke’s XXIst Century artistic study of this phenomenon and his invitation to investigate how many of tomorrow’s icons hide in today’s masses is a stimulating approach to elevate the debate.
The third series is the most recent one in Clarke’s work. Suspensions poetically freezes victims of trauma in time and in space. The five suspended full-body portraits shown here make me think of prisons of the mind, where people whose lives have been cancelled by war, genocide, rape or torture are stuck in a moment they can never escape from. Their existence sometimes continues in parallel. They survive on the outside but are trapped on the inside. With his painting titled Sens/Feel, the artist depicts the subject in a pose of physical suffering, his hands opened in demand, his facial expression almost lost in the shadows. This painting, like others in this series, is reminiscent of a Christian tradition of portrayal of the Saints in suffering, in demand of God’s guidance, in need of faith. If their lives have become prisons, how to escape? How to be reborn? Perhaps here again, movement is a solution, shaking off the ashes of a burned soul to be reborn as someone else, with new beginnings, new challenges and a future. With such a reading, I can personally connect all three series of paintings into a narrative triangle or circle that can lead to more openness of mind and of heart, helping us focus on the win-win rather than on the lose-lose to help the icons of tomorrow to be born out of the forced journeys of today.
Klaus Pas, September 2018
BIRTH OF AN ICON (of outcasts and exiles) ¦ “You’re a nigger too.” James Baldwin speaking to Elia Kazan
Angela Davis once banished, hunted down and condemned by the establishment is now revered as an iconic intellectual and forceful voice for woman’s rights and black emancipation. She could, just as easily have been slain in her youth as her companion, George Jackson was. She was forced into internal exile, underground, to survive.
The line between fame and ignominy is fine. It depends on time; it depends on surviving, on holding onto your ideas and your life. And so often involves exile, foreign or local.
Exceptions exist. Thomas Sankara was cut down early, but his legacy goes on, as does Lumumba’s. Their foothold in history remains strong, too strong for their successors to extirpate.
Had Mandela died in prison, would he be lauded as he is today?
Famous exiles, migrants, from Einstein to Freud, from Marx to Lenin, Dante to the Dalai Lama, Victor Hugo, Louise Michel, or even Seneca found fame and flourished in exile. An idol in exile is far from an idle idol.
Other less well-known migrants build wealth and wisdom, culture and cognizance in foreign lands. In August 2018, the Fields prize – the equivalent of the Nobel for mathematicians – was won by an Iranian Kurdish refugee who had fled to Britain several years earlier.
In Syria, Sudan, Somalia, in Eritrea and Turkey, in many other countries, the vital forces of societies are massacred and silenced. Forced to flee, humiliated on their journey, dehumanised on their arrival. How many, Einsteins or Hugos, how many Steve Jobs or Elia Kazans are amongst them?
In 1938, at the Conference of Evian – called to discuss the flow of Jewish migrants and attended by 32 countries - the Dominican Republic, alone, agreed to accept Jewish refugees. Short-term political expediency in dealing with the “migrant problem” is not new. A year later, in 1939 the St Louis ocean liner made the journey from Hamburg to Cuba with a thousand refugees aboard, mostly Jewish. Under pressure from the USA, Cuba refused permission for the passengers to land as of course did the USA and Canada. The ship was obliged to return to Europe. A last luxury Caribbean cruise for most of the passengers who disappeared into the maelstrom of Nazi occupied Europe. Freud and Einstein, luckily, took another ship.
The migrants who opt to cross the Mediterranean today “by boat” will see the historical irony in the voyage of the St Louis. History repeats itself in pathetic farce at enormous human cost.
Not all migrants become idols in a foreign land, but what idols and migrants have in common is their humanity. And what is undeniable is that new blood, new ideas, nourish and nurture us, make us more human.
By bringing together these apparently dissociated themes, Icons and Migration, I attempt to underline the way in which seemingly unrelated phenomena in this world can converge giving us a different perspective and understanding of contemporary events. I believe that in the simplicity of stating evidences through painting we can better apprehend the world.
Bruce Clarke, September 2018