Profile on Michèle Pearson Clarke
For her latest work, a solo show presented at Gallery 44 entitled A Welcome Weight on My Body, visual and media artist Michèle Pearson Clarke is making her individual vulnerability the focus. Following a summer spent learning film photography with mentor Brendan George Ko, Clarke is presenting the results of her new skills to the public. “I’m showing the good, the bad, the ugly,” she explains of the show which features portraits of Black people in Toronto.
Clarke created this exhibition, in part, to give audiences insight into how she works. Initially working in health promotion after receiving two degrees in psychology and social work, Clarke began making art in 2003. Learning new artistic craft was and continues to be a focus of her practice. A Welcome Weight on My Body disrupts some of the narratives surrounding mastery and genius. Clarke recounts a time where she was shown one of famed photographer William Eggleston’s contact sheets, and felt amazed when she saw 23 flawed photos among one ideal image. “[T]he narrative around mastery and particularly white male genius is that every time they touch the shutter, it’s a moment of genius, and it’s not true!” she says.
Clarke’s work explores queer and Black diasporic longing and loss, where her subjects are frequently asked to be vulnerable. “I think the themes that I explore are directly shaped by my previous career… I’ve been working with people and what we think of as difficult issues, and vulnerability, and emotional states for my whole career and it’s what I do as an artist.” Clarke uses photography, video and installation to realize her work. “Longing and loss makes most people uncomfortable, and using representational strategies that allow my audiences to engage with that discomfort hopefully facilitates more openness,” she says.
Being an artist was not something that Clarke imagined for herself in early life. Growing up in Trinidad, her mother used to take her to see art – mainly painting and drawing exhibitions – but it wasn’t until she moved to Canada in 1992 that she was exposed to contemporary art. “After I came out, I started to volunteer with the Inside Out LGBT Film and Video Festival just to meet other queer folks, and that’s when I was first exposed to short films and experimental films and I kind of fell in love with the possibilities,” she explains.
Since the creation of her first piece (Surrounded by Water, an experimental short documentary which was created as part of LIFT’s Guerilla Filmmaking in Super8 for Absolute Beginners workshop), Clarke has steadily produced artistic work, received a Masters of Fine Art from Ryerson University’s Documentary Media program and has become a full time artist. She credits much of her success to the opportunities that opened up for her after she received her first grant, from Toronto Arts Council. The grant was awarded for a project entitled Suck Teeth Compositions (After Rashaad Newsome), a three-channel video installation featuring Black Canadians sucking their teeth, an oral gesture of disdain, frustration, and annoyance. The work addresses the anger and repressed feelings that Black Canadians often feel when faced with anti-Black racism.
“A lot of white Canadians have this idea that nothing is wrong, and part of why they have that idea is because they never see people express their anger and frustration around the racism that they face living in Canada. So this piece was asking [my subjects] to make themselves vulnerable – to reveal that anger, to reveal that frustration… to run the risk of being seen as “an angry Black person” which is one of the stereotypes that we have to deal with,” she says.
It’s a bold piece that Clarke toyed with making for a number of years. On receiving the grant, she notes, “It was a real moment of validation for me in terms of the direction that I was heading in my practice, to know that not just the Toronto Arts Council, but a jury of my peers felt that this was a work that was worthy of support.”
Suck Teeth Compositions was first shown at the ROM as part of the 2018 group exhibition Here We Are: Black Canadian Contemporary Art, exposing her work to a broad audience. It is currently showing at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts as part of the same exhibition (on view until September 16, 2018). “2018 has been such a career growth spurt for me dating back to that exhibition opening…. it really was a spark at the beginning of the year that has propelled my career into a whole different place.” Clarke made a point to note that she purposefully chose TAC to apply to first for funding. “This city is very important in me making the decision to become an artist… it was important for me to turn to the Toronto Arts Council first before thinking about the Ontario or Canada Council. That local support of my peers is really significant and personally meaningful to me.”
A Welcome Weight on My Body will be on view at Gallery 44 until October 13, 2018.
You can also see Clarke’s work All That is Left Unsaid in the exhibition Through lines at Koffler Gallery, September 13 – November 25, 2018.
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