Interview // Bruce Clarke

Posted by Julie Mathon on

On the occasion of the online exhibition "Dialogues, techniques mixtes sur papier" showcasing only works on paper, Afikaris proposes interviews of the artists on display. Today, Bruce Clarke opens you the doors of his studio, revealing more about his work. 


Bruce Clarke, Born into violence

Bruce Clarke, Born into violence, 2017, 60x70 cm

Watercolor painting and collages on paper

How long have you been working and living in your workshop in St Ouen?

I have had this workshop for 10 years. My parents are South African, however, I was born and educated in England. I have traveled a lot after that. I especially spent 3 years in Mexico. It was only when I returned to France that I really started my professional artistic practice.

When you've graduated from Fine Arts school, like me, you can do nothing. At a time, institutions rejected painting as we thought it was tacky. For these reasons, I never really painted at school.

After leaving school, I slowly came back to painting, because it was my passion from childhood. I like its tactile and sensual aspects. In this context, I sort of resigned myself to becoming a painter.

Also, I wanted to give meaning to my work - painting landscapes does not satisfy me. I wanted to talk about topical issues and use my work to observe and denounce certain aspects of society.

Indeed, your work is quite engaged. What are the recurring themes?

Yes, it is an engaged work, but I try to keep a distance from the subjects, not to make the critic too obvious. I want the public to question itself above all. I am not here to illustrate an idea but to encourage thinking.

In terms of themes, I am primarily interested in social and political conflicts, and particularly in South Africa. In the early 1990s, when I arrived in France, I was struck by the silence of the French press about apartheid. France’s involvement in the South African conflict - of which the government was then accused of a crime against humanity - has put the press at odds, which has largely silenced the subject. Conversely, in Anglo-Saxon countries, there was much talk about it. 

In England, for example, there were numerous boycotts on South African products such as coal, diamonds, gold, etc. and the pressure was so great against the companies which still exploit these materials that the competitors claim their social responsibility by displaying “We do not use South African coal” labels. It was almost an obligation for these companies to get their feet wet.

The contrast with the ignorance of the French press was striking and, in this context, became even more interesting for me to approach in my painting. 

I wanted to point out the problem of why there was a lack of French media coverage on the South African conflict and to expose the complicity of journalists with the French and South African governments.

This interest for the press obviously recalls the pieces of newsprint that make up your paintings.

Yes, I try to highlight the idea that words have no meaning without context. 

They are not neutral. When taken out of their context, they may seem insignificant when a priori, in the sentence, they made sense. When you read a newspaper you think the explanation makes sense since the words are meant. I say no, that words can be manipulated in abundance and are instrumentalized. 

In my works, words are not intended to explain the painted scene. On the contrary, they are always out of step with the canvas. This is a kind of warning about the low potential of the word out of context. Words are by no means a legend. It’s an abyss. There are never proper words, end of sentence or start of a sentence. These words are incognito, bare of any context. This is also the case for my characters, who are all anonymous. We don't talk about anonymous people, we don't keep them in history. We imagine that it was the big names who made the world, this is an absolute error. It’s the anonymous people who make history.

You work in both watercolor and acrylic, for your large formats. How do you transpose your work from one medium to another?

I work with acrylic in the same way as watercolor. Watercolors have the advantage that the layers of colors can be superimposed without altering the clarity and brightness of the work. I work with acrylic like that, with a lot of water and an overlay of layers. The result is quite similar. To this, I add the collages of newsprint or posters that I myself enlarged and printed.

You have largely treated the theme of boxing by presenting many scenes of fights. Why this topic?

I am asking about the world we live in. If I don't like the idea of boxing I really like its aesthetics, bodies, and positions. Through the fight of boxers and their fight, it is the theme of social struggle and class oppression that I approach.

Historically, boxing has also been the theater of struggle between white and black, especially in the United States. I am referring to the American black boxer Jack Johnson who fought for many years before finally arriving to obtain the right to challenge the heavyweight world champion, Tommy Burns in 1908. The heavyweight category in professional fights then being prohibited to black people.

This sport is obviously violent, and the interest of the combatants was historically to get out of precariousness. It’s a metaphor for my thinking about social struggles.