Visual artist and photographer, Bruce Clarke was born in London in 1959 from South African parents. He now lives in France.
It was at the Fine Arts School at Leeds University in the 1980’s that he was initiated to the Art and Language movement around Michael Baldwin, David Bainbridge, Terry Atkinson, Harold Hurrell. In the wake of these pioneering conceptual artists, Clarke’s work engages with contemporary history, the writing and transmission of this history and hopes to stimulate thought on the contemporary world and its representations. Deeply anchored in a school of critical figuration, his artistic research integrates codes finally to use them to criticise and demystify structures of power and injustice.
Bruce Clarke became politically and artistically engaged in the struggle for change in South Africa during the period of apartheid. In parallel he followed the evolution of the situation in Rwanda and the planned and proclaimed genocide, participating in the creation of a collective for solidarity with the Rwandese people. It was whilst doing a photo reportage in Rwanda for this collective in the days following the end of the genocide that he realised the importance of art in the process of the conservation of memory and the writing of history. A few years later he started to work on the creation of a memorial site near Kigali, the Garden of Memory, a monumental installation project on-going since 2000, in close collaboration with survivors’ families, civil society associations and the Rwandese institutions as well as UNESCO. He later worked on a large scale mural project for the 20th commemoration of the genocide in Rwanda entitled Upright Men in Rwanda and elsewhere in the world (Ouidah, Geneva, Lausanne, Brussels, Paris, Montreal etc…).
As resident artist invited by the Conseil Général de Guadeloupe (French Caribbean), he produced an exhibition “Fragments of tomorrow’s History” relating the link between the slave trade, colonialism and globalisation. Collaborator in the Lille based Fest-Africa organisation’s project on Rwanda: Write, Film, Paint in memory, he has also worked with the Afrika Cultural Centre in Johannesburg and led visual arts workshops in South Africa, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Benin, Tanzania, Zambia and France. In 2006 he published Dominations with Editions Homnisphères and Fantômes de la Mer with ARTCO (2016).
As a photographer, he has published photo reports on South Africa, the reconstruction of Rwanda, the return of Liberian refugees and Palestine.
His work has been exhibited in Europe, in Africa and the United States.
2018 Front Line,Espace Anis Gras, Arcueil, France Alliance française de Lusaka, Zambia
2017 Living Memory and Upright Men, Coutances Museum, France
2016 Sea Ghosts, French Institue, Nouakchott, Mauritania
2015 Daily Violence,Multimedia centre Lormont, France
2014 Humanities, Gallery Out of Africa, Sitges, Barcelona, Spain En toute impunité, Gallery Les Naufragés du Temps, St Malo, France Upright Men, Simultaneous exhibitions (Geneva, Lausanne, Paris, Brussels, Luxemburg, Kigali, Limoges, Liège…) for the 20thcommemoration of genocide in Rwanda
2013 Precarious Lives, Gallery Julio Gonzalez, Arceuil, France Janus Gallery, Montreux, Switzerland M.I.A. Gallery Seattle, United States Body and Souls, Grenoble, France, Maison de l’International
2001 Belfort Art and History Museum - with Edith Convert, Belfort, France The Artist and the Real, Maison de la Culture de la Nièvre, Nevers, France
1998 Kulturfabrik, Luxembourg
1995 Africanités, Saintonge Gallery, Paris, France Art’CRA, Accra, Ghana
1994 De l’Afrique à l’Afrique, Gallery Yahia, Tunis, Tunisia
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.