Sobey Art Award 2023: Michèle Pearson Clarke
Informed by grief, loss, resistance and humour, Michèle Pearson Clarke’s photography, video and installation work has created an intimate and immersive visual language for the queer, Black, female body. Born in Trinidad and now living in Toronto, the artist has brought all of her experiences and relationships into a practice that challenges audiences to see truths often hidden from view.
In her recent photographic series The Animal Seems to Be Moving (2018–23), Clarke uses her own image to interrogate her experience of aging, which has meant moving from being read as a Black boy to a middle-aged Black man. The series toys with common signifiers in a playful way to show different aspects of her truth. In Glitter Stache (2021), the artist sports a moustache made of glitter – a material often associated with nightlife, femininity and resistant, gay-male camp. By using such a benign, happy substance, the artist undermines the idea of threat that a moustached Black man with such a stern expression might instill in a racist society. But is the artist acting severe or just squinting in the sun? Her gaze challenges our preconceptions and revels in their absurdity.
Another work in the series, Woods 2 (2018), has Clarke looking out, hand over brow, wearing Canadiana kitsch in the form of acid-wash jeans and a red-and-black checked shirt. The photograph seems to ask what our instincts would be if we came across this person in the bush. Whatever misconceptions might arise, the artist shows the truth in a casual stroll, most likely on Toronto Island or in a park. In Little Trees (Hold) (2021), Clarke wears a camouflage tank top, her strong arms holding a similarly patterned Christmas-tree air freshener on a gold chain. The idea of reading jewellery and clothing patterns as dangerous is rendered ridiculous when it concerns an air freshener. As the artist articulates, “Given the threat that Black masculinity poses to many, the series is at once a mourning of my own queer boyhood as well as a grappling with the absurdity of having to face increased hostility, simply because of growing older.”
Clarke’s use of photography in this series positions her in a long line of photographers who have staged scenes and used self-portraiture to make a statement or to render visible the invisible aspects of living in bodies rarely represented in media or art. New images are needed. Clarke’s photographs cannot be reduced to the humour they deploy. They bring new subjectivities and ways of seeing into being. This activist impulse was present in her most recent stint as the second Photo Laureate (2019–22) for the city of Toronto.
On top of creating new work, she embarked on a writing campaign for the Toronto Star and engaged communities in image creation and activation. In her column, Clarke referenced popular images of masculinity, queerness and Blackness, while interrogating and redefining these same images into alternative histories. In addition, she introduced us to artists we should be looking at. As in her art, her curatorial and writing practices have also challenged the veracity of what we see. She has helped us to understand that what we keep denying exists, whether that is the violence of residential schools, gender norms or racism.
Clarke’s most recent media installation, Quantum Choir (2022), consists of a 4-channel, 4K video installation, with soccer balls and training cones. In this work, the artist’s long-standing interest in grief and loss has been expanded into a broader examination of vulnerability. Comprising four large screens that surround the viewer, the installation presents the artist and three others as they face their fear of singing in public. Each screen shows one of them attempting singing exercises, which are eventually joined together in a choreography of the song “Queen of Denmark,” by queer musician John Grant.
Acting as signifiers of masculinity and safe play, the soccer balls and training cones must be manoeuvred around before the viewer can enter the heart of the installation and view what is at stake for the performers. Clarke maximizes the discomfort that the viewer feels watching others in uncomfortable situations. For her, there is a grief associated with being a bad singer that she says is “queer” and tied up in notions of female masculinity. In contrast to ideas of success or failure, masculine and feminine, she presents notions of tenderness and collectivity, using the process of making a work to heal.
In 2015 Clarke received her Master of Fine Arts in Documentary Media from Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson). Her return to school prompted a shift in her art from documentary to installation. Because of this, we are still getting to know her as an artist. Topics in her oeuvre include the grief of losing one’s mother, the history of Black queer curation, masculine tenderness, and narratives and representations of female masculinity. In all, Clarke bravely allows for an audience to be uncomfortable, for her collaborators to be vulnerable, and for society to be questioned, all the while creating spaces of healing, safety and transformation.
Clarke’s immense output in the last five years has shown a confident inquiry based in the multitude of relationships she has developed through her practice within the community. We await the next five years with anticipation. Her art is now making its way into the collections of public institutions such as the National Gallery of Canada, and touring exhibitions, including As We Rise: Photography from the Black Atlantic (2022) and Here We Are Here: Black Canadian Contemporary Art (2018). As her work grows further in momentum, we will have many more opportunities to engage with her singular gift.
The 2023 Sobey Art Award Exhibition is on view at the National Gallery of Canada from October 13, 2023 until March 3, 2024, with the winner being announced in November 2023. The Sobey Art Award is funded by the Sobey Art Foundation (SAF) and organized and presented by the National Gallery of Canada (NGC). Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.