Dossier | Black Queer Grief in Michèle Pearson Clarke’s Parade of Champions | esse arts + opinions

Dossier | Black Queer Grief in Michèle Pearson Clarke’s Parade of Champions

  • Michèle Pearson Clarke, Parade of Champions (Karen’s son, Jelani), video still, 2015. Photo: courtesy of the artist
  • Michèle Pearson Clarke, Parade of Champions (Irene’s son, Chy), video still, 2015. Photo: courtesy of the artist
  • Michèle Pearson Clarke, Parade of Champions (Esther’s daughter, Simone), video still, 2015. Photo: courtesy of the artist

Black Queer Grief in Michèle Pearson Clarke’s Parade of Champions
By Ricky Varghese

Grief is necessarily an unruly thing: it knows no time that can contain it, no space into which it can be relegated or cordoned off. It betrays restraint; it belies constraint. It is neither sacred nor profane as far as experiences go. It leaves the griever in ruins, fragmented, disoriented, longing, irreducibly destitute, poorer in a sense, wanting for what was lost. How, then, might we think of grief with regard to its capacity to be represented? How can grief’s destitution, its poverty, be rendered? What would it mean for grief to be revealed not as spectacle, but as experience? What would it mean to be recognized for one’s grief, in one’s grief, and to see oneself as possibly recognizable in the grief that one might share with another or the other?

While it may be conceived of as a universal category of experience and historicity, grief is also intensely personal, something that gives it a feeling akin to one’s own skin. Normative representations of grief and mourning are often generalized. Such generalizations resist taking into consideration the specificities and particularities implicit in how mourning as a ritual might be experienced precisely at the site of radical difference. We might take this a step further by considering what it might mean to imagine grief as being racialized and queered and existing outside such normatively universalized time and space. This is what Trinidadian-Canadian artist Michèle Pearson Clarke’s provocation, her three-channel video installation Parade of Champions, (1) seems to make possible — she imagines black queer grief, amidst a sea of impossible-to-represent-but-still-represented instances of misrepresentations and misrecognitions when it comes to the subject of grief.

By creating a three-walled room with projector screens, Clarke literally makes a physical space within which we may bear witness to the grief of each of her three subjects. A screen is allotted to each of the three. In effectively minimal style, in sparsely decorated rooms, their silent bodies are seated facing the camera. The artist envelops the viewer in the textures of her subjects’ voices; their voices fill up the space of the installation. In her ground-breaking novel The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy wrote, “[There] are things you can’t do — like write letters to a part of yourself. To your feet or hair. Or Heart.” (2) Centred on the grief that arrives at the experience of losing one’s mother, Clarke’s visual text gestures at one approach to thinking of grief as both plausible and representable. One approach to rendering the impossible, at least slightly, possible — that impossible task of writing a letter of sorts, as Roy suggested, to a part of one’s self. Clarke’s Parade of Champions poignantly and movingly attempts to rewrite the script of and for black and queer pain. It serves as part eulogy, part lamentation, part elegy, part love letter to the dead and the remembered past, and part gesture at healing — both of oneself and of the other.

In Parade of Champions, Clarke, trained initially as a social worker, mobilizes a technique and ethic of care in relation to her art practice and, more specifically, her subjects, three black queer-identified Torontonians: Chy Ryan Spain, Jelani Ade Douglas, and Simone Dalton. She draws from her encounters with each of them a set of nuanced and interspersed narratives regarding maternal affinity and the loss of that relational bond. By representing their respective senses of loss, she depicts an uncommon portrait of blackness and queerness that both counters the impulse to render her subjects as spectacles to be gazed at and makes public an intimate form of grief-stricken pain often exiled to the presumed sanctity of the private sphere. By privileging vulnerability, as an ethics of and for psychic healing in the face of intimate loss, Clarke gives a different image of what it means to endure and survive this loss and the grief that is incumbent to (and forms an affinity with) it.

Despite its autobiographical origins — to the extent that the work acted as an extension of coming to terms with the death of her beloved mother — what marks the installation is the compelling negotiation of what is both present and absent in the work itself. Clarke is never present in the video, either in the physical and embodied sense or in the sense of the prompting authorial voice of the interviewer, behind the scenes, leading and negotiating the intricacies of the remarkable discourse regarding grief and loss being produced by her subjects. However, the visual text, under her artistic hand, stages a self-portrait as much as it stages the varied portraits of others who have experienced this similarly devastating loss of their mothers. What is more, although the embodied presences of her three subjects are felt and are what we, the viewers, experience in the three channels, we do not see these subjects physically speaking; we only hear their interspersed remarks in the form of delicate voiceovers. It is a deeply incisive presentation precisely because, rather than being physically represented as a presence, speech is presented as an absent presence, in the form and shape that their respective narratives take, in how they remember their mothers and the ways in which they have each experienced and negotiated the grief that came with their mothers’ passing. The objects of those losses, their mothers, also act as unending absent presences that haunt what the viewer is asked to witness.

By both implementing the techniques that inform the making of a staged documentary and situating the subjects amidst the long history of portraiture, the installation exists somewhere between documentary and portrait. One might be reminded of the significant question that literary theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak posed: Can the subaltern speak? (3) One might rework that query by asking, can the subaltern speak grief or, even more specifically, can the racialized and queer subaltern be permitted to grieve? And, if so, who, if anyone, might be called upon to listen to that grieving other? It is within this constellation, which mixes in equal measures remembrance, commemoration, and witnessing, that Clarke invites her viewer to participate. Black queer grief is given the time and space to both listen to itself and, possibly, be listened to. And not only be listened to, but also be seen, visualized as being, existing, beyond spectacle. In considering how to “live Black queerness,” cultural theorist Rinaldo Walcott has asserted that “queer life is an essential element of blackness, constituted both by its insistence on realizing itself and by discourses that seek to render it not present, which in fact work to acknowledge its presence.” (4) The artist offers black queer pain both a voice and an image, rendering what is otherwise absent from the public both visible and present; the pain of loss, here, becomes a part and a way of living black queerness.

As I have noted, the work serves as more than a “mere” visual experience; it also offers an aural one, an experience of the sound of remembering and the voice of grieving. In this gesture, what the viewer is made to bear witness to is not only the physicality of the racialized and queer body in a state of near-photographic stillness, but also the ephemeral voice of a subject grieving what is, at its heart, an ungrievable loss. Because being black and queer figure centrally in this work, Clarke also appears to be staging an exploration of what it means to feel recognized for, and seen within, those identities, as in the case of being recognized and seen, even held in a manner of speaking, by one’s own mother. Poet and novelist Anne Michaels once wrote, “[The] grief we carry, anybody’s grief, is exactly the weight of a sleeping child.” (5) In the way in which Clarke has staged the physical space for her installation, the viewer is held as well, swaddled almost like a sleeping child, in the grief of her subjects.

Having come out of the proverbial closet at varying times in their respective lives, and having had their mothers respond to their coming out in varying ways, what Spain, Douglas, and Dalton share is an inexplicable feeling that despite all else, their mothers (still) loved them. In a way, the installation acts as a way to bind them (to one another and to her) in their commemoration of loss, as a gesture against forgetting. This frightening persistence and insistence of the always already present possibility for forgetting is so evocatively captured in the words of one of the subjects during the course of their remarks: “I think the hardest part of the grieving process has been not being able to connect with my mother as I thought I would have been able to… I often hear stories of people that say just talk to her, she’s there with you, you can talk to her… [but] I have this sense of nothingness, and it frightens me because I don’t, I have difficulty remembering what she sounded like, and that feels crazy to me… I just, I’m, I’m constantly trying to find where she is, in this life, in this present moment, and I’m not seeing her. And it’s the one thing, it’s the one thing that I want.” (6)

In the final analysis, one might argue that the work stands as a monument to memory itself, against the conscious and unconscious impulses toward forgetting. She attempts to stage a remembering by each of her subjects about their respective mothers, while at the same time the work serves as an affective archive of their experience of grief. Blackness and queerness, in spaces of hegemony, exist as either profoundly hyper-visible and surveilled or are rendered starkly invisible. Parade of Champions unsettles this polemic by situating affect and remembrance at the centre of how Clarke represents her subjects. They are shown as neither hyper-visible (their silent bodies remain seated and still throughout the work) nor invisible (their grief is resoundingly heard in the voiceovers). They are represented as mourning, while simultaneously performing the acts of remembrance and commemoration.

The work of writing, like the work of mourning, is a queer task unto itself; both have the capacity to break from normative hegemonic forms. In writing this, I had to recognize that I was writing a text about an affect or a feeling of grief that is still other to me, still distant to me. I have not, as yet, had to mourn the loss of a parent. And yet, one might write always already in anticipation of that loss and, as Michèle Pearson Clarke elsewhere has suggested, of all, that might remain left unsaid between us. (7) If such a text is a queer gesture about remembering against forgetting — queer precisely because it is also a hopeful gesture of having hope against hope — then such remembering might be a way to live with, and alongside, that most impossible sort of grief. In such grief, the subjects both lose themselves and recognize what they might experience as inexplicable loss itself and as an irreparable sort of destitution.

(1) Presented in June 2015 at Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto and from September 16 to October 21, 2017 at Studio XX in Montreal.
(2) Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things (New York: Random House, 1997), 156.
(3) Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Basingstoke: Macmillan Education, 1988), 271 — 313.
(4) Rinaldo Walcott, Queer Returns: Essays on Multiculturalism, Diaspora, and Black Studies (London, ON: Insomniac Press, 2016), 169.
(5) Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1996), 158.
(6) Michèle Pearson Clarke, Parade of Champions (2015).
(7) This is a reference to Michèle Pearson Clarke’s earlier work All That is Left Unsaid (2014), a short video rendered as an elegy to her mother.

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