Michèle Pearson Clarke Suck Teeth Compositions (After Rasheed Newsome)
October 10 – November 21, 2020, Forest City Gallery
3-channel, HD video installation with sound
16’ x 9’ format, 9:47 | 2018
So, the vignette went something like this: While attending a movie theatre in Toronto, Michèle Pearson Clarke overheard a discussion between two senior white ladies who were sitting behind her. The two ladies were discussing a recent cover story in Toronto Life about the much contention practice of “carding” and about Desmond Cole, a black Toronto journalist, having been “carded” numerous times by police. (Link to article below.) The ladies mutually expressed their disbelief that such a racialized practice was in force in their city.
Commenting on this overheard conversation in her talk for the Western University’s Department of Visual Arts, Art Now! Speakers Series, Michèle noted that no one in the black community would have been so surprised to read of this enforced practice as they know carding happens to black people all the time in Toronto.
Michèle’s comment forced me to question my own perceptions and understandings. What was Michèle saying about the white perception of black communities? And as a white senior woman myself, what was Michèle saying about me and my own perceptions of blackness? What racial prejudgments or limited perceptions of blackness do I have? How indifferent and/or ill-informed am I to the injustices, suffering, and violence happening in black communities across the country and in my own city? These are the questions I bring to this review of Michèle Pearson Clarke’s recent video performance installation at the Forest City Gallery, entitled, Suck Teeth Compositions (After Rashaad Newsome).
Entering the installation space itself is an immediately engrossing experience with three large screens placed adjacent to each other and occupying more than one long wall of the gallery’s exhibition space. The viewer is brought intimately close to an inescapable presence. A solitary character, slightly larger than life, is presented against a stark white background and fills the entire frame of each screen. In a controlled tempo seventeen different characters appear on different screens at different times. The characters themselves are all black or Caribbean and each is engaged in the practice of “sucking teeth,” which is a common vocal gesture amongst Caribbean and black people. It is a gesture that a person makes when they are frustrated, disappointed or fed up with something. The high-definition quality of the video, the pristine sound quality and the precise editing all add up to a presentation that is minimal, clean, clear and direct.
The video performance is on an approximate ten-minute loop. It is the flow of the production that holds my attention the first time through. It’s a bit like watching a well-conducted choral symphony as my eyes follow the engaging rhythm of the changing screens and the well-paced articulation of the sound as the characters suck their teeth. In the beginning of the loop, there is a warm-up as the characters prepare to perform for the cameras and try out their teeth-sucking gesture, perfecting it as they go along until a deeply satisfying flow of visuals and sound is achieved.
For my second viewing of the ten-minute loop, my eyes rest more on the individual characters themselves as I find myself thinking about what each person is wearing, noting the texture of their hair, their age, their gender, the tone of their skin. Some are wearing mainstream clothing while others have donned more colorful and exotic attire. I also notice myself thinking, ‘Is this really a black person? Or is this a person of Caribbean descent? Or are they perhaps mixed race?’ Catching myself appraising and gauging ‘the other’ in this way, I become aware that I am teasing out my own prejudices of what I perceive black people should look like. I am pleasantly surprised to find that my simple and limited view of blackness – almost like a pan-blackness – is falling away as I start to perceive the vivid differences of each character presented on the screens.
On my third journey through the loop, I begin to feel a sense of unease in my role as objective observer. I feel so invasively close to these people on the screens. I first notice the underlying fidgeting; a general sense of discomfort at being in the spotlight. But it is in the eyes mainly that I see the pain, the frustration, the vulnerability, and, also, the resilience. Often there is an averted glance to hide the suffering or embarrassment. Sometimes tears well up. This is not acting, but rather an authentic presentation of self. All those eyes are inextricably linked with the sucking sound. And it is through that sub-verbal gesture – which speaks to generations of cultural oppression and violence – that a longing eventually seems to be expressed for things to be better; for things to change.
Near the beginning of the twentieth century Virginia Woolf was a voice for the female writer. In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf asks for women to be given a “space” to write in their own voice. This long essay was pivotal in encouraging women to write from their own experience. In her artist’s talk Michèle similarly expressed her desire to create art from the black experience, saying, “Let me as an artist hold space for the artwork.” Here, in this Forest City Gallery installation she has been given her space, and in doing so she has opened up what the black experience looks like from the inside.
- Review written by Nida Home Doherty, Senior Writer for Centred.ca
Suck Teeth Compositions (After Rasheed Newsome) was recently purchased by the National Gallery of Canada.