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Artistic political expressions can be dangerous

Art as political expression has had a long and checkered history. Indeed, some artists have gone to prison for their efforts. Most recently Ai Weiwei, the Chinese art activist, was held by the Chinese government for two months without being formally charged with any offence.

Recently, while visiting the Azores, I was talking to a well known Azorian artists about living in Portugal under the Salazar regime. I told him that I had heard of a certain Portuguese artist had been imprisoned because of his art. My friend responded by saying, artists, plural, many were imprisoned. Artistic political expressions can be dangerous. Yet some of the greatest masterpieces of western art are highly political. I think of Goya’s Third of May 1808, or Picasso’s Guernica, as examples of political masterpieces.

Manuel Palacio, is known for shocking art, especially the salacious. He seems to thrive on the contentious, yet, for years now, I have thought of his art mostly in these terms and it has been my opinion that this approach to art is something of a dead end. It can only be carried so far, before your audience accommodates to the shock. As an artist, you either have to up the ante, or find yourself in a corner.

Political art is a different matter, especially if what is created, is generated from a position of genuine protest. In the case of Goya or Picasso, their masterpieces were produced in anger over specific and horrific events and their emotions became a creative tool, that helped generate powerful art.

As far as the history of Bermuda art is concerned, there has been almost no political art. I can think of only a few exceptions, such as Robert Barritt’s Theatre Boycott, a few creations by Charles Lloyd Tucker and a celebratory painting by Robert Bassett, painted in the days after the PLP victory in 1998. In that light, Manuel Palacio’s recent shift into the political arena, is a welcome development.

Manuel Palacio’s current BSoA exhibition is certainly political, but, by his own admission, he tamed it considerably, from what it might have been. Even before I heard what the artist had to say about the show, I thought it mild, at best. Nevertheless, it has generated considerable debate.

It is my understanding that the Frudakis sculpture of Dame Lois Browne Evans is what triggered Manuel Palacio’s move into the political, but if that is so, there is nothing in the exhibition about the sculpture, which is strange. Still, in case you have not heard, the PLP government, contrary to its professed concern for Bermudians, commissioned a foreign artist to make the sculpture, without even giving local artists a chance. Indeed, I am told that the reason Mr. Frudakis actually got the commission, is that he is a personal acquaintance of an individual of position within the PLP government. If, indeed, that is the case, Mr Palacio, as a local sculptor, has every right to be aggrieved, as do other Bermudian sculptors.

As it is, Manuel Palacio chose to use a broad brush, in dealing with the present government. Central in this exhibition are portraits of government leaders, from Premier Cox, to Dame Jennifer Smith and others, but Palacio has painted them as if they were white. As he said in a recent meeting at BSoA, if the current government was white and did what they are doing, the black community would be up in arms. He indicated that the black community will vote for a black government, no matter what they do, just because the government is black. He then went on to say that this is a form of racism.

The exhibition has concluded

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Published August 19, 2011 at 2:00 am (Updated August 19, 2011 at 10:16 am)

Artistic political expressions can be dangerous

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