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Shape shifting’ US painter Mark Bradford explores racial tensions in Portugal show

People visit US artist Mark Bradford’s exhibition ‘AGORA’ at the Serralves Museum of Cotemporary art Art in Porto, north of Portugal, on November 25, 2021. — AFP pic

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PORTO, Nov 27 — In his first major show in Europe in nearly five years, US painter Mark Bradford says he has turned to the mediaeval period to explore contemporary conflicts and social tensions, particularly the racial unrest that has repeatedly erupted throughout America’s history and now the current global health crisis.

The exhibition, entitled Agora at the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art in Porto in the north of Portugal, entails a series of new paintings, tapestries and works on paper inspired by the Dutch mediaeval tapestry, The Hunt of the Unicorn, dating from around 1500.

Agora means not only “now” in Portuguese, but it was also the name for a space for public debate in Ancient Greece. 

“What struck me was it basically was about carnage, and it was about something being hunted,” the 60-year-old black artist told AFP at the show’s opening. 

“And so many of the debates that were going on in the United States were about civil liberties and freedoms, and then also, African-Americans literally being hunted.”

US artist Mark Bradford talks during the presentation of his exhibition ‘AGORA’ at the Serralves Museum of Cotemporary art Art in Porto, north of Portugal, on November 25, 2021. — AFP pic
US artist Mark Bradford talks during the presentation of his exhibition ‘AGORA’ at the Serralves Museum of Cotemporary art Art in Porto, north of Portugal, on November 25, 2021. — AFP pic

Bradford, whose vast, abstract canvases consist of thick multiple layers of paper, paint and other materials, said: “Ease and unrest can live together. Poetry and politics can live together. Two things that look like they don’t belong together can exist together. 

“I’m always looking for new ways of making a plural, even in black voice.”

Measuring two metres tall, Bradford admits that his physical appearance may be very striking. 

“The first thing that comes into the room is usually my height, and then my colour, and then maybe the third is Mark.”

But, an openly gay man, he refuses to be stereotyped.

“This body that I was born into is always political in the United States. It’s always a reminder of how to navigate with this body, it’s constantly shape shift. It’s really like shape shifting.”

People visit US artist Mark Bradford's exhibition ‘AGORA’ at the Serralves Museum of Cotemporary art Art in Porto, north of Portugal, on November 25, 2021. — AFP pic
People visit US artist Mark Bradford’s exhibition ‘AGORA’ at the Serralves Museum of Cotemporary art Art in Porto, north of Portugal, on November 25, 2021. — AFP pic

‘Just an Artist’

Bradford, known for his philanthropic work, particularly with young people in the southern neighbourhoods of Los Angeles where he grew up, also rejects being labelled an activist.

“I don’t really identify myself with anything. I negotiate with stereotypes every day of my life, but I don’t identify. I’m just an artist.”

Named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people of 2021, Bradford has not had a major exhibition in Europe since he represented the US in the Venice Biennale in 2017. 

On some of the canvases, Bradford’s thick paint, sometimes checkered or torn, covers maps representing the hot spots of the race riots that rocked Los Angeles in the 1960s. 

The artist says he remembers the stories he heard in his mother’s hairdressing salon while he was growing up.

“When I was very young, I would listen to the oral histories of my people. They were talking about civil rights.”

And he draws parallels to the riots he himself experienced in 1992 and other social crises, such as the emergence of AIDS and the current coronavirus pandemic.

The exhibition in Porto runs until June 2022. 

And for the show’s curator, Philippe Vergne, it was “a testimony of an artist who has spent time in the studio… processing the time of crisis.”

It was “really a meditation on how an artist (is) engaged in the world, not isolated in the studio,” Vergne said. — AFP

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