Un Chant Ecarlate
Swedish painter Martin Gustavsson is currently presented in a double bill; in the solo exhibition 'In No Particular Order' with Galleri Flach and 'Un Chant Ecarlate' inside Galleri Öst at the Academy of Fine Arts. Speaking to Eva-Lotta Flach, Martin addresses a body of work in the latter exhibition that stems from time spent working in Senegal for the Dak'Art Biennale in 2018, while inspired since long by the words of Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud and with an interest to channel colours in their capacaity as attributed codes and flowers as emblematic bearers of narrative.
Eva-Lotta: At Galleri Öst, situated in the Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm, you present an installation with the beautiful title: "Un Chant Ecarlate". How did you choose that particular title?
Martin: The title "Un Chant Ecarlate" came to me before I started to produce the works, which is unusual for me. I was invited by Marianne Hultman to participate in an exhibition that she curated at the Dak'Art Biennale in Senegal 2018. She was one of five guest curators, invited by the main curator Simon Njami. I wanted to paint a series of flowers and I was informed that the title of the entire biennial was "L'heure Rouge" (The Red Hour) and that Marianne's title was a kind of a response; "The Blue Hour". In the exhibition, Hultman took a starting point in the Swedish painter Eugène Jansson (1862 – 1915), the so-called blue painter and in the exotic blue light that shines in the north during twilight and dusk. But it was also about the reception of Jansson’s life and work, which has been characterized by homophobia, all the more prominent towards the end of the 20th century.
I wanted colour to be central in titling this work. Ecarlate, which means cerise, pink or scarlet red, seemed to me absolutely perfect; passion and anger. “A Scarlet song” ... I also wanted a title that could refer to Jean Genet's movie Un Chant d'Amour and the unforgettable scene where two men smoke a cigarette together through a prison wall. Genet was also deeply involved in the liberation of the North African countries from France, eroticized resistance and betrayal as methodology. When I read the Senegalese author Miriama Bas's book with almost the same title, Un chant écarlate (1981), I became even more interested as the story in her book, which takes place in Dakar, is about love between a black man and a white woman and its consequences. I wanted a title that could suggest a place or mood for an erotic encounter.
Eva-Lotta: The works in the exhibition are based on a flower, a chrysanthemum, which is depicted in different colours and shades, as chords in different states of mind. What do the colours mean to you?
Martin: I have worked with Rimbuad and Verlaine's poem Sonnet du Trou du Cul (1871) ringing in my ears as a question and excited companion for several years, especially with the flower paintings. They are part of a long history of same-sex desire and passion, but it is also about the devastating power of love. Obviously, colours describe different kind of moods and colours affect me strongly. But I think these paintings are more about codes and how we use symbols to both convey and divert meaning. Oscar Wilde and his circle used a green carnation to signal affinity and desire, a way of offering space for erotic opportunities in coded form. Only those who can read the code can activate that space.
Colour as a code and flowers as a narrative can be traced in anything from Greek mythology to multi-coloured handkerchiefs in back pockets at leather bars in the late 20th century. What we perceive as beautiful includes of course its opposite, which is part of the seduction and the sensuality precisely as flowers decay and die; which I'm totally fascinated by. Paintings of flowers, decorative and seemingly harmless, can provide great opportunities to treat subjects that may otherwise be censored or rejected. Also, one shouldn’t forget that homosexuality in the 20th century became a category of its own, a category that could be measured, tracked and controlled. In Nazi Germany's concentration camps, the homosexual turns pink in the Holocaust colour codes. At a time when extreme right forces are growing this is especially important to remember.
Sonnet du Trou du Cul
Obscur et froncé comme un oeillet violet,
Il respire, humblement tapi parmi la mousse
Humide encor d'amour qui suit la fuite douce
Des Fesses blanches jusqu'au coeur de son ourlet.
Des filaments pareils à des larmes de lait
Ont pleuré, sous l'autan cruel qui les repousse
A travers de petits caillots de marne rousse,
Pour s'aller perdre où la pente les appelait.
Mon Rêve s'aboucha souvent à sa ventouse;
Mon âme, du coït matériel jalouse,
En fit son larmier fauve et son nid de sanglots.
C'est l'olive pâmée, et la flûte caline
C'est le tube où descend la céleste praline:
Chanaan féminin dans les moiteurs enclos!
Eva-Lotta: What a poem! It is apparently a kind of reaction to a number of sonnets by the poet Albert Mérat who paid tribute to all the different parts of the female body, except the anus… ha ha… so this became the continuation… interesting!...The paintings contain black rectangles that you have explained relate to another gay theme, namely censorship. The title also hints at censored, or forbidden, love. Is the purpose of the rectangles to indicate these restrictions through something that disturbs the viewer's gaze? The paintings possess a kind of inner burning light through their transparency. Is it a reminder that in parallel with the beauty of the flower, it is also about fragility, the perishable, the self-burning?
Martin: Yes, you are right. Black rectangles are used to hide an identity or to cover activities that are either prohibited or disturbing to the viewer. But the obstruction of the gaze can often have the opposite effect and instead the viewer's curiosity or desire is activated by what you cannot see. It’s thus a form of abstraction, which according to SAOL (The Swedish Academy Dictionary) is defined as a disjunction or a pure creation of thought. You could then say that desire is an abstraction, which I find interesting in relation to abstract painting. Have these paintings now become abstract?
The black rectangles and their inner positioning and meaning in the paintings have specifically to do with a photo I found of a gay wedding in Dakar. It was a ceremony and a joyful occasion where the eyes of the participants were covered with black rectangles. I use the rectangles and their position in the photo as a reminder of absent participants and the disappearance of gay men in many parts of the world now and then. This is a type of code that can only be activated if you recognize the photo or the mark of censorship. In purely painterly terms, the difference between the opaque density of the black and the fluid transparency of light in other parts of the paintings betrays an inherent conflict or a form of inertia, as an element that interferes with the eye's motion through the painting. Since flowers carry the language of perishability they speak symbolically, one may say, to the position of the homosexual in an ever-changing and porous life situation.
Eva-Lotta: Although it is forbidden to be homosexual in Senegal and in many parts of Africa, there is a vibrant gay culture going on beneath the surface, a bit like in your paintings. How did people react to your works in Dakar? Did people respond to the underlying references?
Martin: Actually, I don't know, unfortunately. I hadn’t written a text deliberately to see how the works would be received without explanations. It may be a strange attitude, but I was very aware of how a Western attitude can easily be misinterpreted or perceived as corrective. A French curator asked me about the internal conflict in the paintings and then we started a conversation about homophobia. In 2014, the Dak'Art Biennial featured a queer exhibition at the Raw Material Art Centre but was closed by the government after being vandalized by fundamentalists. I tried to find a community through Grindr but it turned out not to be that easy. Grindr had a built in pop up message warning clients to be careful, which to me seemed strange.
At one point in the 1900's, Dakar was described as the gay centre of West Africa, with a vital, and partially prostituted, gay scene that included a transgender population, Gor-digen, (male-female). Since the 2000s, they have been forced to go underground in an increasingly homophobic global political situation. As a result social contacts, meeting places and communication must be coded to survive.
One could argue that monotheistic religions that all originate from the same root are all openly homophobic. During the colonial period in the 19th century, Western legislation was permeated by Christian values and instituted in large parts of Africa and the world. These laws are still in place and in addition with Islamic sharia laws, they create a near-complete homophobic situation that drives many homosexuals underground in Africa as well as in Asia.
The homophobia I experience in Sweden is completely different but nevertheless equally effective. It is also connected to religious values, inherited by the three major Swedish popular social movements in the 20th century that remain and still hold on to a strong moral heritage. In a consensus-driven society, it is extremely difficult to express or embody “difference”. It makes sticking out or exposing yourself uncomfortable and unwanted, which easily turns into internalized homophobia, sanctioned by a social structure. I think the kind of norm critique we experience today suffers from a similar problem and instead of acting as criticism often becomes norm. In my work as an artist I have continually addressed homophobia. I am still intrigued by how deeply rooted it is and the central role it plays in a homosocial patriarchy.
Eva-Lotta: In this the exhibition you have added a few more paintings where the black rectangles are present in relation to the body....
Martin: I wanted to expand the series with a number of seemingly figurative paintings that I call abstractions. They address more clearly the relationship between censorship, desire and the body. In Sweden and many other Western countries, I think censorship has been replaced by self-censorship, and therefore I want the exhibition to look different when shown here. Partially I use a historic material and art history to add a perspective in time, to perform new and expanded narrative structures. We live in a historical continuum without guarantees. What we have today may be gone tomorrow, both in terms of human rights and the possibilities to express difference.
Images from the installation of ''Un Chant Ecarlate', Galleri Öst at the Academy of Fine Arts. Courtesy of Martin Gustavsson
The exhibition runs alongside the solo 'In No Particular Order' at Galleri Flach through September 29.
Fredsgatan 12 / Jakobsgatan 27C