After seeing ISIS propaganda footage of gay men thrown from rooftops in Syria and Iraq and then publicly stoned, artist Clive van den Berg needed to “make good” these violated lives.
In A Pile of Stones, van den Berg exercises this reparative impulse, composing a body of work that protests against the actions of ISIS by “inverting the gaze” from voyeuristic propaganda, whose intension is to paralyse the viewer, to an empathetic and responsible act of looking.
His vision: to commemorate the lives of nameless men who are “wiped” from the ISIS regime for exhibiting the “wrong” kind of masculinity and to attribute dignity to these “ungrieveable” victims whose relations, friends and lovers cannot mourn them without implicating themselves.
Van den Berg’s solo exhibition straddles two central desires: to “carve out” a language of grieving in an increasingly intolerant global context where nonconformist masculinities are under threat, and to represent the horror of the ISIS killings – to re-construe the mechanics of the gaze – without re-inscribing the violation.
In his sculpture and painting, the artist pulls us closer to these surreal, barbaric scenes: from masked human bodies frozen in mid-air to crowd members grabbing stones to throw.
At the same time, van den Berg highlights rare moments of reluctance in the crowd, interpreting them as possible silent protests. Van den Berg reads the complicity with ISIS brutalist masculinity as a cloak of personal protection not to be judged, but to be understood within a repressive context.
In these carefully “re-enacted” pieces, he asks: “In a society of coercive masculinity, is picking up the first stone an act of protection for some people?”
The centrepiece of the show, A Pile of Stones, is an intricate three-metre high hand-carved wood sculpture that pays tribute to these faceless victims and demonstrates the scope and depth of the artist’s “redemptive gaze”. By engaging with the ongoing violence towards gay men in Syria and Iraq, van den Berg narrows his gaze to an extreme version of the homophobic intolerance that increasingly pervades societies across the globe.
In South Africa where alternative masculinities remain repressed, this exhibition addresses the need for a nuanced conversation on gender and sexuality. “Race is rightly the dominant narrative”, he says, “but there are additional prisms through which we can understand who we are and what we need to do to become a caring and responsible society.” Van den Berg’s exhibition is a call to sharpen our gaze to recognise and value, rather than repress and disguise, the “masculine other”.
Clive van den Berg is an artist, curator, designer, writer and teacher, who lives and works in Johannesburg. His core projects include the exhibition design at Freedom Park, the artwork integral to the Northern Cape Legislature buildings, the museums at Constitution Hill, as well as several Mandela Foundation exhibitions.
Van den Berg’s work has garnered major awards and features in public and private collections, including the Smithsonian Collections.
Recently, he was the recipient of The Rockefeller Foundation residency in Italy, which supports artists to generate innovative work that engages with global and social issues.
Concurrent to this residency, van den Berg delivered a lecture series in Venice, Bellagio and New York in which he addressed the horror of these killings by ISIS in relation to his new body of work.
All work on A Pile of Stones forms part of van den Berg’s ongoing Men Loving series, which queries what bodies are deemed “legitimate” to mourn and memorialise in societies around the world today.
A Pile of Stones will be on exhibition at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg from 19 January to 15 February 2017.