Bradley McCallum, who constitutes half of the artist duo McCallum and Tarry alongside Jacqueline Tarry, has a distinguished solo career as well. A series of paintings he created in part during a residency at the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, Weights and Measures, has been exhibited at venues around the world. Arcade Project sat down with him in his studio to discuss the history and potential future of this monumental undertaking.
Arcade Project: You were recently the artist-in-residence at the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, where you worked on your series of portraits of defendants standing trial at the ICC. What interested you in working with this particular institution?
Bradley McCallum: If you look at the legacy of the International Criminal Court you are also looking at the legacy of its first prosecutor, who only brought forward African cases, and it becomes racially and geographically charged in terms of a kind of post-colonial thinking that is embedded in this body of work. I think that’s one of the reasons why I was honored to have the work included in the show that Koyo has done at the Eva biennial in Limerick, Ireland, called Still (the) Barbarians. As a curator, she is looking at the hundred year anniversary of the Easter Uprising in Ireland, when Ireland started to pull away. I have a suite of six black and white paintings in that exhibition. This body of work is not shown its entirety, but it’s a healthy contribution to the exhibition that helps to underscore those threads of discourse and critique. Part of what I’m doing is dissecting and pulling apart power, masculinity, race, and absence. I want to make visible the absence [of leaders like George Bush and Dick Cheney]. I want to try to find a way of using art to engage this complex new Washington judicial structure and to be able to pull back the curtain a little bit.
AP: I think this brings in the question of race, what do you think of your position exploring this subject being white and American? I also imagine what would shift if the work was produced by a black / African artist, how it would be received versus being produced by a white man…
BM: …Or by an American, or a white South African, or versus someone from former Yugoslavia. That is always going to be part of the work. I think there are many artists who make work that’s 100% drawn from their own lived experience, and then there are other artists who draw from outside of their experience. I think being the other affords a flexibility in perspective and a point of entry that, at least I hope, will have an impacting and engaging experience for the audience.
AP: How many portraits are there total, and how many defendants have there been in ICC proceedings?
BM: At this point there are sixteen portraits, and there might end up being eighteen large scale ones. The number of total defendants is massive: The Yugoslavian tribunal alone has completed 232 cases. If you only looked at that one tribunal it’s immense. For the tribunal for special crimes in Cambodia there are not as many, but there are a handful of key individuals that have been tried. At the ICC there have only been two cases at this point where the guilty verdict has gone through the whole appeal process. There are four instances in which cases have been suspended: The cases for the president and vice president of Kenya were suspended for a range of different reasons. One of the key reasons is that the evidence they had when they [were] indicted was dependent on spoken testimony and those witness either recanted their testimony, or in some cases disappeared.
We’ll see whether that is the fault of the prosecutor at the time or if it’s just an example a new court trying to get their shit together. Whatever it is there are cases that have been pulled back. What Kenya has done in a really effective way is to shape and brand the ICC as a post-colonial court that’s only interested in Africans. This ideal of international justice that people signed on to, they’re claiming, isn’t being manifested and should just be undone. But that’s also why, and very intentionally, I’m not just looking at the ICC. Because that by itself is a tunnel that one could get lost in. That’s why the other tribunals are key.
AP: How do you determine who you are painting? I imagine that you don’t intend to depict every single leader who has been tried. There must have been a very careful choice in who you decide to paint. Do you want to talk about how those choices were made?
BM: In some cases it’s people whose cases are well known internationally. Milosevic or Karadzic are some of the highest profile cases, people who had the greatest power, sort of hand in hand. In some cases it based on my finding images that were just so compelling and striking that I was like, “Holy shit that’s an intense image. Let me understand more about the case.” In each case it has come from different points of view. In some cases it’s an attorney who’s worked for the court who said “Brad, have you thought about this person?” “You need to understand this case or this subject.” It’s been a spectrum, sometimes with influences from people who work in the field saying that something might be an important contribution to the project.
This project began with Thomas Lubanga and his case: it was the first painting I made. It’s from a photograph that was taken at the moment his guilty verdict was being read. You can just feel the intensity of his gaze, and anger, and “what the fuck?” It’s all there. That one moment captures the complexity. That’s not always the case. That same level of intensity isn’t true with every single defendant’s image. But, I think as a collective portrait you won’t see them individually, you’ll see them in relationship to each other. That, to me, is very important.
AP: Why the doubling? Why did you decide to add a colored version to the black and white series? Is there any specific reason?
BM: I think on many levels it’s talking about a portrait of someone’s psyche, the internal landscape. It’s about how these men present themselves in that judicial space, how people present themselves to the world, and how we might interpret what their internal space is. It’s about guilt and innocence. It’s about the idea of judicial structures in which you are innocent until proven guilty, but how do you measure that when the allegations are so severe? How do you begin to think about morality, individual responsibility, and accountability in a landscape that is so fraught with the legacy of the pain of others? Those are things that are intertwined. The first of the the colorful, hyper-real paintings was so strong and powerful, but as the series grew the impact of that first painting gradually diminished. It didn’t have the criticality that I think is essential.
This time last year there was a rethinking of the project, a re-imagining, trying to pull it apart. It was in that process that I started to paint the reversals. The moment the first one was done, I thought, “Yeah, this actually is the solution.” The color portraits need the reversals. Maybe the reversals don’t need the color portraits as much. That became a very interesting discussion in the studio and with myself, thinking: “Okay, do I just take the color paintings and turn them to the wall and move on and only focus on this aspect of the project?”
I think, for me, there is going to be something very powerful and experiential when you see them opposite and facing each other. When you walk down a corridor you see them looking at themselves. You see this internal landscape and the external self facing each other. At least that’s what’s compelling me to take on this monumental task.
AP: You’re kind of developing a kind of legacy for corrupt leaders whom society should probably be dealing with. They should probably be behind the bars. Do you think about that at all?
BM: Oh, absolutely. It’s not about memorializing them, but it’s about using portraiture to look at this moment when a collective of nations looks for justice. It hasn’t always been this way. This is something that’s of our time that crosses ideas of regional politics, of nations. There is this sense of when you break down basic humanity to such a degree, what next? There’s the sense of knowing not only who they are, but knowing that this isn’t Milosevic at the pinnacle of his power, this is when he has to answer for the decisions he made that led to genocide.
AP: Have you ever considered doing blank canvases? Because apparently the U.S. made an agreement with the United Nations and the ICC, which is why Bush and Cheney cannot be arrested and tried for war crimes…
BM: We haven’t signed the ICC. We are not signators. To me that’s one of the things that was really inspiring. Camille Massey, a lawyer who runs the Sorenson Center, which is a legal institute at CUNY, joined me at the Ideas Festival at the Aspen Institute last summer. She has been close to this project, and when we were talking, she had a very similar idea. There was an artist at the Venice Biennale who had in their installation this one set of canvases that were just stacked up. You could see there were things that were ready to go but then there was a way of strategizing that, to me, complements the paintings or works against them. One is a series of photographic portraits of people who have been at the forefront of shaping these structures of justice which itself becomes an interesting question on race and gender and hegemony.
When you begin looking, when you think about this as a collective portrait, then you begin thinking about who’s there and who’s not there. That’s absolutely what motivates the thinking around the exhibition.
AP: If I walked into the gallery and saw these paintings without context, I would engage them as beautiful portrait paintings. I think it’s fascinating, the research you’ve done behind this whole body of work.
BM: The third body of portraits are audio sculptures and audio installations. There will be samples from the testimony given by witnesses and victims, testimony that is publicly available that was given during trials.
It’s not necessarily a one to one correlation. So you won’t be standing in front of a painting and hearing that person’s victim. It’s not about that at all. It’s more about creating moments of reflection or counterpoint within the painting. If you think about moving through or past four or five paintings and then there’s an immersive sound experience and then there might be another ten paintings after that. There are different pools of sound that will be weaving together testimony and witness accounts from across regions, across languages, and in many cases used within the court so that you have the English and French translations that run simultaneous as well as some recorded interviews that will be done during the duration of the project so that there is a layering of voice. The voice of the individual becomes an ephemeral space but also adds to the criticality of the paintings, giving the idea that these aren’t just pretty portraits.