Michèle Pearson Clarke: Making a statement about queer female masculinity by raising voices — and wrinkles

Toronto photo laureate Michèle Pearson Clarke can tick off a list of things that don’t scare her. She’s jumped out of a plane. She isn’t afraid of talking on stage in front of large groups of people.

But the thought of singing in public fills Clarke with panic.

“I have never sung karaoke, I mouth the words at sporting events,” she says. “I’ve had this lifelong shame of my singing voice and feeling like I’m a bad singer.”

Yet Clarke’s art practice, which focuses on the intersections of Black and queer experiences with grief, trauma and loss, often requires her subjects to reveal intimate parts of themselves.

“It got me thinking about what it means to be an artist who is asking people to be vulnerable in front of the camera,” Clarke says. “As a self-reflexive move, I became interested in what it would mean to put myself in my most vulnerable place.”

Clarke’s first solo exhibition, “Michèle Pearson Clarke: Muscle Memory,” which runs Feb. 12 to May 22 at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, sees the Trinidadian-born artist walking the walk — and singing the song.

The show is comprised of two installations, both autobiographical in origin: “Quantum Choir,” a four-channel video, and “The Animal Seems to Be Moving,” a series of self-portraits.

“Quantum Choir” is a four-channel video erected on metal scaffolding. Before entering the minimalist structure, visitors will encounter a grid of soccer balls and pylons on the floor — a nod to Clarke’s favourite sport and a place where masculine bodies are celebrated. But it also serves an artistic purpose, requiring people to do a little footwork to get into the main show.

Beyond the balls, visitors can watch and listen to Clarke and three other queer masculine singers perform one of her favourite songs, John Grant’s “Queen of Denmark.” Covered in 2012 by Sinead O’Connor, the track is a soaring anti-Romantic ode that sets the tone with its opening line: “I wanted to change the world/But I could not even change my underwear.”

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“I knew I wanted a song that had an edge to it,” says Clarke. “I wanted a love song, but also one that would give us a chance to have a moment.”

Clarke approached trans non-binary opera singer and vocal coach Teiya Kasahara with the idea of prepping the choir for their big debut. Kasahara is also known as the balcony soprano, who, during the early days of the pandemic, regaled online audiences and inspired tears with their gorgeous waterfront balcony renditions of classics such as “Ave Maria.”

Kasahara warned Clarke that “Queen of Denmark” might be a tough first track for newbies. “It’s difficult to sing that melodically low for female-bodied people, which didn’t occur to me, but it was just all part of the challenge,” says Clarke.

The choir begins by performing breathing exercises they learned from Kasahara. There’s some nervous fidgeting and shoulder rolls as the four warm up their voices, making hissing sounds and blowing raspberries.

“We’re not acting,” says Clarke. “There is a metaphorical piece around the prep, the amount of investment of labour and time and, frankly, emotion for all of us.”

Around the six-minute mark, they review the sheet music and begin to sing. As an “audience,” the experience is akin to that anticipatory moment at karaoke night when you’re rooting for a nervous singer.

One can choose to move around the space and listen closely to each individual, all of whom were recorded separately, or stand in the centre to take in the full harmonic experience. Clarke imagined building tension by having moments where singers perform alone.

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“You’re extra vulnerable when you’re by yourself, but then you’re also in this collective embrace,” says Clarke. “We know in life, it’s so much easier to do a hard thing if other people are holding your hand. I wanted to make a piece where it felt like we were holding each other’s hands to get through this thing together.”

The choir might not make “The Voice,” but there’s a real delight in hearing their voices and swaying bodies come together to sing, “Why don’t you take it out on somebody else? Why don’t you bore the sh*t out of somebody else?”

The video may appear to be about overcoming fear, but many questions arise. Is there a culturally determined good singing voice? Does having an accent like Clarke’s affect that cultural perception? And how do we judge queer female masculinity?

Clarke says, “This piece is not trying to say, ‘Oh, poor us, we’re very masculine.’ It’s reflecting on what that means in this culture, but also finding joy and pleasure in coming together to do this thing and have fun and, for the briefest of moments, feel like a boy band.”

If Clarke’s second installation, “The Animal Seems to Be Moving,” was named after a band, it would be Boys II Men. The series of self-portraits addresses Clarke’s own body as a masculine queer female.

For as long as she can remember, Clarke, who turns 49 in March, had been mistaken as being a much younger boy. She’s lost track of times she was carded by people who thought she was 16. But a few years ago, as she was brushing her teeth, Clarke noticed a few new wrinkles in the mirror, an observation that made her laugh. Shortly after though, she began observing how people started to treat her differently. Being read out in the world as a middle-aged Black man, she knew, comes with greater risk and unsafety.

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“It’s been common my whole life to experience hostility because of my gender presentation. But after that day, I noticed I had a few particularly volatile interactions with folks who thought that I was a man and reacted in ways of fear or clamping down in power,” says Clarke. “I was really struck by that emotional response, and its absurdity.”

The photos, which were shot on a Hasselblad on medium-format film, plays with tropes of masculinity. In one series, Clarke sports a glitter moustache, in another, her T-shirt is pulled over her head like a petulant child. A favourite is Clarke — who actually enjoys aging and giggles over the photos — posing topless in a silly cowboy hat and beach shorts, flexing her muscles for the camera.

“My invitation is for people to look and wonder what is happening. I hope it really exaggerates that sense of the absurdity of the gaze and the perception of my body as a threat,” Clarke says. “Making these photographs was a fun, pleasurable, freeing thing that allowed me to reclaim the process and the experience of aging for myself.”


Sue Carter is deputy editor of Inuit Arts Quarterly and a freelance contributor based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @flinnflon


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