The Black Portraits is a unique human rights project and is still in the process of being put in place by its creator, British artist Paul Piercy. When completed, it will be a travelling exhibition of 20 large oil paintings of human rights defenders, who have faced persecution for their work in their own contexts. Their heads, in the final portrait, are in black impasto, while their contexts are depicted in full colour.
The portraits—oil on canvas—are being created for public exhibition, and are not for sale. The first such exhibition is scheduled to begin on September 12, 2012, at Newcastle in the United Kingdom.
The 20 human rights defenders, whose stories have been researched, are spread across many countries and continents. Some are famous while some others are less known to the world. So far fifteen of the portraits are complete and the rest are in various stages of completion. They include portraits of Aung San Suu Kyi, the well known champion of democracy in Myanmar, Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian investigative journalist and human rights activist,who reported extensively on the complicity of vested interests in the Chechen conflict and was shot dead in her apartment complex in 2006, and Cu Huy Ha Vu, the Vietnamese critic of corporate mining of bauxite by the Chinese in his country on environmental, cultural and human rights grounds. Vu has been in jail since 2010 for “spreading anti-state propaganda” and “plotting to overthrow the communist government of Vietnam”.
Also on the list are Cuban dissident Orlando Zapata, who died protesting prison conditions in his country, Iranian spokesperson for academic freedom Majid Tavakoli, who was arrested and sentenced to an eight-year prison term for making a speech about the disputed Iranian elections in 2009, Congolese human rights advocate Floribert Chebeya Bahizire, who faced harassment and imprisonment many times before he was murdered in 2010, and Azimzhan Askarov, who suffered torture in prison in Kyrgyzstan for refusing to hand over his footage documenting Kyrgyz atrocities on the Uzbek community.
To create the portraits, Piercy travelled across the world to sit with his subjects wherever possible, and worked from photographs and other material where this was not feasible. In each case, he first created a life-like colour portrait, and then painted the context of the subject's life based on his painstaking research, done both from home in England as well as at the site of the portrait sitting.
It is only when he and the subject (or those representing the interests of the subject) are in agreement on these basics, that the process of erasing colour from the heads of the human rights defenders begin, and one is finally left with a black silhouette against a scene of action and turmoil that is the background to each person's story in the series.
Taken together, the portraits are a living testimony to the state as a centre for the oppression of its ordinary citizens in the world's multi-hued political systems, and to the human spirit's resistance and resilience in the face of the bleakest repression. One does notice the absence of portraits from any of the first world countries, and this raises questions about the many readings and interpretations of the relationship between the state and its people. However, looking at the entire series together, the similarities in the lives of human rights defenders spread across continents are evident to the viewer, and the commonalities far outweigh differences of script or culture.
We had the good fortune to visit the artist at his home near Hadrian's Wall in England, and to have a private viewing of the portraits, including the one that Paul painted of Binayak for the series.