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Patricia Houghton Clarke’s ‘Facing Ourselves’

Public Portraits Celebrate Immigrants and Their Supporters

Photo: Patricia Clarke“Su Abu,” 2019 by Patricia Houghton Clarke

This ambitious public art project pays attention to the positive public side of our current global immigration crisis. By granting full humanity not only to those who must travel to survive and to do what is right for their families but also to those who understand, appreciate, and shelter these immigrants, Patricia Clarke’s luminous portraits create a sustained sense of human presence that’s at once uplifting and down to earth. 

The project began in Italy in 2011 when Clarke visited the small town of Martignano, where residents have a long history of traveling back and forth to France as seasonal laborers. Thanks to their extensive experience of living out of a suitcase, and to an admirable inner light, the people of this town have chosen to welcome refugees from African nations who have recently come to Italy. By photographing these immigrants and their protectors in intimate settings and chiaroscuro natural light, Clarke caught something extraordinary, a latter-day equivalent of the universality seen in Dorothea Lange’s iconic work documenting those who came to California to escape the Dust Bowl during and after the Great Depression. Yet working as she does in color, and with an intuitive grasp of what will elicit facial expressions loaded with warmth, Clarke’s work is at once documentary and spiritual, allowing the numinous bond between the newcomers and their friends to manifest itself. 

Clarke has since reprised the project in London and Carpinteria, where she will show her latest work at the Lynda Fairly Carpinteria Arts Center and in various public locations around town beginning on Friday, October 18. The outdoor public exhibition of these images at large scale is perhaps the most distinctive feature of the project as a work of community activism. By displaying giant, anonymous portraits of beautiful, happy people, Clarke displaces negative stereotypes around immigrants with reality, thereby inducing a reset of people’s attitudes. Through Facing Ourselves, Carpinteria can expect the light of inner life shining brightly from these outer walls for the world to see.  

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