Brian Nichols: artist as witness

Brian NicholsBrian Nichols is one of those people whose creativity spills out of every particle of his being. He exudes passion and compassion in equal measure.

I first saw his work on the lawn of his house in East City at a studio show fundraiser for the hospice in Zimbabwe which he has visited and worked with annually for the last 7 years. The garden overlooking the river was full of sculptures, t-shirts, paintings, small labyrinths, flowers, fruits and vegetables. His work,  infused with the primary colours of Africa, had an exuberant and childlike charm, but if you looked closer the brightly hued figures held machine guns. They were dying. Their lives were plagued with violence, HIV/AIDS and social injustice.

At a recent talk for the Spark Photo Festival, he spoke of a new project, in which he brought 8 digital cameras to hospitals and schools in a Zimbabwean community and showed people how to use them. Despite daily power outages, the participants, some of whom had never used a computer, were able to photograph their lives and view their own images as stills and simple movies. The fledgling photographers, with their serious faces and stiff poses, began to talk to one another and see themselves not as helpless or as outcasts but as carriers of knowledge and political activists. The gift of empowering people to document their stories restored dignity, comradery, trust; it uplifted spirits and positively impacted the entire community.

Another project he has implemented closer to home is “I’ve Got Balls”, aimed at helping boys in the formative grades 7 and 8 to explore the complexities of what it means to be male. He began by asking the teachers to bring him the biggest troublemakers – no girls allowed. By creating a space where it was safe for boys to say exactly what they felt, secretly worried about and questioned, without fear of ridicule, he was able to get them to open up in ways not often supported in society.

Nichols also stretches the conventions of male identity through his work as part of the local dance troupe Old Men Dancing.

It’s easy to become comfortable in Peterborough and forget the problems of global communities as well as the marginalized in our own.  Nichols, with his background in education and psychology, quickly realized that he did not go to Zimbabwe to help, but to learn.

The line between his work as an artist and his practice as an art and play therapist blur. He works, often at 3:00 am, in a studio overlooking the Otonobee which is filled to the rafters with paintings, art supplies, puppets, hand-screened t-shirts and toys – a space used by himself as well as his patients. Recently he began using pattern and repeating images with silkscreen as a medium to go deeper into his themes. His work serves both to process and provide witness to his experiences in Zimbabwe of grief and sorrow. But his current work goes deeper, into torture: not only how we passively allow such profound pain and loss but also actively cause it.

It seems fitting to listen to the music of Thomas Mapfumo, the Lion of Zimbabwe, as I write this. Like Nichols’ work, the sweet repetitive sounds are deceptively gentle, but carry a darker political message. The art of Brian Nichols has gone beyond self-expression to become a tool for therapy, empowerment, political change both here in Canada and in Zimbabwe.

He is presenting 2 shows in Peterborough this May. Brian Nichols as Witness: New Works from Zimbabwe opens at Dreams of Beans from May 1-12, 2013, with an opening reception on May 3rd, from 6:00-9:00 pm. At the same time another exhibit Covering Up: Corruption will be on display across the street in the window of Catalina’s Salon. 100% of the sales of his work go to support the communities he works with in Zimbabwe.

“The role of art is to change the world,” says Nichols. “I don’t want people to look at my work and think that they get it.”

Stencils by Brian Nichols

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