Nelson Lowhim: The Artist

Southern Legitimacy Statement: Was in the south when in the Army. Good times. Or not. Here’s a piece about the scars some carry along with their long and sordid history.

The Artist

I once knew a painter, artist type, his face scarred up something fierce. We did dishes in the back of South Hall’s kitchen, a place filled with locals, a handful of Somali refugees, and a Chinese gentleman who didn’t speak a lick of English but managed the place and pointed and grunted us to our positions or tasks. The artist was separate from all these groups. He never claimed a nation. He spoke several languages, to include English and Swahili and he’d sometimes converse with the Somalis, whose transcontinental refugee travels had them speaking a few languages as well, though not as well as the artist. Besides, I was sure that the artist wasn’t Somali, as he seemed too dark for that—melatoninly speaking.

Nevertheless, we struck up something like a friendship, being the two ones who didn’t really belong to a group or obvious power structure of note in that kitchen, but especially since I took his side when the others mocked his self-label of “the artist”. I would observe him, trying to piece his story together—everytime it was something different, as if he wasn’t sure of his own memories—and I’d stare as discretely as possible at his scars—who did that to him?

One day there was break in whatever wall he erected around himself. One of the locals, black, was arguing with the Somalis that they too were black, after all, they were from fucking Africa, weren’t they? The Somalis balked at the idea, said no they were not black. I was asked to intervene by the Somalis, to tell the local that they weren’t African or black. I paused. There with the clanging of dishes and stench of hundreds of pounds of wasted cafeteria food, I formulated an answer that was far too useless for the moment; that race here and there were different, that here darkness was an inkblot stain that rarely required much nuance beyond a prefix of “sand” and for the rest it was simply that word, or black and yet elsewhere things were complicated, more nuanced. The local wouldn’t have it, asking the Somalis if they too were followed when they entered a store.

The argument ceased when the lunch time rush hit and the clanging of trays pulled us all back to our respective stations. The artist, placing the dishes on their racks, shook his head. Divide, divide, kill, wherever man goes.

I didn’t quite get if he was referring to my mention of tribal politics and the nuance of “black” in Africa, or the argument between the local and the Somalis. However, his tone was friendly enough and so I listened on.

Beneath it all, he said, beneath the skin, it’s all the same, all flesh and blood, and he pointed to his scars, deep ravines, all across his face, beautiful, like a madman’s canvas, and I wondered for a moment if he had done it to himself to prove his own humanity.

Nevertheless, there was a mournful pretense in the air and I, hardcore atheist, got a sense of why people believe in ghosts. Later on he opened up some more, claiming that the world was between the wolves and the sheep. Again, I didn’t know what he was talking about, but the solemnity of his voice was enough to assign the comment much gravitas.

I asked him who did that to his face. He didn’t answer. I asked if he had done it to himself, and he shot me a sharp look and said no, then mumble something about how Empire masked was still better than Empire unmasked. No idea what that meant. But again, the tone forced me to assign it a level of wisdom it might not have deserved.

He came over to our co-op for drinks and a few vodkas opened him up some. The scars he’d received at the mercy of a torturer at a refugee camp. Again, he didn’t mention the country, or where the torturer was from, or what exactly he had been doing that brought suspicion upon him. The artist, or X as he called himself, made it seem like all torture was an act, a play meant to teach what power was. The Iliad for us modern time dwellers, he said. He didn’t say which character, or god, represented the torturer or the victim. But we—the whole stoned coop was listening at this point—plied him open with more vodka and he told us how he was grabbed, for no reason than being at the wrong place at the wrong time and how his tormentor, an obvious madman, claimed to be an artist and a priest and that he was going to figure out the conspiracy. When X claimed innocence of any conspiracy, the torturer told him to be quiet, told him that it didn’t matter, that this was about art and science, this was about the future.

And so with a knife and open fire, the torturer carved out what he thought was the conspiracy, the history of colonialism, of tribes in the area that were natural collaborators, and he drew diagrams of the conspiracy, then he projected all that unto the future.

The torturer had books all around him, and food and drink and smelling salts. Over time he went too far and the artist passed out. The torturer would wake X up with the salts then feed and give the artist drinks, nursing his “canvas” back to health, apologizing even.

It was weird man, he was seriously crazy, hurting me, cutting me, telling me it was all for the people, the oppressed, that he was for all the poor people that he just had to use my skin to find the truth, to solve the future. I would beg and beg for him to stop, to just use a piece of paper, but then he would claim that my screams were part of the solution. Crazy man. X took a swig of vodka. That’s what power does to people, it makes you use other people’s skin when pieces of paper would be enough. X looked at us all accusingly. Again, I wasn’t sure what he meant.

He went on: And he kept saying he was for the people. Shit, man, he was so full of shit. He got paid by all sorts of Western agencies for translating my screams. The people my cock.

We didn’t correct his misuse of our language, but peppered him with question after question.

At one point the torturer had the gall to claim traditional medicine as his reason for this process, but X had studied enough to know of no such traditional process. Most likely the madman had taken American movies and conflated them with whatever views of tradition he came up with. And soon after this claim, the madman was claiming a traditional artist’s birthright. That night ended with X passed out from too much drink or too much memory.

Later on, I asked X how that encounter with a self-processed artist, the madman, had turned him into an artist. X claimed he didn’t know, but after he had escaped, he found himself with the desire to inflict what he had suffered upon others. He realized that perhaps the madman had, with his careless stupidity, cast a spell upon him. He started to carve and paint the same pattern from his skin onto paper and canvas and soon they were making sense, believe it or not.

He couldn’t believe it, had the madman been right? X interpreted the history on his skin and it was accurate. I asked, excited, if he had figured out the future. No, he said, after hesitating a little too long, he hadn’t figured out the future part yet, but he was close—that’s why he was an artist.

Then I asked him if he ever wanted revenge on the madman. He shook his head. Why not? He was tired of revenge. But also he respected the madman, not because of the accuracy on his skin—that could still have been done on paper—but because he made X an artist. How to hate a man who helped you with your calling? I paused, not sure if that made sense, not sure if perhaps the entire story was crazy.

I quit soon after that, keeping tabs of X, glad when he found fame, his scarred face inexorably plastered all over the art world. I always wondered if he had seen the future in his artwork, or if others saw it or sensed it and thus loved it without knowing why. Or perhaps he simply had to repeat what the madman had done to come to terms with so horrific an event. And maybe he did see the future, see that being an artist was the only way out.