Furtive blow-jobs in alleyways, street hustlers about to enter cars, call boys idling the evening away until the next client arrives — these are the scenes that South African artist Philip Swarbrick needed to paint after 30 years of suppressing the homosexual direction of his art.
Currently on exhibition at the Adonis Art Gallery of London — one of Nightcharm’s favorite sites — Swarbrick’s work is notable for figures that gaze directly at the viewer, as if to make us complicit in their secret and silent transactions. Once again we witness the exotic blooms and outlaw sex that seem to thrive in the hot-house atmosphere of repressive right-wing governments.
Growing up under South African apartheid with its "draconian laws forbidding homosexual contact," the 49-year-old Swarbrick says it wasn’t until he had been a policeman, a comic book artist, and finally the head of the art department at an English college that he was ready to hear the advice of a sage 80-year-old colleague, who told him to "stop farting around" and start concentrating on his painting — "for better or for worse."
In fact, Swarbrick had wanted to paint male nudes ever since his early teens, when he first saw Charlton Heston as Michelangelo in the Agony and Ecstasy (a movie notable for providing the unapologetically gay Michelangelo with a girlfriend!)
"Inwardly I was seething with anger " he says in an interview that appears on the Adonis site. "Somehow many years had passed when I had been diverted from my original quest and passion."
It was an anger that would fuel such paintings as Sacrifice (at left) where a naked skinhead has cut out the heart of a waylaid gay youth. Would it be too much of a stretch to read into the balls-out nudity of the skinhead the sort of blatant homophobia that feels totally entitled to its hatred? Is this violent painting not the very flower of apartheid, of a system where homosexual contact is rigorously and righteously forbidden?
As a young South African policeman, Swarbrick had to enforce this same apartheid at the very beaches where he had discovered — and first satisfied — his teenage urges.
"During my pre-teens I frolicked on Rocket Hut Beach a half mile from where I lived," he says. "The beach was inhabited by mainly male sunbathers who sprawled out in the sanctuary of the sand dunes. As I reached my early teens, the male form I admired and featured in my drawings fused with my progressively emerging (and apparent) homosexuality. My drawings disturbed my family and peers so my venture into this sort of art was abruptly curtailed.
"As I grew older, my daytime and nocturnal activities on Rocket Hut Beach increased… I was conscripted into the South Africa Police and I teamed up with like-minded officers. We regularly raided the numerous cruising areas around Durban, ‘apprehending’ those ‘soliciting with intent’," he adds humorously, for of course, his "like-minded" crew had only one intent in mind — raiding the trousers of their moonlight catches.
"As I became more politically aware, enforcing apartheid became impossible and I left the country." Arriving in London, Swarbrick suppressed the homosexual content of his work and became known as a painter of anti-apartheid themes.
"The thrust of 20th century art concentrated on the female form," reflects Swarbrick, below. "My aim is now to redress the balance. As with the ancient Greeks and Renaissance artists, we should celebrate our masculinity. I want the opportunity to create alluring, challenging and evocative imagery using the male form as a medium of carnal and intellectual expression.
“In an historical context, I believe the acceptance of homosexuality is a good measure of democratic tolerance over religious and cultural zeal. Rather than hide my flame under a bushel, my intention is to set the whole damn thing ablaze — after all I have waited almost 30 years to do so. "
To learn more about Philip Swarbrick, as well as to purchase his art, visit the Adonis Art Gallery of London, which specializes in homo-hot, homo-centric paintings, drawings and photography.