I’m in Tate Modern and watch five people paint that cannot see. A documentary filmmaker has invited them to draw a self-portrait and a landscape. Three of the painters are blind from birth, while the other two have lost their sight later in life. To make things even more challenging, they don’t have any experience painting and nobody gives advice.
Shambling on bare feet, one painter first tracks the width and length of his canvas that lies on the ground. Another starts right away and squeezes a huge splash of red paint on her sheet. Most choose to paint with their hands – or did they? Maybe the filmmaker deliberately decided to not give them a brush.
Endearing and disturbing at the same time, the documentary intrigues me. As the painters knock over tubes of paint, shuffle over their canvasses and grope for parts that are still wet, their impairment is brutally underlined.
Some people in the audience laugh as a guy keeps grabbling through the air in search of his paint. I can’t help to chuckle too and think: this is vulnerability in its extreme.
What to paint if you have never seen? Sargy Mann who is a professional painter – and blind, has the answer: “As long as your subject is your experience, there’s always a subject.” Take the sun, a blind man might not see it, he could still feel its warmth and paint that sensation.
I imagine it’s scary but just as liberating to create without reference to some ideal picture. Surely I would feel the desire for other people to think well of my work, but unaware of what’s generally appreciated, I could never ignore my authenticity, would not as easily get ‘blind-sighted’ by some alleged ideal.
I feel pity as I see the painters make a mess while they struggle with their self-portraits. Then again, even though the process is clumsy and their artwork unconventional, it’s definitely not void of beauty and purpose – all paintings are honest and true. Isn’t that what really counts?
Of the many works I saw in Tate, theirs draw me most, stirred my thoughts most, made me feel connected most: vulnerable human beings expressing themselves – showing their authenticity. I think they passed with flying colors.
You can still go and see the documentary in Tate ‘till the 10th of January 2016.