The pandemic strongly impacted our relation to the Other, leaving a lasting mark even after the lockdowns have been lifted and confinements eased. The Other plays an essential role in the development and upholding of our identity, as 19th-century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard emphasises: “the criterion for the self is always: that directly before which it is a self.”¹ It is in front of the Other, faced with his or her expectations and values, that we take a stand for our world views, decisions and acts, sometimes changing them, sometimes consolidating them. In interaction with other persons, trying to understand their emotions, motives and world views, we come to understand ourselves. And sometimes, we just need to feel being seen.
Missing this constitutive contact with the Other during the pandemic, London-based artist Alias Trate resorted to canvas. While the dialectics of selfhood had always been at the heart of his work, it became a pressing theme in the wake of Covid-19. In his new series Un/becoming, the focus is exclusively on the face – the “corporeal emblem of the other’s otherness.”²
The experience of the last years also drastically changed Alias Trate’s technique. With tiny brushes normally used for miniature art, the self-taught artist meticulously worked on the eyes of his figures. The result is a vivid gaze that at the same time is inward-directed and outward-looking, engaging with the viewer while at the same time keeping a distance.
Counteracting the digital abstractness to which human interactions were reduced during the pandemic, Alias Trate also immersed himself in the physicality of the painting process using his hands to a larger extent than in earlier works. After diligently mixing pure pigments with safflower, poppyseed, walnut or linseed oil, he applies the wet paint to the canvas and uses his fingers, wrapped in turpine-soaked rags, to shape the paint. In this “hands-on approach”, Alias Trate dialectically engages with the material: the thick layers of paint resolutely applied are subsequently removed to create contours – a process Alias Trate repeats several times until a face emerges on the canvas. Carefully moving with his fingers over the surface, he then defines the facial features, thereby exploring the boundaries between self and fictive Otherness. In a time when human touch was rare, paint and canvas became a proxy for the human encounter.
While Alias Trate paints in a trance-like state, with only a vague idea of what or who will arise on the canvas in front of him, he is inspired by existential phenomenology – a strand of philosophy that addresses two interlaced processes of existential becoming: one concerning the relation one has with oneself, and one concerning one’s relation to the Other. These dialectic processes mutually affect each other. The first one is lucidly described by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who calls the self a “relation that relates itself to itself” – that is, the self is a self-reflective synthesis of opposites like freedom and necessity, the temporal and the eternal.³ To become an authentic self, we have to take a stand towards this relation – for example, accepting the fact that we were born in a particular time and into a particular social environment, while also acknowledging the possibilities we have to determine our life ourselves.
We are not simply the result of our upbringing or physical endowments, and we are not just reacting to what happens to us. We are guided by certain values and shape our lives through the decisions we make. Our self is more than our socially, historically and physically determined existence, and this ‘more,’ as the philosopher Leslie Howe puts it, “is the eternal in us, and it can be represented in us by love, the good, ethical life, or the search for God.”⁴ Still, finding our individual synthesis of all the contradicting elements in our soul is hard, often leading to despair. Again, it is Kierkegaard who perspicuously identifies two main kinds of despair: desperately not wanting to be oneself, and desperately wanting to be the self that one is. In the former, one runs away from accepting oneself, unwilling to take responsibility for one’s life and instead always trying to be someone else. In the latter, one is obsessed with rigidly staying the way one is, closing off oneself from opportunities and encounters that might question and change one’s sense of self.
And yet, Kierkegaard also emphasizes that only through struggling does one becomes aware of being a self at all, that is, does one develop a self-reflective relation with oneself. It is these existential struggles that manifest themselves in Alias Trate’s portraits. The ambivalent facial features of the figures point to the double movement of becoming which always involves an un-becoming: in order to be courageous, we have to work through our fear, in order to be generous and truly loving, we have to let go of envy, etc. This dialectic of becoming and unbecoming, of developing and tearing down, is reflected in Alias’ Trate’s approach: while he starts out with a rough sketch of the figure he is going to paint, the outcome usually is something unexpected. Thus, never fully knowing from the beginning what he will create, he works by stripping away shapes and colours applied just minutes earlier. Forgetting himself in this intuitive process of painting, Alias Trate lets hidden emotions come to the surface, allowing conflicting existential states to take shape. His portraits thus testify to the human condition: they speak of pride and gratitude, defiance and humility, resignation and hope – often at the same time.