Open menu Open menu hover pink Close menu Close menu hover pink
O Magazine
2015-2017

Mati Klarwein: Pop Afrocentrism

By Marcos Gendre

.

The day in which Mati Klarwein gave shape to his “portable” chapel, known as Aleph Sanctuary, he would never have imagined his work might arouse Santana’s curiosity. One day, reading a magazine, the guitar player of Mexican origin saw several pictures of the paintings that formed Klarwein’s pictorial chapel. One of them, Anticipation, ended up on the cover of one of his LPs, Abraxas, which since 1970, only in the United States, has sold more than five million copies.

.

That same year, Jimi Hendrix and Timothy Leary spent four days tripping in Klarwein’s chapel. At the same time, Miles Davis gave birth to Bitches Brew, the cover of which had been commissioned to Klarwein, one of the most clarifying aspects of the same part of opposite elements: strength and weakness, loneliness and community, rage and love. Such an approach projects the idea of equivalence of the contraries that also conforms the fabric of the record. An electric guitar among three keyboards; an electric and an acoustic bass guitar; so much so that each drum kit and keyboard had to have its own channel in the final sound mix. The analogy between its sonic fruit salad and the chromatic contrast distilled on the cover flows as though they were communicating vessels of the same idea: the consummation of jazz fusion. It’s as though Klarwein could have painted his painting with the sounds included on every groove. Likewise, the radicalization of Miles’ message in Bitches Brew is a trip towards an ideal Afrocentric Arcadia, mile zero. Black Power was at its peak, and Klarwein formalised this through two central colours: red and black, which represented Africa’s spirit of resistance, as it was reflected in the rituals celebrated by the Tshidi tribes, both during pre and post-colonial times. These tribes belonged in the border between South Africa and Botswana. For the Tshidis, black, red and white were the three colours that represented the coming of age towards adulthood. White was the colour used for movement and transformation, black was an indicator of depression and coldness, while red represented menstruation blood and the power of creation. All this symbolism permeates the cover of Bitches Brew, although where it had a direct relationship with Tshidi rituals was on the cover of Live-Evil, also by Klarwein. “I was painting the portrait of a pregnant woman for the cover and the day I finished it, Miles called me and told me: ‘I want a photograph of life on the one side and of evil on the other.’ And the only thing he mentioned was a toad. Then, next to me there was a copy of Time Magazine with J. Edgar Hoover on the cover, and he looked like a toad. I told Miles I had found the toad.”

.

At the same time that Klarwein was projecting with images the notion of a return to Mother Africa, his work was being associated to the symbiosis between the radicalization of activist black music and the evolution of this music towards new harbours. His paintings produced between 1970 and 1972 were widely used as record covers by a great deal of black musicians with clearly liberal inclinations, such as Buddy Miles, Reuben Wilson, The Chambers Brothers, Eric Dolphy and Osibisa, but also by Malcolm X, for whom he made the cover of By Any Means Necessary, an album that includes a speech given by the mythic black leader. Apart from his connection to Malcolm X, Klarwein ended up giving visual shape to the Black Nationalism invoked by The Last Poets. This is how he gave an aura of fantastic realism to the cover of This Is Madness, their second LP. Only a year later, the conception of urban surrealism with which he visualised the rage of The Last Poets reached a more psychedelic stage with Last Days and Time, by Earth, Wind & Fire. As on the record covers for Miles and The Last Poets, fire is again one of the main elements: the liberating focus of the African American consciousness, representing a two way road: the strength of emancipation on the message and the concept of destroying the systems that the musical industry had established to confine black music within genres meant for the white community. Reuben Wilson’s acid-jazz, Miles Davis’ vindication of funk, The Last Poets’ proto hip-hop and the concept of tri-dimensional funk devised by Earth, Wind & Fire; no matter the branch, Klarwein always managed to embrace each message. In the case of his representation of the music of Earth, Wind & Fire, Klarwein let his devotion for Salvador Dalí run wilder than ever. The echoes of the Spanish painter’s works in pop iconography is eloquently materialised through Klarwein. The conception of the Earth’s elements couldn’t make more sense than on an album by a band called Earth, Wind & Fire; in this case, through a sexual act between fire, the human mind and the cosmos. This need to link human intangibleness and the elements of the Earth was an intrinsic part of Klarwein’s most psychedelic paintings, also visible in …And a Happy New Year, the cover of one of Jimi Hendrix’s posthumous albums.

.

As of 1973, the artist’s career took on a more spiritual path. Thus, at the end of the seventies, he became interested in the fourth world and ambient music fields. His are some covers for Jon Hassell’s albums, such as Aka Darbari Java, a typical example of his ability to synthesise, the same with which, in a crucial crossroad of interests, Mati Klarwein granted abstract expressionism to some of the works that gave birth to the direction of African American music and ideals.