DEIJ officer unites social justice and art to liberate, uplift, challenge

October 23, 2023
By: Deborah Alvarez O'Neil

Omarthan Clarke’s artwork is on exhibit in “The Miracle Machine” through Dec. 8 at Augusta Savage Gallery 


Intrinsically woven and in continuous dialogue, art and social justice have always been part of Omarthan Clarke’s life. An oil painter and Worcester State’s assistant director of Diversity, Inclusion, and Equal Opportunity, Clarke brings creativity to advocacy spaces and advocacy to creative spaces. 

This fall, Clarke’s artistic vision has propelled transformative diversity and identity experiences at Worcester State and at UMass Amherst. He was one of the originators and organizers of the immersive arts experience during Worcester State’s Unity Day on Sept. 26. The event invited students to create a mural and decorate two “Unity Trees” with charcoal sticks, paint, unfinished wooden ornaments, yarn and pipe cleaners, construction paper, and a variety of bells and baubles. 

Clarke, who has a master’s degree in arts policy and administration from The Ohio State University, and fellow organizers imagined that if the university set the stage, students would lean into the opportunity to create and express themselves on Unity Day. They were right. The event—a first for Worcester State—was a resounding success with hundreds of students painting, sketching, and shaping messages of hope, affirmation, and solidarity. 

At UMass Amherst, Clarke is also the co-curator and a contributor to the exhibit The Miracle Machine at Augusta Savage Gallery through Dec. 8. The exhibit by seven Black artists celebrates Black male visibility. “We exist and we can be anything,” Clarke said. “We can be new fathers, newly married, divorced, and have multiple families. We can be percussionists who meditate. We can be spoken-word artists who come with the most dynamic arrangement of words and images. We can be that silent person who is the videographer or photographer that helps to re-present reality after the event has taken place.”

The artists of “The Miracle Machine: A Black Male Artists Think Tank,” from left, visual artists Imo Nse Imeh, JaJa Swinton, Kahli Hernandez, and Xavier Merkman, with poet Aaron Joseph St. Louis, musician Kevin D. Mason, and Omarthan Clarke. (Photography by Darrius Mylze Johnson)

Other collaborators include visual artists Imo Nse Imeh, JaJa Swinton, Kahli Hernandez, and Xavier Merkman, with poet Aaron Joseph St. Louis and musician Kevin D. Mason. Collectively, the artists consider themes of identity, belonging, brotherhood, and Blackness in a “multidimensional installation (that) challenges the myth of ephemerality in Black life, signaling the Black consciousness as indelible, eternal, and miraculous.” 

The gallery will host an artists’ talk open to the public with all of The Miracle Machine contributors on Thursday, Nov. 2 at 6 p.m.

At Worcester State, Clarke is part of a team that creates policy, leads training, and implements change to comply with federal Equal Employment and Opportunity policy, and move the university toward a more inclusive and just community.

“Beyond the more routine duties, I get to use creative measures to invite different people from different perspectives and backgrounds to share their narratives and pursue a greater understanding of each other’s narratives,” Clark said.

Historically, he notes, creativity and social justice have always gone hand in hand.

“Oppressed people have always had to rely on creativity and imagination to survive, resist, and thrive through the opposition they face. With that, creatives help entire communities to make the best of the life and circumstances they have,” he said. “I utilize creative spaces and creativity to liberate and empower myself while engaging others in celebration of the awesome narratives and stories life has to offer.”

In artwork, says Clarke, meaning is created, often in the moment, by the people present. “I try to discover meaning and redefine meanings and invite others to join in that process. I invite others to examine and engage with the meaning I chose for the moment or particular image.”

In the United States, Western history and stories are taught from grade school; however, there are counter narratives to Western perspectives that are too often overlooked—counter narratives of place, identity, nationality, politics, race, gender. “I’m always trying to discover and re-present counter narratives,” Clarke said. “That is our job, to acknowledge histories that aren’t being acknowledged and are just as relevant.”

Clarke’s own multicultural life informs his artwork. He describes himself as a “Jamerican,” an American raised as a Jamaican who embodies the cultural traits of both nations and identities.

“What inspires me? Life,” Clarke said. “It started with the way I grew up. I’m a multicultural individual inside a multinational citizen. Jamaica is one of the smallest islands and countries and also one of the loudest and most well known. There are some things that come with that. It has had the most rebellions. There is a culture of resistance. A culture of a desire and action taken toward social justice. Those stories and narratives that resonate will be in my work.”

The artists of The Miracle Machine came together through Dr. Imo Nse Imeh, a professor of art and art history at Westfield State University and a longtime friend of Clarke’s. When Dr. Imeh was conceiving the project, he reached out to Clarke. “He started the conversation by saying, ‘This is not an invitation. I know you just started a new job and your wife is pregnant and you have all this going on. I’m telling you to let you know this is happening and you are not invited. If you want to be, I will hear you out.’”

Clarke laughs about the non-invitation invitation now. “He knows me very well. I ended up co-curating the show. He approached everyone with a sincere recognition of their greatness and that makes him a strong leader. Folks can come together with their guards down and that’s how we can achieve such an honest exhibit.”

In his Curator’s Note accompanying the exhibit, Dr. Imeh noted, “It is one thing to wax philosophical about the make and form of African Art objects during one of my course lectures, or to address the necessity of Black freedom in majority White spaces when seated on a DEI panel discussion. But to gather a group of men, who represent so many different facets of life, but who are inextricably linked because of their Blackness and the experiences that orbit this reality—to gather them into a room with the hopes of building something that does not yet exist, takes faith, love, grace, mercy, trust, and honesty. So, this is very personal for me as a Black man who negotiates so many varying public identities, and for all of the contributors to this unique and developing project, who are required to do the same.

As both a contributor and the co-curator of the exhibit, Clarke found himself negotiating new artistic questions with guidance from Dr. Imeh. “You have the responsibility of making sure you give space to all the artists and arrange the show in a way that gives everyone space, voice, presence, and does justice to the fact that they worked to create the works of art. That has to be the top priority … and now when you are contributing you want to do justice to your own work but that is a second priority.”

It was Dr. Imeh who insisted Clarke’s three paintings in the exhibit be moved from a corner to a full wall.

With tenderness, compassion, and respect, Clarke holds generations of father-son relations within his three paintings. Together, they explore Clarke’s transition from newly married man to fatherhood in three encounters: Black man meets fatherhood; Black man meets the Black boy inside; Black man meets love in conception. “I feel I was going through a metaphysical change, and it wasn’t entirely voluntary. I was changing in mind, body, and spirit.”

His paintings, and the others within the exhibit, are accompanied by artist-authored text that provides context for the artworks. A series of photographs of the artists taken by Darrius Mylze Johnson that were originally intended for marketing purposes are also included in the exhibition—positioned on pillars so that viewers must turn their back to the artwork to see the photos. The photography gives visitors an experience of the seven Black men behind the artwork. 

“The one thing we kept saying when we gathered was that we wanted to create an honest exhibit. If it’s nothing else, let it be honest,” Clarke said. “We collectively cared for each other and built rapport through laughter and sharing of narratives. This exhibition is a glimpse of how diverse Black men can be. We have this desire to hold onto this feeling of coming together and feeling safe. We are not trauma bonding, we are life bonding, which is so much more edifying.”

Top Photo: Clarke paints one of the Unity Trees on Unity Day. (Photo by Deborah Alvarez O’Neil)


Leave a Comment

See for yourself what #woolife is all about.

The best way to learn about Worcester State University is to tour our beautiful campus. Be sure to let your student tour guide know your interests so they can personalize your tour.

See the tour schedule