• Scott Stiffler

Eye of the beholder: The Contemporary Tribal Surrealism of Bernard Rangel

Bernard Rangel, a self-taught artist whose body of work spans four decades and counting, has exhibited in Sao Paulo, Bahia, Rome, Hannover, Bremen, London, Washington DC, Mumbai, New Delhi, Lisbon, Barcelona, Brussels, Florence, and New York City.

Born in Aden, South Yemen and educated in India, Ireland, and Switzerland, Rangel, in his youth, came to understand that “learning new languages was the best way forward.” The art genre he founded in 2010—Contemporary Tribal Surrealism—attests to that. It is its own language, speaking to the viewer through the prism of their particualr culture, beliefs, and perspective. Find our more about Rangel, from his perspective, at bernardrangel.com and saatchiart.com.


Portrait of the artist


What is Contemporary Tribal Surrealism? Have other artists practiced this art genre created by you? If so, have you functioned as a mentor/consultant?

Contemporary Tribal Surrealism is accessing your unique personal archive through experiences, introspection, therapy, scents, moments, mythologies, sounds, sensations, and images. By removing the blindfold, you access your unique archive. In this archive is your personality, built up over several lifetimes. One lifetime is insufficient to appreciate the magic of life.

I am a spiritualist. I was brought up a Catholic. I went to a boarding school, and witnessed things there I would rather forget. I saw that the church did not even follow its own Ten Commandments. I went looking for the other half that hadn’t been told. Adventure awaited me.

In this journey of making sense of the spiritual energy I felt in me, I went from Yemen, to Ireland, to Berlin, to Jamaica, to Hong Kong, to Spain, to Brazil, and now I am in England. I know that this energy is unique to all individuals, regardless of gender, race, or creed. It nourishes intuition. It is a free, permanent feed, and the more you tap into it, the more interesting it becomes. This is the principal driving factor in life: Go with the flow.

Now I am 62, and have lived in many countries, learned many languages, and engaged with many peoples of different cultures. I have witnessed many events that were unique to the moment. I played in a reggae band, in the late ’70s, in Ireland. I worked on a deep-sea oil exploration ship in the early ’80s, off the coast of Spain. In Brazil, I ran my own chicken business and opened my own hotel. I even had an English language school with a translation service for books, magazines, presentations, and a foreign language representation for schools in Ireland, USA, and England. All the time I was working in these activities, I painted and exhibited my work in the many different countries. I did this in flea markets, galleries, restaurants, banks, and anywhere else that allowed me to exhibit my work.

As an artist, I express my personality and interpretations in my work. It is coherent to my life. Through introspection, I identified my technique—and in honing my skills, Contemporary Tribal Surrealism was born. The logo I use, I created in 1996. Later, through research, I discovered that it was a symbol on an ancient Berber flag, the symbol Yaz: “The Free Man.”

The final name came through a distilling process that took 20 years. In 2010, when I was in New York City, it was defined. I had just finished mountings my paintings in the Amsterdam Whitney Gallery in Chelsea, and the owner asked me the name of my style. I looked at him and said, “Contemporary Tribal Surrealism.” He stood there and repeated the name out loud several times. He said he like how it sounded, as it just rolls off the tongue. I smiled.

Today, I, like everybody else, am living my Contemporary Tribal Surrealist moment. My personality is guiding me in the unfolding of the present, unique period of COVID-19. Whether it is consciously or subconsciously, everyone is in their own Contemporary Tribal Surrealist moment. In fact, consciously or subconsciously, everybody lives in Contemporary Tribal Surrealism—but I believe, most subconsciously. This I know, as I am the only one with this genre in the public domain. This is a reality regardless of the activity, degree, or skill of their development of their practice, professional or otherwise.

With regard, to functioning as mentor or consultant, this automatically happens when artists stop to engage in a conversation. Questions ensue, like, “What inspires you?” “What materials are you comfortable with?” “Where do you get inspiration from?” “What does Contemporary Tribal Surrealism mean?”

My closest friends ask me questions on which path they should take in epic decisions, and I point out realities of their personalities that help them to make their own decisions.


Flock of Birds, Acrylic on canvas, courtesy of the artist


What are some of the most memorable pieces of feedback you’ve receive from those who’ve consumed your output, both online and in a gallery setting?

Two come to mind. The first took place in 1991. I was living in Porto Seguro, Bahia, Brazil. I participated in a collective exhibition of regional artists, and the organisers of an international tennis tournament saw my work. They invited me to paint, live, during the three-day event at the Paradise Hotel. I was cash broke and jumped at the opportunity. During the event I sat in the main foyer of the hotel painting local rustic ceramic pieces.

A participant of the tournament and his son used to sit and chat as I painted. During our conversations I asked them for suggestions, on what elements to paint on the pieces. At the end of the event, the gentleman and his wife bought several pieces and a painting. They paid in cash and told me to deliver the works to their home in Sao Paulo. I arrived there, delivered the works, and they invited me to live in their country home for a few months. During that time, the buyer introduced me to several people and suggested that I should settle and work in Sao Paulo.

One night after dinner, in their town home, the buyer (who was the owner of a nationwide office furniture industry) and I sat to chat. I was curious as to why he bought so many works. He said that he was a natural salesman, and he was impressed how I conducted the sale of my work. This immediately opened my eyes to a reality I have never considered before. He bought the works based on his personality, and in his suggesting the painted elements, there was an emotional attachment. I understood it is important to engage with people and create an emotional attachment.

The second took place in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 1995. I was teaching English. No sooner had I settled in the job, I decided that I needed to execute an art project so big, it would make an impact. As I made the list of all the buyers I knew, to sponsor the project, I realised an important fact. It would be presumptuous of me to get their attention to listen to my needs. I then realised I just need one person. The next day I received a phone call from a lady that had seen the work I had executed, on three floors of a furniture store in the city, with special marble effect on the walls and columns.

She wanted me to paint the ceilings of her flat in a style that no one else had. It was a four-suite flat that took up the entire floor of the building. Upon completion of the job, her husband commented that I was expensive, but his wife was happy and that was important. He then said he was finishing a four-story motel and wanted me to supply the paintings for the suites. I executed 76 paintings, with the theme of the Kama Sutra. I was given five weeks to do it in. I did it with three days to spare. My dilemma at the time was: Should I stop teaching and only paint, or could I do both? I did both. In the morning and evening, I did the teaching, and during the day I painted the works in the top floor of the motel. I used to teach with painted hands in that period.


Woman IX, Acrylic on canvas, courtesy of the artist


How have the social distancing realities of COVID-19 impacted your artistic output, means of access to the art, and daily creative/personal existence?

The impact of COVID-19, for me, is huge. I have 61 new works in progress in the studio, 31 just finished, and the remainder will have to wait until the London lockdown is lifted. My situation is a little more complex, as I need to move to a new studio. The building where the current studio is was sold before the virus came to town. Now I am waiting for it to end, to find a new studio and move, and then set up the new space. Also, with the virus, all exhibitions and art shows are cancelled until after 2020, so access to the public is limited. The social media platforms are now the best option to further build a meaningful profile.

My use of the digital platform started in 1996. When personal computing and the Internet became feasible, I got on board. I saw the potential and embraced the new age. I thought myself vector drawing with Corel Draw and video editing too. Now most of my works are digitally reproduced by me, and a selected few are animated, with After Effects. I post these on my YouTube channel.

I started using the Internet to show my work and engage with people in the ICQ chat rooms. This gave me feedback from around the world. COVID-19 is now forcing people that previously avoided IT technology. They are obliged to learn. It has become a necessity to communicate with family and connect with people. We are in a Twilight Zone. Being restricted indoors, I am now using my digital editing skills to doctor images, creating sharp humorous captions to accompany them, and then post them on social media, with my logo.

My work output has not changed much. I have developed different techniques that allow spontaneity and imagination to flow freely. I paint in specific periods of the year, and then I digitize the works. That helps with sales via T-shirts, mugs, cards and bookmarkers.


Shaman & Bird, Acrylic on canvas, courtesy of the artist


When I first started exhibiting my paintings, people commented on the visceral nature and creativity of the themes. I wanted to invite people on a visual journey. I decided to animate some digitized works so people could appreciate the evolution of a painting.

To me, capturing my imagination and manifesting in a two-dimensional image is a challenge. I keep it simple and never draw out the images prior to execution. The work comes alive with the medium and on the surface. This spontaneity I enjoy, as it pushes my imagination.

From 2009 to 2011, I painted a series of 276 works under the theme “Your Imagination.” I limited myself to four types of design lines and allowed my imagination to flow. I just poured the Indian ink on a specially prepared gold acrylic background and then highlighted the images that the ink trail suggested. Now I rag a diluted Indian ink mix on the same specially prepared gold surface, be it on canvas or paper. I then look at the resulting imprint and extract the final image from there. This process allows my visual archive to reveal itself.

I use the same technique when I paint with acrylic or oil paint. I have made videos showing this dynamic process, they can be seen on YouTube. Technique and awareness of the medium in use is very important, as it gives me confidence in following through to finish the work.


A Thought, Acrylic on canvas, courtesy of the artist


Is your art received differently according to the places all over the world that it’s been seen?

I fuse tribal designs from every corner of the globe, from the ancient past to the present. I allow my imagination to flow freely. I employ techniques that allow a spontaneous expression, and I always keep it simple. Balance the colours, keep the composition basic, keep my discipline, and remain calm. All my energy goes into the work.

When people admire the work and comment, I notice how each person identifies images that are relevant to their visual archive. A work seen by someone from Canada will identify Inuit designs and in the same work a person from South America will see Mayan or another pre-Colombian imagery.

Once, I conducted two different workshops for children. One was in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 2005. The other in Mumbai, India, in 2006. In Brazil the children, aged 6-8, they were encouraged by their art teacher to copy different artists’ works over the school year. At the end of the year, I was introduced to them as a living artist with whom they could interact. It was a fun experience, as they wanted images with sharks dressed as clowns and a variety of other peculiar mixes. I watched as they influenced one another in their behaviour as they painted.

In India, the workshop was very different. The age group was the same, and the children were from different religious backgrounds. This workshop was comprised of 250 children, over a period of a week, in groups of 50. They were children that were cared for by the YMCA. My work is very different from the traditional imagery used in India, which is more naïf in nature. I was exhibiting colourful oil paintings and they saw what was on view. In the back of the exhibition space was an outdoor space prepared for them. They tried to reproduce what they had seen in the exhibition. It was fun as they just splashed the paint all over the place. I saw how the socio-religious behaviour imprinting on the Muslim children was already present at this age. They only painted flowers and geometric designs. The Hindu children painted human figures and lots of animals.


Untitled, Acrylic on canvas, courtesy of the artist


In 2017, I exhibited a collection of works composed of 14 mathematical symbols in Brussels, Belgium. The collection was inspired after I had spent three weeks in Florence, Italy in 2013. I was there participating in the IX Florence Biennale. The architecture of this medieval city is interesting, as all the lines, in the streets, are going to a vanishing point. I was bombarded with this linear onslaught. On my return to London, I painted a series of assorted mathematical symbols. The reason I painted them was to show how we are all subconsciously governed by mathematics in every activity we do, but most people, consciously dislike maths.

So, I noticed, over the three days of the international art fair, how the public reacted to the collection. Children, accompanied by their parents, stopped and did sums and spoke out loud, multiplication tables. A Greek gentleman saw the Golden Ratio and Eternity symbols and started speaking Greek to me. Then there was a Japanese couple that saw the Greater Than and Less Than symbols and commented on the Kanji writing. A mathematician stopped and commented on the simplicity of the symbols. I explained to him why I did the paintings and he left the space a little more enlightened.

Like I said, I apply basic rules to my work: energy, composition, harmony, colour balance, simplicity, and imagination. There are many layers to a painting. They can be identified when focusing on a different colour field. Each layer allows for a different interpretation. This changes as soon as you identify one element, another appears and when you try to return to the first element the painting has changed. The imagination is dynamic.

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