The artist who called himself ManWoman took as his life’s mission the restoration of an ancient symbol stigmatized by the evils of nazism.
ManWoman, who has died at 74, sought to rehabilitate the reputation of the swastika, which he saw as a benign symbol with a millennial history. His crusade failed not for lack of effort – he covered his body with more than 200 swastika tattoos.
He wrote a book titled Gentle Swastika with cover artwork featuring doves roosting inside crooked crosses. He carried the same image in a large tattoo on his back. He also designed a cartoon character called Smiley Swastika.
The difficulty in pursuing a mission to detoxify the swastika can be found in a disclaimer found on his “Friends of the Swastika” web page on which he found it necessary to insist the group held “no political or racist agenda.”
Not surprisingly, his swastika tattoos attracted attention, mostly of the unwanted variety. He was evicted from restaurants, harassed at airports, and once narrowly escaped a beating at the hands of three Jewish bodybuilders at Venice Beach, Calif. A cane-wielding old man once accosted him on the street, smacking him with the cane while yelling, “Fascist!” The artist said he was not disturbed to be a social outcast, or mistaken as a “Nazi biker transvestite.” Besides, he noted, there was at least one benefit – he had plenty of space to himself even in a crowded swimming pool.
The swastika project and his persona as ManWoman overwhelmed his reputation as a prolific artist who lectured widely and had many art gallery shows.
Asked his childhood name, ManWoman would reply, “BoyGirl.” He was born as Patrick Charles Kemball on Feb. 2, 1938, at Cranbrook, a city on the Kootenay River in southeast British Columbia. He described himself as a “normal, beer-guzzling, girl-chasing, car-crazy Canadian youth.”
He studied engineering and architecture at the University of British Columbia before enrolling at the Alberta College of Art in 1959. In 2002, he received an award of excellence from former Alberta lieutenant-governor Lois Hole as one of the school’s notable alumni.
Over the years, ManWoman’s paintings, notable for the vibrancy of colour and the ripeness of sexual expression, were added to institutional collections in Europe and North America. The images were also populist enough to have been purchased by the Canadian comedian Dan Aykroyd for the House of Blues collection, which is displayed at a chain of restaurants and music halls.
The artist had married and started in family in Edmonton, where he taught art. In 1965, while trying to fall asleep in a hotel room at Rocky Mountain House, he had the first of a year-long series of intense visions. He later described being visited by a white-robed elder who marked a swastika on his throat, which he took as meaning he was to spread the word of the symbol’s ancient meaning of goodness and good fortune.
The artist’s first swastika tattoo was imprinted on his pinky finger by an ex-con using sewing needles.
The son of a Polish immigrant mother, he was well aware the mission would place him in conflict with the wider world. He had an aunt and a niece from Poland whose forearms had been tattooed with an inmate number at a German concentration camp. They were rescued when guards accepted a cash bribe, saving them from what would have been almost certain death.
It was during another out-of-body experience that he conjured the name ManWoman with which he signed all his subsequent artwork.
The divine visions he had at age 27, which, he insisted, he experienced without the benefit of drugs, though they did occur a month after a hot rod under which he was working landed on his head, caused consternation.
“My wife was quite concerned how I was going to keep my job and feed the kids when I was going into a trance every two days,” he told the Edmonton writer Mike Ross earlier this year.
The rise of the counterculture in the late 1960s gave ManWoman a ready audience for his more mystical works and sayings, though he still experienced resistance to the swastika revival. He had his name legally changed and expressed delight when his parents began using it.
The visions, inner voice and recurring dreams were part of what he came to call “The Secret Doctrine of the Holy F–-.” He called himself a Warrior of Sacred Imagination and also took the name Manny Jack Lightning. After a decade of wearing long robes with hoods, he began wearing only yellow clothes, from Crocs on his feet to a yellow cap adorned with a swastika on his head.
ManWoman died of bone cancer on Nov. 13, a few months after being diagnosed. He leaves his wife, dentist Dale Sellars, who also uses the name Astarte; a son and three daughters; their mother and his former wife, the artist Mimi Kemball; three grandsons; and a brother.