This work was painted as the final installment of a series of paintings Graham Toms created for an exhibition entitled “Apocalyptic Visions.” The series was part of an intellectual investigation of the cultural phenomenon of millennialism. At the turn of the 10th and 11th centuries, the 15th and 16th centuries and again at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries, Western Civilization has tended toward a preoccupation with apocalyptic prophecies and a fear of an impending End of Days. In recent years, this preoccupation has again reemerged, but this time, not only among traditional religious communities. Millennialism has ubiquitously appeared as a meme throughout pop-culture. In the last couple of decades, we have been inundated with a plethora of documentaries and publications reexamining the Book of Revelations, the writings of Nostradamus, the Mayan calendar as well as movies featuring Indigenous Americans and Egyptians conflated with extraterrestrials in the context of cataclysmic global destruction in 2012.
A pious intellectual, Graham Toms, found this pop-cultural phenomenon simultaneously fascinating and disturbing. For Graham, Eschatology, is a serious discipline requiring rigorous hermeneutics, semiotic sophistication, a respect for the complexity of the process of deriving meaning and an appreciation of the cultural context in which interpretation takes place. It is the artist’s contention that the current cavalier exploitation of eschatology, by both religious and secular constituencies, has amounted to trivialization. Despite years of serious study of the Book of Revelations, Toms ardently insists that he is by no means a master of its mysteries, but he is thoroughly acquainted with them. Graham felt compelled to offer his own visual eschatological commentary and to put that into a contemporary cultural context. In doing so however, he was intent on avoiding what he perceived as common pitfalls. Toms did not want to simply illustrate scary Bible stories; nor did he want to feed the pop-cultural superstition about the year 2012. Instead, the artist chose to use the imagery found in the apocalyptic text as a metaphor to examine environmental, social and political phenomenon in the current era.
In the first painting of the series, entitled “Chernobyl,” Toms shows an archangel sounding a trumpet which spews figural hell-spawn into an ominous pneumonic image that alludes to a radiation warning symbol. In the background, we see the denuded forests surrounding the notorious nuclear reactor. Graham observed that the “wormwood” in the apocalyptic text equated to the word “Chernobyl” in the Russian language. The painting was a warning of our irresponsibility leading to environmental annihilation.
In the painting entitled “The Four Horseman,” Graham depicted the bringer of death astride a pale horse festooned with hypodermic needles as it charges across a poppy field landscape in Afghanistan. The horse is preceded by a shock wave headed toward a disintegrating Islamabad, the capital of the nuclear armed Pakistan. The painting was intended as an examination of the consequences of the War on Drugs and its escalation to a War on Terror.
In his work entitled “The Sakhrah,” Toms addressed the conflict in the Middle East by depicting the Foundation Stone of the Temple of Jerusalem beneath the Dome of the Rock. In Graham’s painting, the Dome is torn back to reveal the allegedly sacred stone upon which a seductively beautiful, yet appallingly eviscerated, Angel of Death pours out gore and pestilence. This shocking image was deployed to convey what the artist felt about the struggle over sectarian possession of a sacred rock, and what for Toms, constituted something tantamount to idolatry. According to Graham Toms, it is undoubtedly no small irony that to this day three iconoclastic Abrahamic faiths still fanatically contend for political sovereignty over an allegedly sacred stone.
In his painting, “The Whore of Babylon,” Toms depicted a voluptuous temptress who morphs into a multi-tailed dragon beneath the Dome of St. Peter’s. Around her neck she wears a charm depicting the symbol of the European Economic Community while from her eviscerated belly emerges a grotesque image of a fetal, yet elderly, Leonardo da Vinci. An unprecedented conflation of images, this painting was intended to point to the often undemocratic and corrupt tendencies of globalist economic and political forces that operate in a secular humanist ethical context.
“Requiem for the Amazon” is the most developed and perhaps the most conceptually ambitious painting of the Apocalyptic Vision series. In it, Toms depicts three contemporary males, intended to represent people of mixed Amazonian and African extraction, standing in a desertified landscape. By pointing to an Afrocentric subject in Latin America, the artist breaks from stereotypic conventions. The young boy holds a McDonalds’ cup which implies the reason the jungle in the background is being annihilated, namely to make room for cattle. The emblem on the boy’s shirt is the coat of arms of the King of Portugal who lobbied the Pope to repeal the Vatican prohibition of human slavery. The reference to the religious sanction of slavery is an indictment by the artist and also accounts for the presence of the African descendants in a Brazilian jungle.
The formidable masked figure at the left holds a chainsaw and wears a harlequin’s cap. The harlequin disguise is a literary reference to Joseph Conrad’s, “Heart of Darkness,” in which a traveller up the Congo River encounters a harlequin character who warns the protagonist to venture no further because “…beyond this way madness lies.” The harlequin is the truth teller, the only one sanctioned to speak truth to power. But even then, he must wear a disguise and play the fool for the sake of plausible deniability. He is in this instance forced by political and economic circumstance to participate in his own exploitation, and inevitable annihilation, as is indicated by the Ouroboros emblazoned on his chest.
The figure at right also holds an implement of deforestation while the very fabric of his being seems to be unravelling as it merges with a double helix DNA strand flowing from a giant wounded pulsating heart in the lower foreground. The heart signifies that the Amazon is the beating heart, and even the lungs, of the planet. It is the source of essential genetic diversity that springs from it. The butterflies are symbols of resurrection and rebirth and reflect the potential in the genetic diversity of the jungle. That the strands are indistinguishable from the unraveling fabric of the man’s being is to show that as humans we are part of this same global genetic fabric and its wholesale destruction will be our undoing.
The green glow behind the figures indicates the Egyptian god Osiris, who was himself dismembered and yet still resurrected. The peacock feathers, the butterflies and the spiraling DNA are also all symbols of hope and resurrection. Even the plumes of smoke rising from the burning jungle feature the souls of the indigenous people slaughtered by conquistadors. These souls are symbolized by herons rising to heavens. This painting is undoubtedly a warning and a call to action. The artist used the apocalyptic metaphor to place current events in a cultural, genetic and ethical context. Toms connects history, anthropology, theology, politics, economics, literature and biology in a suma panlogica that is a tour de force of concept, composition and color. For Toms, the ultimate outcome of the Apocalypse, much like its cause, is in our own hands. If we appreciate the pious meaning of carpe diem, if we realize the error of our ways, if we cease the senseless cycles of destruction and descents into hubris then there may indeed be redemption after all.