I first met Manuel Mathieu at Art Brussels in 2017. As soon as I saw his busy, kaleidoscopic canvases, a crowd of questions formed in my mind. He had a booth to himself and was moving between members of the visiting press on crutches. He was, it transpired, recovering from a traffic accident in Montreal a few weeks previously. It was his second brush with death. In 2015, a vehicle mounted the pavement outside Goldsmiths, University of London – where Mathieu was studying at the time – and very nearly killed him.
Mathieu was born in Haiti in 1986, the same year the tyrannical Duvalier regime came to an end. For 14 years, François Duvalier kept a tight grip on power through heavily rigged elections, brutality and intimidation. When he died, in 1971, his son Jean-Claude took up the reins, leading the nation deeper into poverty and chaos, until a rebellion saw him forced into exile. Nearly three decades of corruption and violence left its mark. “There are residues of that era in the country still,” Mathieu tells me, “That’s why I think it was important for me talk about it.”
Mathieu’s accidents and his country’s history have soaked into his canvases, which are haunted by twisted cadaverous figures and amorphous shapes. Mathieu likes flowers, but even floral forms are flattened and stretched, as though they have been steamrolled or pressed and sliced into cross-sections, lending tension and threat to something as everyday as a bouquet. Violence is done to everything.
Since Art Brussels last year, Mathieu’s career has rocketed. He is currently represented by Kavi Gupta in Chicago and Tiwani Contemporary in London and is showing at Maruani Mercier in October. After graduating, he moved to Montreal, but has plans to move to Europe. “I didn’t know until a year ago that I wanted to live in Europe,” he tells me. “I’m a free spirit who adjusts to what life sends my way.”
Emily Spicer: You were born in and grew up in Haiti. How has that experience informed your work?
Manuel Mathieu: Haiti was the first country to achieve independence through a slave rebellion, about 200 years ago. It has articulated its freedom through art, literature, music and spirituality ever since, and this legacy has certainly fed my imagination as a young man and artist. And coming from a middle-class, educated family with a humanitarian outlook has forged my character. All of these things made their way into my work, one way or another.
ES: How did the Duvalier era affect your family?
MM: My mother’s father was a colonel in the first years of Jean-Claude Duvalier’s dictatorship. A lot of family on my father’s side were killed during the same period. That was the context I was born into. Haiti is such a small country. If you were alive around that time, you either had a foot in or out of what was happening. There was no middle ground. Either you’re in and you shut the fuck up, or you’re out and you hide, or leave the country. Everybody has a story related to that era. It wasn’t just Haiti, it was a world crisis. The Duvalier era was collateral damage of the cold war. I think it’s important to talk about it and not just from the perspective of Haiti and me being Haitian. Everything is connected.
ES: Your source material – particularly the visual material you use – comes from documentary evidence.
MM: Yes, from books, from the internet and conversations. Everything I choose symbolises something at one level or another. I don’t take a linear approach to what happened. Together, all of these things form a constellation. As an artist, I have the freedom to curate certain things, to decide what’s important and why it’s important to me. In that sense, I can say I am close to Luc Tuymans.
Painting cruelty or blood – all of that seems very boring to me. My paintings are political, and politics is complex. For example, Loyalty was based on the funeral of François Duvalier. I painted Numa, which was inspired by an execution; I painted Fort Dimanche, which was considered the Haitian Auschwitz at the time. I also named a painting 1963. There were a lot of killings that year because a group of people, who were against the regime, tried to kidnap the children of François Duvalier. I also painted Michèle Bennett [the former wife of Jean-Claude Duvalier]. This journey was an opportunity for me to explore and to crystallise certain complex ideas in relation to that era.
ES: Is it your aim to inform through painting? What’s your relationship with the viewers of your work?
MM: Usually, I don’t think about the viewer when I’m in my studio. But something interesting happened when I was working on [the exhibition Truth to Power for Tiwani Contemporary, at the end of last year]. I shared some images with a friend of the family and she told me to change a title for my own safety, because it was the portrait of a notorious mercenary. At that moment, I realised that what I was doing was important for all of us. When you are touching the traumatic subconscious of your society, it will inevitably trigger memories and emotions. As an artist, it is important for me to have a clear position, to have clear ideas of what I want and what matters to me. I am not packaging messages in the studio and I don’t pretend to know how it’s going to be perceived once the work leaves the studio. My responsibility is towards the work and what it needs in order to develop and be present and vibrant in the world. The viewer is responsible, if he feels the need, to continue to engage with the work outside of me.
ES: Is it important to you that your work is connected to something significant, that painting isn’t just a frivolous act?
MM: Creativity can be playful, but art is not a game. I don’t take what I’m doing lightly. Art is necessary. It is vital for me to point in these directions, not to convince anybody, but to have this conversation, because we don’t have them enough in Haiti. The more you dig, the more you realise that you could have been living next to a Duvalier fanatic for years without realising. It’s something that is still very alive. It’s still present in our subconscious.
ES: I’d like to talk about Loyalty. How did you translate footage of François Duvalier’s funeral into an abstract painting?
MM: That video was on the internet and I was curious. There were two things that I asked myself. First, why were there so many people at the funeral if the government was so aggressive? What he did in the country was so deep and strong that his son stayed in power for 15 years after him. He must have built very strong grounds. I was questioning the loyalty involved with that and the price other people paid in order to build that loyalty and create that legacy. The second thing is the painting itself. It’s the first time I made a painting so big in relation to such an abstract subject. How do you paint loyalty? For example, if I want to paint my birth, where do I start? Is it about my mum? Is it about my dad? Is it about where they conceived me? And as I go on, I choose what’s important to me. So, I like these kinds of challenges, because it forces me to look at the subject and the image differently.
ES: Many of your other paintings are much more figurative. Numa is one of those where, once you’ve seen the photograph, you can see Marcel Numa [a rebel who was executed by the Duvalier regime] in the work. Is that because you want to make an impact? Did you want to be more faithful to the event?
MM: No, it’s not the impact. It’s the subject that calls for it. I’m a servant of the subject. I’m not trying to impose my ideas or apply meaning to something; I’m trying to get the meaning out of it. Sometimes it’s necessary to be more figurative, so there are elements that refer to the image source; in that case, the image source is fundamental.
ES: Is colour part of the transition from the literal to the symbolic? Does the palette you choose feed into the meaning that you are teasing out of the subject?
MM: Yes, definitely. The challenge is not only to do a good painting, but also to tap into these complexities and to be honest in the process, to understand what needs to be done.
ES: The pastel pinks, greens and greys you use are the fleshy tones of decay. Are you trying to evoke death with these colours?
MM: No. I wanted to break with the bright colours associated with the Caribbean and find my own way with colder tones. My relationship with colour is very intuitive. I can search for a colour for days before I’m satisfied. I’m a bad colour mixer, but I know what I’m looking for.
ES: Tell me about Nobody Is Watching, your most recent exhibition at Kavi Gupta.
MM: It was about the process of coming out of my accidents, the experience of losing my memory, of solitude, of facing the unknown. There were different elements in that show that forced me to have a different approach to what I’ve done in the past. My practice allows me to take a more existentialist approach. As an artist, I do things that will outlive me, knowing that making the work connects me with my ephemerality and at the same time intensifies my present. For me, making art is a way of nurturing a bridge with infinity. I was very hesitant at first because for Truth to Power at Tiwani Contemporary, I was exploring history, so I was somehow more detached. Nobody is Watching at Kavi Gupta was more of an intimate, personal journey.
ES: Have you painted any self-portraits?
MM: I did a painting called Auto Portrait, which is a self-portrait, actually [even though] it’s my grandmother gardening. My accidents got me closer to my family because they really supported me. She died, so it was a way to connect her legacy with mine, and with what I was doing. Selfish Thinking is another self-portrait, which was exhibited as part of Nobody is Watching. It’s me dealing with the bad habits that I can have. If you don’t take the right decisions for yourself and you’re selfish, it becomes harder to rebuild yourself with the help of people around you. And it’s also a matter of sensibility. Life experience – personal experience – sometimes forces you to see things that you wouldn’t otherwise have seen. If I have kids one day, maybe I’ll have a different relationship with my mother, for example. Everything we do affects us personally and shapes our perspective of who we are and what we want to talk about. If you are sensitive to who you are and you are listening to yourself, everything that you live will contribute to your work.
ES: The floral patterns in the painting of your grandmother reminds me so much of Gustav Klimt.
MM: There are some references to that, with the colours, and especially what she’s wearing. It’s strange because Klimt had a very particular relationship with nature. Growing up in Haiti certainly played a big role because you have access to nature. If you’re not in nature, you can see nature everywhere you go. And my grandmother loved it. She had green fingers and she gave them to a lot of people in the family. So, it was very important for me to put her in her natural habitat.
ES: Why was your exhibition at Kavi Gupta called Nobody is Watching?
MM: I really had to focus on some precious things that I had inside me without thinking about anybody watching. It’s something that I’m developing with time, to keep that level of honesty and intimacy in my work, to make it relevant for me, first. About my traumatic accident in London, I like to say that I died and came back. The paintings are about my family, about my relationship with myself and my recovery. The show’s title comes from a painting I did of the same name. It’s of a little girl – a friend of mine – playing in the sand. She probably didn’t know that someone was taking a picture of her. I like the idea of doing something with so much concentration that you completely forget about the world around you. That’s exactly what was happening in the studio. I wasn’t thinking about how it would be received, I don’t work like that. I don’t work with those concerns in mind.
ES: When you lost your memory, did you lose everything prior to the accident?
MM: I have some holes in my memory now. I lost my short-term memory for a week and they didn’t know if it would come back and I didn’t remember anything from the accident. But I remember my family, you know, and my time at Goldsmiths. But it took me a while to recall my debit card pin, for example. It wasn’t just the memory. I couldn’t have a conversation. I couldn’t concentrate, I damaged a nerve, so I couldn’t see well in my left eye. Everything was double. I broke my face and my jaw also. Let’s just say it was a long recovery process.
When the accident happened, I received a bunch of calls, a bunch of Facebook messages, which I could only see a month afterwards and there was a message from my grandmother on Skype. She was dying from cancer at the time, that tells you the kind of woman she was. She called me and she said: “Keep fighting, I’m going to be your rampart.” So, there’s a painting in the show called Rampart, which is an image of her holding me as a baby. Obviously, it’s abstracted because I was trying to tap into what was happening. There was literally a kind of transfer between her leaving and me coming back.
ES: Do you know what your next project will be?
MM: I have a big exhibition coming up in Brussels at Maruani Mercier starting in October. The working title is The Spell on You. I’m in the middle of conceptualising the show, but I haven’t found the core of it yet. Art has a strong aura, and this magical and mystical aspect of it is something I want to tap into and explore. The idea of a spell seems to be a good way to address that. Also, I have been listening to Nina Simone’s album I Put a Spell on You a lot lately – her genius certainly contributed to the title, too.