Emily Spicer for Studio International - 13 June 2018
The Haitian artist talks about coming to terms with his country’s turbulent history and some personal challenges, and why he doesn’t take the business of making art lightly
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, Mathieu was hit by a motorbike while crossing the road outside Goldsmiths, University of London – where he 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 and only 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.