Painter Manuel Mathieu's First Major Show Revisits Haiti's Undiscussed, Traumatic Past

Painter Manuel Mathieu's First Major Show Revisits Haiti's Undiscussed, Traumatic Past

Truth To Power is inspired by specific events during the successive dictatorships of François and Jean-Claude Duvalier—aka Papa Doc and Baby Doc.

Manuel Mathieu is off to a great start. All the works in Truth To Power, his first major exhibition at Tiwani Contemporary in the UK, sold out and the closing date, originally slated for Dec. 22, has been pushed back through January.

In 2016, the Haitian painter was a 29-year-old MFA student at Goldsmiths University when he was chosen from a pool of 230 artists for a solo exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London. In 2017, the graduate who's based in Canada, is then represented in Europe by Belgium's Maruani Mercier and Tiwani. 2018 is shaping up to be an even busier year for Mathieu with two group shows: solo show with Maruani Mercier and The Armory Show in New York where he has a solo booth with Tiwani, and a residency at Akademie Schloss Solitude in Germany. 

Truth To Power functions as a study of trauma, as experienced by the Haitian populace under President François Duvalierwhose iron-fist rule lasted 15 years until his death in 1971 at the age of 64. He was succeeded by his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, whose own dictatorship lasted another 15 years until 1986 when a popular uprising led to his departure to France. He was exiled for 35 years until 2011 when he returned, but succumbed to heart attack three years later, in 2014, at the age of 63.

Mathieu was born in 1986, the same year the younger Duvalier vacated office, closing the curtain on a thorny legacy of authoritarian rule which led to the exile of scores of Haitians and the death of an estimated 60,000 people. Those who have survived the Duvalier's rule could not fully escape the lasting manifestations of fear, distrust and poverty instilled over three decades.

In the artist's own words, "everybody that grew up in that era has a certain tie with or was against the dictatorship. For you to be in the country at that time, you would have to be muted for part of it or you know…" The blank space he's left for me to fill is that punishment and possible death, the fear of which he is convinced has stained the country's consciousness.

Abstraction is the permission to invent at abundant will and when tasked with depicting the intangibles of love, loyalty, grief, loss, admiration, hate and curiosity, this freedom becomes not just a convenient technique but a needed tool. Mathieu, however, is not wholly convinced. "for me it rolls around to what painting is," he says. "It's a fundamental question in my work. I think the beauty of painting is the gap where you have something in mind and you are trying to navigate it with the language of painting and most of the time you fail. But when you manage to fall in to that area where you create 1,000 possibilities in one image, that's what the language of painting is."

Manuel's thinking comes closer to the bigger question of what exactly painting is, which to him is "when you're constantly asking yourself what it is that I'm representing and you're just brushing, and just answer it with your body. You've answered with your eyes. You've answered with your feelings, and the functionality that comes with painting. The trigger that comes with looking at things. That's when you're in the process of building a painting."

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