• Rachele Viard

Manuel Mathieu: Embracing an Interdisciplinary Approach to His Art

Growing up, the walls of my home were adorned with beautiful works of art, most of which was Haitian art, but all types of art work. Just as the shelves of my house showcased many, and I mean many diverse art books. The arts played a key role in my upbringing, visits to the museum, art exhibits, jazz shows, and music festivals. So when my dad, who is an artist and an art enthusiast, told me about Manuel Mathieu and shared some of his pieces with me, I was in awe and an immediate fan of his work and more importantly, I was intrigued.

Photo provided by Rosemonde Gingras

Born in Haiti in 1986, Mathieu is a talented and very gifted contemporary visual artist whose works which fuses abstraction and with figuration investigate themes of historical violence, erasure, as well as Haitian visual cultures of physicality, nature, and religious symbolism. In 2019 -2020 Mathieu was in Germany as an artist in residence at Akademie Schloss Solitude, in Stuttgart. He was part of the residency program at the Pamela Joyner and Alfred J. Giuffrida in Sonoma, California in 2019 and again in 2021. Joyner is a major collector of Mathieu’s work. The multidisciplinary artist has exhibited his works in the United States, Canada, England, China, and in Belgium where Mathieu has received rave reviews.

His journey began, as a child. “I come from a very artistic family, my mother is still a collector. I grew up in a house filled with a lot of art, sculptures and paintings. What really made a difference for me was when I was about 15 years old I started hanging out with Mario Benjamin, my father’s cousin who is a self-taught and well-known and respected Haitian artist. He introduced me to a bunch of artists and lent me art books and that is how I got more and more interested in art. For me as a teenager, it was very liberating to find this way of living. Where you are actually living with things that are coming out of your soul and mind. That was fascinating for me. And from that point on, I decided to become an artist,” said Mathieu.

When 15 year old Mathieu revealed to his parents that he wanted to become an artist, they told him that he would have to work for it and they doubted his capacities. They then took him to a career fair where based on his interests, he was told he was well suited for a career in communication, public relations or as an artist. His mother told him that it would be good if he did something in addition to being an artist. “I think that what is important to underline is that we don’t have a figure in the Haitian art community nationally or internationally that is financially successful. We have very few of them. So it’s very hard for a parent to actually identify their kid to someone that is succeeding,” stated Mathieu. He understood his parents’ fears but he was not deterred.

It is this focus, dedication and determination that have garnered him such success. We talked with the acclaimed Haitian artist who is now based in Montreal about his childhood, journey and revisited a pivotal moment in his life and how it impacted his art.

Photo provided by Manuel Mathieu Mirror mirror 5.5 x5 inches

CE: What are some of your fondest memories of your childhood in Haiti?

MM: I have interesting memories of Haiti. We had a sort of big garden I remember my friends and playing ball on the weekends. We also used to bike ride down on a street near my house which was somewhat a bit dangerous. I remember Jacmel, going to the beach there. My father is agronomist and so we traveled a lot with him throughout the country. I had an accident about five years ago, had a concussion and so my memory was affected but overall these are the things that I can remember about my youth.

CE: Do you have a favorite Haitian dish?

MM: Everything my grandmother made was divine. I love riz djon djon (Black mushroom rice) with conch, then there is griot (fried goat chunks) with fried plantains and avocado. My grandmother was the queen of the kitchen. I miss Haitian food and I profoundly miss her.

CE: At what age did you leave Haiti, and did you/or have you traveled back often?

MM: I left Haiti when I was nineteen (19). I usually travel back at least once a year. The last time I was there was in 2019 before I left for Germany. I was planning to go in 2020 to spend time with my father but the pandemic prevented the trip. I am hoping to be able to come in October to travel with my father and learn more about the country.

CE: How did you get your break in the artistic world?

MM: Just like any success story, I would not say that there is a moment but there is a constant dedication to my craft. Definitely. You have to be good at what you do. You have to work really hard and you have to believe what you do. You have to act quickly when certain opportunities present themselves. You have to put your fears aside and seize the day. I was speaking to some friends the other day and they said leap and the net will show. I did a lot of jumping.

The fact that I went to London to obtain my Master’s Degree was a leap. It was hard. I had student loans to pay, I had to gamble it and it worked out really well for me. In 2013 I attended Goldsmiths, University of London. I took a break and spent 2014 in Montreal. Went back in 2015 and graduated in 2016.

From that point on things started to move. The art market in Montreal is very slow. So going to London really opened up my horizon. I collaborated with galleries in London and Belgium and met art collectors from around the world. I came back to Montreal because I could not afford to live there. I was broke. In 2017 I rented a space so that I could paint. And from 2017 to 2020 I had one show after another at different galleries in places like Belgium, China, London, and New York.

Photo provided by Manuel Mathieu Simone Acrylic, Chalk, Charcoal 170x180 cm

CE: What are some ways you draw inspiration when creating?

MM: I look at other artists, I read, look at books, catalogs and conversations also like the one we are having right now. I look for stories and documentaries. Anything that stimulates my intellect one way or another makes its way into my work.

CE: What does your work aim to convey?

MM: Well it depends my show at Kavi Gupta Gallery in Chicago is focused on desire. The show is titled Negroland: A Landscape of Desires. So it’s something that I am interested in right now. I started on this journey in Germany while doing my residency. It’s about some interests I have. Now that I reflect on it these are all tools that art uses to address certain things whether it is to preserve my history and the history of my people at the same time. Whether it is to self-actualize myself like when I paint people around me or events in my life. Or it could also be to underline my own humanity. Because as a black person the networks of art are not necessarily benefiting black people. It’s still a white world. All these things are tools to preserve our humanity, to preserve our history. To make sure that we exist in the world. These are things that I unconsciously do in my work, they are things that I have touched in the past, that I am touching right now with this idea of desire.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Kavi Gupta Gallery Negroland: A Landscape of Desires

CE: How would you describe your painting genre?

MM: I don’t know. My relationship with the work is more about the subject or the interest that I have at the moment. Academically it can be classified as expressionist or a little bit conceptual. But I think that today with the evolution of painting and artists we have the freedom to touch on several ways of thinking painting. So I don’t have a particular genre, I kind of use them all to convey things that matter to me at the moment. For instance this particular show on desire in Chicago includes abstract paintings, installations, sculptures, and ceramics.

CE: When did you begin working with Ceramics?

MM: I went to visit HdM Gallery in China, a gallery I work with, to see the space. While there I told them that I was interested in ceramics and they flew me to Jingdezhen, a city known as the "Porcelain Capital". I played around and produced some pieces which they shipped to me. I had a show at the Power Plant in Toronto last year and the curator asked me what I have been working on lately so I showed him the ceramics and he told me that they were amazing and asked me to create more ceramic pieces.

I found a workshop called L'Aluminé in Montreal and began to work with the owner Marko Savard who became my advisor and assistant. I created 40 pieces and these pieces became part of the show at the Power Plant titled ‘World Discovered Under Other Skies’. A catalogue will be available soon and it is an important piece as it includes writings of a curator at the Tate, Edwidge Danticat, Haitian Author, the Director and the Curator of the Power Plant. In addition, the designer is a world famous designer. My inspiration for the ceramics which were part of the show at the Power Plant was inspired by the metal cut of George Liataud.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Kavi Gupta Gallery Negroland: A Landscape of Desires

CE: Your work has been exhibited in many parts of the world. How do you prepare for an exhibit?

MM: Well for me it starts with intuition. For example, my final degree show, I wanted it to be about Georges Bataille. I was involved in a severe motorbike accident and almost died. When I came to myself, I began to ask myself some profound questions like if this was my last show, I would not want it to be about Georges Bataille. My grandmother was dying at the time from cancer. What are the things that I can talk about that are singular to my story and to who I am.

I began to looking at the history of Haiti. Why was I exposed to so much political instability and violence growing up? I realized that we had just finished 30 years of dictatorship so obviously the country was upside down and so my final show was on that dictatorship.

Photo provided by: Manuel Mathieu The Prophetess 1 Acrylic, Chalk, Charcoal, Tape 200x190 cm

CE: What brings you the most pleasure and why?

MM: To do what I am doing. I love what I am doing. I just hope that I can keep doing it for as long as I can. To make art, meet interesting people, read good books, travel the world, and produce shows that reflect my concerns and change the world in the process. That‘s kind of my gift.

CE: What advice would you give your younger self?

MM: I thought about it not too long ago. I would not change anything. I think I would just go the way that I am going right now. Stay focused. When I had my show at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, it was a major show. I received a congratulatory letter from Dany Laferrière in it he said something along the line ‘Put your head down and work for 15 years then lift it up for a short moment and then go right back at it for another 15 years. The road is very long, One day you will not have any more projects but you will start becoming lines, colors and dreams.’

Photo credit: Courtesy of Kavi Gupta Gallery Negroland: A Landscape of Desires

The reason why I am sharing this with you is that what he said, I was already applying. When I was 15 years old, when I made the decision to become an artist, I just put my head down and decided to work tirelessly and keep growing and exploring, remain curious. It’s that curiosity, passion, dedication, and seeking for a sense of mastery that got me where I am. And I know that if I keep going like that I will only get better and better.

CE: Who are some artists that you yourself admire?

MM: One thing that I like about Basquiat, it’s his playfulness. That is how he was able to produce so much work, it’s because he kept if very playful. Even though there was strong subject matter in the work, but the way he works was playful. That is something that I try to keep in my work. There is Clifford Still, an American artist that I love a lot. I really like the way he paints, it’s very, very powerful. I also really like Christo and Mona Hatoum.

There are many Haitian artists that I love such as Frantz Zephirin is amazing, Jasmin Joseph is crazy. When you look at the history of painting in Haiti, we have recreated genius to this day. It’s because it’s the way we relate to art that makes it so fluid for us. We don’t have academic weight on our shoulders and our connection to reality is unique.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Kavi Gupta Gallery Negroland: A Landscape of Desires

CE: When you come to Haiti is there a specific place that you would like for your dad to take you?

MM: I would honestly like to go somewhere I don’t know to discover. My need is not to kind of sit on what I know in terms of Haiti, it’s to actually travel every day to a place I don’t know. I know it’s going to be joyful. You have no idea how much I love Haiti and the people of Haiti. It’s one of the most beautiful countries in the world. My father and I are foodies and I am looking forward to going to different places and tasting food that is specific to the area. Everybody should visit Haiti, at least once. This land is sacred.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Kavi Gupta Gallery Negroland: A Landscape of Desires






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