Arts + Culture
Manuel Mathieu. Photo by Clovis-Alexandre Desvarieux.

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: ARCO Madrid 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.

"Loyalty." Manuel Mathieu. Photo courtesy of artist.

"Loyalty," hung directly opposite the entrance at Tiwani and taking pride of place, is an unsettled accumulation of undefined shapes and indeterminate images harmonized by shades of blue, rendered in a most sensual manner. The source material was a video slide from footage taken at Francois Duvalier's funeral in 1971, in the country's capital of Port-au-Prince. Grains on the images, Mathieu says, gave them "a VHS feel and what's happening at the bottom of the painting [is that] there's something that looks like a halo, which were the flowers, that was in the car that was carrying the body."

I could not have known this before going into Tiwani to see "Loyalty" for the first time, but while there I found myself spending more time in front of it than I did the other hangings.

In simple, physical terms, the painting would seem to be composed of leaves and fruits, twigs and branches, fresh and sundried, engulfed in a blue flame that has begun to burn through the softer parts - and just as it does so. Emotionally, it was weighted with matters unclear but grave.

Mathieu was struck by how mournful many citizens were at the ruler's funeral despite his many atrocities, an observation that is complicated by Mathieu's own links with the dictatorship. Members of his family, on both sides of his parents, were either implicated in the dictator's machinations, or have been at its receiving end. His maternal grandfather, Clarel Clermont, was a colonel in the Haitian army at a time when many relatives on his father's side were killed, details of which Mathieu would rather not go into.

"Jacques Stephen Alexis." Manuel Mathieu. Photo courtesy of artist.

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."

"Eternal Flowers." Manuel Mathieu. Photo courtesy of artist.

This precise moment of change and transformation is a defining feature in Mathieu's work, most evident in a two-part suite titled "Eternal Flowers." In each, pools of viscous paint in (again) shades of blue, as if caught in mid-flow, make for undefined shapes, offset by the calm and simplicity of the plain blue surface. It isn't clear if the painting is coming into being or vanishing, and this characteristic is what intrigues Mathieu.

This broader state of continuous change or "forever becoming," narrowly termed "Bergsonian" in philosophy circles after the work of Henri Bergson about the constant state of change, is one which Mathieu has inculcated into, not just "Eternal Flowers" but his practice as a whole. "I'm very touched man, because you understand the vision," offers Mathieu, "it's important for me, when you look at the work, that first of all I grasp your eye, and then I grasp your body, and then I take your soul."

The beauty of approach and resulting paintings fades next to its subject commemorating the 60,000 lives lost under the Duvalier's rule. Rather than gory or realist depictions, Mathieu has opted for beauty and elegance which, in poor hands, would be cosmetic. The entire exhibition is an elegiac tribute to the dead and also to the survivors, "I used to joke that I'm in the beauty business but it is important to underline it, especially in that context. It's not beauty that's medical, it's absolute."

"The Search." Manuel Mathieu. Photo courtesy of artist.

"Eternal Flowers of the Sensual Mind" could well be another title for the work, as well as a theme for the eight paintings and 4 watercolors he's made for Truth To Power. The success of the show might impress for a first proper solo show, but many visitors to the gallery, if not told, would doubtful guess that the artist was under 30 when the works were completed. His studied elegance would suggest maturity, if not long experience, in an artist, but Mathieu is quick to rebuff this, "maturity comes with time. I think that as I'm going to live, I'm going to continue to make mistakes, learn about humanity, and what it is to be alive. I will sharpen these ideas."

I had not put the question to him properly. I was referring to the confidence which long experience brings, and not aging early, and the retrogression it may have implied. Having understood my question Mathieu amiably offers, "I think that growing up and being mature is to actually trust that intuition. Trust that sensibility. Trust who you are basically. That's really important. And it's that trust that will make you do things that other people are not capable of, or see but don't trust. And when you trust it, then you cultivate it."
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From Chale Wote Street Art Festival 2016. Photo by Ofoe Amegavie.

5 Ghanaian Creative Spaces Doing Afrofuturist Work You Need To Know

These Pan-African outfits are actively visualizing and creating realities for black people that are better than the ones we inhabit now—get to know them.

In her praise for Octavia's Brood (an anthology of science fiction stories from social justice movements), filmmaker dream hampton quotes these words of adrienne maree brown, a co-editor of the anthology: "All social justice work is science fiction. We are imagining a world free of injustice, a world that doesn't yet exist." A respectable appropriation of brown's statement would be: all pro-Black/African activism is afrofuturism in praxis.

In that frame of social justice activism being twined with the useful framework that afrofuturism is—envisioning and exploring viable realities for black people all over the world—here are five Pan-African outfits out of Ghana who're doing advocacy work, and variously tasking our imaginations to visualize an existence for black people other—and better—than the one we inhabit presently.

Accra [Dot] Alt

Photo courtesy of Accra [Dot] Alt.

The "Alt" in Accra [Dot] Alt stands for alternative, which should say much about this organization's orientation: an invested interest in facilitating the alternative. To that end, A[D]A creates programs which provide spacial and other forms of support for the expression of alternative thought, and also for spawning boundary-breaking art. A[D]A's most popular initiative, the annual Chale Wote Street Art Festival, since its inception in 2011, has been thematically preoccupied with imagining and creating existences that are more humane and fulfilling—particularly for black people.

The African Electronics Trilogy exemplifies this. Between 2015 and 2017, the Chale Wote Festival's themes, African Electronics, Spirit Robot and Wata Mata—have altogether exhorted festival participants to "tap into a super power grid [and] create a new encounter with reality that is entirely of our choosing and construction." The theme for this year's festival, Para-Other, does not stray from this visionary mission. A[D]A partly describes Para-Other as an order "embracing of a black labyrinth and establishment of an aesthetic that captures our cessation of flight and transit into a non-contested existence."

Last time the statistics were checked, in 2016, over 30,000 people were at Chale Wote; which is a more than 6,000 percent increase from the number that attended the first edition of the festival. Talk about possibilities.

African Women's Development Fund (AWDF)

Photo courtesy of the AWDF.

This grant-making foundation, Africa's first pan-African women's fund, was co-founded in 2000 by three African women: Hilda Tadria, Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi and Joana Foster, who passed in 2016.

Since setting up, the African Women's Development Fund has funded and supported close to 1,500 women's rights organizations and women-led initiatives in countries all over the continent.

In April 2017, the institution launched their ground-breaking AWDF Futures Project. The initiative is basically composed of projections on the future of the continent as seen through an African feminist lens. These projections are based on a mix of data/trends analysis and sheer imagination.

The AWDF Scenario Stories is one aspect of the project. It comprises of four short stories imagining four different kinds of futures—desirable, undesirable, wild card, transitional—for African women, in Africa. The protagonist in each of these scenarios (set in August 2030) is Mariam; a queer, intelligent and free-spirited young woman in a wheelchair.

The full narratives of Mariam navigating each of these four futures can be accessed, in both text and animated audio-visual formats, on AWDF's website, together with the Futures Africa: Trends for Women by 2030 report.

What will Africa be like in 2030? What would we see if we looked through the eyes of a woman? The AWDF Futures page holds a number of possible answers to these questions.

AfroCyberPunk Interactive

Photo courtesy of AfroCyberPunk Interactive.

Sci-fi writer and self-proclaimed afrofuturist, Jonathan Dotse, created AfroCyberPunk in 2010. Then, it was a blog whose focus was on "exploring the creative potential of African science fiction and speculative narratives."

Almost a decade after running as a blog, AfroCyberPunk morphed into AfroCyberPunk Interactive—a digital hypermedia content developer and publishing house—in 2017. Still, the preoccupation with "exploring the future of Africa" (as went the blog's tagline) remains prime. A part of what could be referred to as their mission statement reads thus: "Our roots in afrofuturism continue to inspire the recurrent themes, motifs and aesthetics of our publications. We aspire to [...] address the global imbalance in the representation of marginalised peoples and perspectives."

Founder Jonathan Dotse is himself at work on his debut novel, a cyberpunk mystery/ psychological thriller set in Accra, Ghana circa 2060 AD.

All of the above certainly do echo these words offered by Jonathan in a blog post titled Why Africa Needs Science Fiction: "As Africa marches onward into the future it is important that we as Africans begin to critically visualize the development that will take place on our own soil, and our vision must be based on our own unique reality, cut from the cloth of our own societies and tailored to our specific needs."

Drama Queens

Photo courtesy of Drama Queens.

This feminist and Pan-Africanist theatre organisation optimally embodies the idea of Sankofa: an examination of heritage to select and use, presently, the positive and helpful values, in the ultimate service of creating the future.

Drama Queens is founded on the ancient Egyptian philosophy of Ma'at—which adjures for justice, balance and harmony as ways of being. The world being as it is now—generally unjust, imbalanced and disharmonious, against black people specifically, and more specifically against marginalized black communities—renders Drama Queens' work futuristic.

To ground this, they are avowedly working towards "a just, balanced and harmonious world where highest respect is given to nature and all nature creates."

This year, for instance, is Drama Queens' year of "contributing to an end to homophobia towards the African LGBTQ+ community" through various activities such as theatre productions, facilitating queer film production workshops, social media discussions and talk events.

Nana Akosua Hanson, founder and director of Drama Queens has said in an interview that her organization aims, ultimately, "to end oppression by changing mindsets through the use of cultural tools, to revolutionalize thinking and bring forth the existence of an Africa without heteropatriarchy, and a continent free from the exploitation and destruction of racist nations." Sounds about Afrofuturist.

Squid Magazine

Photo courtesy of Squid Magazine.

Comics, games and animation are probably the most popular media through which creators indulge in futuristic thinking. Add to this the truism that critical, intellectual engagement and documentation are of lifeblood importance to the efflorescence of a culture. Put together, it adds up to the fact that Squid Magazine (simply, Squid Mag) is doing essential afrofuturist work.

Started in 2015 by Kadi Yao Tay and Kofi Asare, Squid Mag is dedicated to the "exploration, critique, promotion and archiving of African creativity manifested within comics, games, animation..." As it happens, Squid Mag is one of the very few, if not only, platforms on the continent that wholesomely covers African output in the above mentioned media.

There's a rather poetic resonance as to why this outfit is named 'Squid.' Here's the import of the name, as explained on their website:

The name is inspired by squids, sea invertebrates that release ink as a defense mechanism. We find it poetic how such a mechanism can be a metaphor for painting a people's realities and dreams fluidly in an ocean of canvases. An ocean that is threatened to be overrun with narratives that exclude us.

So now you know, if you didn't know before, where to go in search of a sea of narratives—of realities and dreams—that include us.

*

There is a great deal more than can be said for the imagination—and exercising it. It begets creation, after all. Thus, what these and other entities are doing—engendering alternative socio-political imaginaries for all peoples of African descent—is such a needful venture. But after all is said and visualized, the ultimate challenge, most probably, is to act, to create. Blitz the Ambassador puts it succinctly on his afrofuturist song, "Africa Is The Future" (long since renamed "Africa Is Now"): There ain't no future unless we build it now.

moshood lives in Accra, from where he writes across genres. He has recently taken on painting. He tweets here: @thehamzay

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