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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Photo (c) John Liebenberg

'Stolen Moments' Uncovers the Namibian Music That Apartheid Tried to Erase

The photo exhibition, showing at the Brunei Gallery in London, highlights artists from Namibia's underground scene between 1950-1980, a time of immense musical suppression prior to its independence.

Before its independence in 1990, a whole generation of Namibians were made to believe that their county had no real musical legacy. Popular productions by Namibian artists from previous eras were systematically concealed from the masses for nearly 30 years, under the apartheid regime—which extended to the country from South Africa following German colonization—depriving many Namibians of the opportunity to connect with their own musical heritage.

"Stolen Moments: Namibian Music Untold," a new exhibit currently showing at London's Brunei Museum at SOAS University of London, seeks to revive the musical Namibian musical traditions that the apartheid regime attempted to erase.

"Imagine you had never known about the musical riches of your country," said the exhibit's curator Aino Moongo in a statement of purpose on SOAS' site. "Your ears had been used to nothing but the dull sounds of country's former occupants and the blaring church and propaganda songs that were sold to you as your country's musical legacy. Until all at once, a magnitude of unknown sounds, melodies and songs appear. This sound, that roots your culture to the musical influences of jazz, blues and pop from around the world, is unique, yet familiar. It revives memories of bygone days, recites the history of your homeland and enables you for the first time to experience the emotions, joys and pains of your ancestors."

Photo (c) Dieter Hinrichs

The 'Stolen Moments" project began in 2010 in an effort to champion Namibia's unsung musical innovators. For the collection, Moongo and Assistant Curator, Siegrun Salmanian—along with a group of international scholars, artists, photographers and filmmakers—curated a large-scale photo exhibit that also features a 120-minute video projection, focusing on the dance styles of the era, along with listening stations, a sound installation that features "100-hours of interviews with musicians and contemporary witnesses," and displays of record covers and memorabilia from the period between 1950-1980.

The musicians highlighted, produced work that spanned a number of genres—a marker of the country's vast and eclectic underground scene. Artists like the saxophonist Leyden Naftali who led a band inspired by the sounds of ragtime, and the psychedelic rock and funk of the Ugly Creatures are explored through the exhibition, which also centers bands and artists such as The Dead Wood, The Rocking Kwela Boys, Children of Pluto and more.

"There are many reasons why you've never heard this music before," Moongo continues. "It was censored, suppressed, prohibited and made almost impossible to listen to. Its creators are either long gone or have given up on music making, by reasons of adversity, death and despair. And yet this beautiful music exists with a liveliness, as if it had never stopped playing. It is still in the minds of the few who can remember, with the ones who played it, and on those rare recordings that have survived in archives and record collections scattered around the globe. Allow me to share these stolen moments with you."

Photo (c) Dieter Hinrichs


Photo (c) John Liebenberg

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"Stolen Moments" is now showing at the Brunei Gallery in London and runs through Sept 21.

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Foul Language and Depictions of Rape Spur a Book Recall Campaign in Kenya

Kenya's Top Book seller pulls a South African book for youth due to foul language.

A main book supplier in Kenya, Text Book Centre, has announced that they would not stock a book due to its "vulgar and foul language." The book, Blood Ties, was written by South African author Zimkhitha Mlanzeli. The banning comes just after a video went viral in Kenya of a school child having a verbal outburst peppered with strong language. As reported by BBC, the removal was sparked by parents showing outrage after excerpts from the book were shared on twitter. These excerpts contained use of the f-word as well as a description of a rape scene.

As per their statement, the Text Book Centre claims they believe in "upholding high moral standards and raising generations of responsible citizens who are not only educated but ethical." The Kenyan publisher, StoryMoja, has defended the book in a statement of their own. They argue that the book is part of a new series showcasing books that deal with "contemporary societal issues" and that this particular book is a fictional story that grapples with the negative repercussions of peer pressure. "In actual fact, the book guides readers on the steps to take should they find themselves in a similar situation and underscores the sensitivity with which victims of sexual abuse should be treated." The statement also highlights the fact that the publishers had listed Blood Ties for readers in high school or above.


The discrepancy is that some schools have recommended the book as a reader – meaning for younger children aged 12 or 13 – though it has not been approved by the Kenyan Institute of Curricular Development (KICD), the entity in charge of managing texts used in schools. In a tweet, the KICD claimed that the book was not approved and that some teachers may be recommending texts without ensuring they were endorsed by the KICD. The dispute is sparking debate as to what should be taught in Kenyan schools.

As of late this morning, StoryMoja is in the process of recalling all copies of the book from stores and schools across Kenya. In a tweet they claim that it is because they have determined the language used in the book is the issue and not the subject matter.

Censorship is always a contested topic, just last month we reported on Nigerian authorities censoring a music video for "threatening security." Also, Kenya's censorship tactics have been in the global eye since a refusal to screen the film Rafiki for its homosexual heroines despite being lauded at international film festivals.

Here are some reactions from Kenyans on Twitter:





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mage courtesy of TIFF

Senegalese Filmmaker Mati Diop Tells a Haunted Story of Migration

We caught up with the celebrated director at the Toronto International Film Festival to talk about her new film, Atlantics

It's been a good year for French-Senegalese director Mati Diop and her film Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story.

The movie got its North American premier at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this month after wowing critics and audiences at Cannes, where it won the prestigious Grand Prix. Diop was the first Black woman to successfully submit a film in the Cannes competition, and naturally the first to win any award at the iconic festival.

In Toronto, the Paris-born director was also honored with the inaugural Mary Pickford Award for Outstanding Female Talent, presented at the TIFF Tribute Gala on September 9. The award is named after Mary Pickford, a Toronto native who went on to conquer Hollywood in the early days of the industry as an actor and producer. Co-founder of United Artists, she was the highest paid woman in Hollywood in her day.

Mati Diop, actor and director, was born in Paris into a prominent Senegalese family, the daughter of noted musician Wasis Diop, and niece of well known filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty. As a director, she has several short films under her belt, including Atlantiques in 2009. Her short films Big in Vietnam and A Thousand Suns screened at TIFF in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story is Diop's first feature, which she directed as well as co-writing the screenplay with Olivier Demangel.

It's in the story of the first Atlantiques – the short – that the new film came to be. "The two films are both connected and not connected," Diop tells OkayAfrica. The short Atlantiques was self produced, and shot on video on a shoestring budget, she explains. Diop was moved by the constant stream of reports, between 2000 and 2010, of young Senegalese taking to small wooden boats and braving the ocean waters in a bid to reach Spain and better opportunities. As she notes, the media tended to treat the phenomenon as largely an abstract issue, one that had to do with economic forces. Diop wanted to tell the story of the real people in that situation.

"I felt that my cinema should be put at the service of their voices," she says. "I wanted to understand." It's part of what motivated Diop to get into film in the first place. While the short was shot documentary-style, she worked the story as fiction. The actor featured in the short had actually made an Atlantic crossing, but was subsequently turned back by Spanish authorities. The way he spoke about the experience connected with Diop; in particular, his determination to try the perilous journey once more. "I am here, but not here," he told her. "Serigne felt it was here [in Senegal] he would lose his life," Diop says. She wanted to understand what drove so many young men to risk their lives. "He felt that his life was vulnerable in Senegal." The actor's words took on even more resonance when he died, while still in Senegal, before he could try again. Diop says he had gone to a hospital after falling ill, but the staff were on strike. After his death, it left her with mixed feelings. "I wondered if I had the right to continue."

TIFF Tribute Gala Mati Diop | TIFF 2019 www.youtube.com

Diop was left with the poignant memory, and a haunting impression. "When you leave, it means you are already dead," she says. After filming the short, she attended Serigne's funeral, and filmed his mother and sister—the women left behind who would become the focus of the feature film treatment. Diop says that the character of Ada, the protagonist of the new movie, is based in large part on the sister, who, in the short film, does not speak any lines.

In Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story, Ada is 17 years old, in love with Souleiman, but her parents have already arranged a very practical marriage with another—and much wealthier—man. On the eve of her wedding, odd things begin to happen, and Ada learn that Souleiman and his friends have left Dakar in a boat, hoping to reach Spain. Ada and her BFFs anxiously await any word from them, as the mysterious happenings keep piling up.

"The beauty of women comes through marriage," a cleric tells one mother. Ada's story embodies the life of a young West African woman—torn between traditional forces in both her family and society, and the friends who wear Western dress and don't bother with the old ways. The wealthy family she has married into owns a large construction company, the one that didn't pay its workers for months, leading the young workers to try their luck in Spain. She loves Souleiman, but she also needs to find her own path.

Mama Sané plays Ada, the solid heart of the film, as a tangle of emotions and repressed desires. She veers from defiant when dealing with the police detective sent to investigate the strange occurrences, to a wordless expression of longing with the kind of intensity only a teenager can muster.

Diop's directorial vision turns Dakar into a place of both surreal magic and harsh reality. The film immerses the audience in the city's sounds, from the goats bleating outside a window while Ada and her friends talk, to voices in the next room, with the eternal heaving of waves against the shore as a recurring refrain. The original music by Fatima Al Qadiri adds to the effect.

Cinematographer Claire Mathon has shot the film with a poetic eye. There are many images of the shifting surface of the sea, with the open sky and sun above it, each different from the last. The streets of Dakar at night take on an otherworldly edge, framed in palm trees against the artificial lights. The building the young men have been working on is futuristic in design, all glass and steel, and the company owner's neutral modern mansion contrasts with the broken rubble on the streets, from slick sports cars to horse drawn carts. It adds to the sense of the surreal.

Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story was acquired by Netflix after Cannes, and is intended for worldwide release by the streaming service, (with the exception of China, Russia, Benelux, Switzerland, and France.) As part of its new policy, Netflix, which became an official member of the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America,) earlier this year, will be giving the flick a "theater-first" release, opening in selected theaters on November 15, with streaming available from November 29 in North America.

The film also stars Amadou Mbow, Ibrahima Traoré, Nicole Sougou, Amina Kane, Mariama Gassama, Coumba Dieng, Ibrahima Mbaye, and Diankou Sembene. Dialog in the France-Senegal-Belgium co-production is in Wolof with subtitles.

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(Photo by Francois LOCHON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images )

Exiled Tunisian President Ben Ali Has Died

The former president had been living in Saudi exile since 2011.

Tunisia's former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, 83, has been declared dead while in exile in Saudi Arabia. Ben Ali became interim Prime Minister in 1987. He ran unopposed and was elected Prime Minister in 1998 and served for 23 years – from 1988 to 2011. He was known for using autocratic techniques, eradicating presidential term limits and altering age caps in order to stay in power. In the beginning, Ben Ali was considered a "people's head of state" and garnered the nickname "Benavie" which loosely translates to "Ben Ali for life." By the 2000s, however, he had become deeply unpopular and prompted protests and unrest against his oppressive rule.

His reign ended when he fled Tunisia on January 14, 2011 amid protests that ultimately led to a string of revolutions dubbed the Arab Spring. He had been living in exile in Saudi Arabia ever since. As France 24 reports, in 2018 Ben Ali was sentenced in absentia by Tunisian courts to "more than 200 years in prison on charges including murder, corruption and torture."

Though there is no cause of death just yet, Ben Ali had been in intensive hospital care for lung cancer for three months. According to Al Jazeera, lawyer Mounir Ben Salha announced Ben Ali's death to news agencies via phone and the claim was confirmed by Tunisia's foreign minister.

There is footage of a Tunisian lawyer taking to the street at dawn celebrating the news of Ben Ali's death.


This past Sunday, Tunisia held free elections advancing Kas Saied and Nabil Karoui (who is currently jailed) as presidential candidates with neither receiving a majority vote. A run-off election between the two will be held September 29.

Tunisians and others are sharing their reactions to the news across social media. Here are some reactions:





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