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Haitian-born, Montreal-based artist Manuel Mathieu poses for a photo at The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto on Sept. 24, 2020.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

When Montreal artist Manuel Mathieu was studying at Goldsmiths in London, he was hit by a motorbike in the street and badly injured. The 2015 accident on the art school’s doorstep left him with a broken jaw, a concussion that knocked out his short-term memory and a determination to make bigger art.

“I almost died,” he said in a recent interview at Toronto’s Power Plant gallery. By the time he could return to his studies, he was sufficiently shaken by these intimations of mortality that he changed the subject of his graduating work. He had been working on paintings inspired by Story of the Eye, the 1928 experimental pornographic novel by French writer Georges Bataille. “If this was my last show, would I work on Georges Bataille? Obviously not.”

Instead, he turned to the wider world and began to consider links between his native Haiti and global events. He chose infamous images of the John F. Kennedy assassination as a source and the result is Zapruder/313, a 2016 work now hanging at the Power Plant for Mathieu’s first major show in Toronto.

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Manuel Mathieu's painting entitled The Search is on display at The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto until Jan. 3, 2021Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

The title refers to the one censored frame of the hobbyist film of the assassination that recorded the impact of the bullet on Kennedy’s head; the image itself is actually drawn from photographs of the subsequent autopsy. Those source images of the open head (which today can be found on the Internet, along with frame 313) may be shockingly gory but the painting is not: Like all Mathieu’s figurative work, photographic origins are lost in swirls of paint, as though the subject itself were melting.

The style is expressionistic and the point political: The Americans, who sowed violence in the Caribbean through their various Cold War interventions, had initially supported the regime of “Papa Doc” Duvalier. By the time of the assassination, however, the relationship was so sour, the Haitian dictator was gleefully claiming that his Voodoo curse had killed the U.S. president. So here is the reality of global violence lying in its own blood as a fragmented world seems to pour out of Kennedy’s head.

“I liked the idea we could be inside Kennedy’s brain: No one knows what happened,” Mathieu said, referring to the mysteries that still swirl around the assassination.

At the Power Plant, curator Amin Alsaden surrounds JFK with Mathieu’s portraits of figures from Haitian history, including Duvalier’s wife and his daughter-in-law Michèle Bennett. In Mathieu’s hands, Bennett, whose notorious wedding cost millions as many Haitians starved, becomes monstrous, an alien-like figure with blue skin and an armoured head. At a time when the world wrestles with the legacy of racism, Haiti’s history is crucial to Mathieu’s approach: It is the only country ever established by a slave revolt and was the first to abolish slavery. So Zapruder/313 and its company pull Haiti into the centre of geopolitics.

Born the year Duvalier’s son “Baby Doc” was ousted, Mathieu grew up in a family where the genocidal dictatorship and the divisions it created or exploited in Haitian society still cast a long shadow. His maternal grandfather was an army officer in the early Duvalier years but his father’s family included several members who were disappeared by the regime.

“The way we understand ourselves is tainted by that: My parents grew up in a world where you could die if you said what you thought,” he said. “My generation is the first generation of adults who came out of the dictatorship and we are now mature enough to take the lead.”

This is not simply about remembering the Duvaliers' brutality: “It’s important not to only point to the atrocities; if you only look at the atrocities you miss the complexities,” he said, mentioning both the racial tensions between black and mulatto communities in Haiti, and the role of Voodoo -- which Duvalier exploited for his own ends -- as an expression of spirituality.

Mathieu, who is trilingual in French, Haitian Creole and English, left Haiti at 19 to join his grandmother and other relatives in the suburbs of Montreal. His parents are professionals – his mother now lives in Montreal; his father remains in Haiti – but nobody in his family was convinced that becoming a visual artist was a good idea. So, he took a program in marketing before beginning his degree in fine arts at the University of Quebec at Montreal (UQAM), and it seems to have served him well.

“It took me a while to get there; there were a lot of expectations, false directions,” he said of his path through the art world, discussing a 2012 painting where he shows himself as truncated torso trapped in a pit-like white void. Yet despite the setback of his accident and his struggles to find his place, he has moved rapidly into commercial galleries and has never bothered to parse the paperwork required to get government grants.

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A strong collection of Mr. Mathieu's works on paper in the Power Plant show feature bursts of powdered colour and calligraphic lines.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

The Toronto show coincides with his first solo North American museum show, at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, where he is displaying more paintings, including new abstract works that use collage techniques to cover the surface in ripped and stained canvas. There’s also an installation in Montreal that features a row of large canvas banners with openings in the middle as though the viewer might now enter the painting itself. In Toronto, meanwhile, he is showing some new ceramics, flat cut-outs of faintly biomorphic shapes.

Continually experimenting with media and moving his work from the painterly to the sculptural, Mathieu always begins with drawing: There is a strong collection of works on paper in the Power Plant show featuring bursts of powdered colour and calligraphic lines.

“Drawings are my laboratory; they are by far the hardest thing to do,” he said.

The paintings are expressionistic but with recognizable figurative content; the drawings are abstract. But provocatively Mathieu makes little distinction, arguing there is no such thing as figurative art.

“Figure is a way to talk about the final work but there was always a concept first,” he said.

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Manuel Mathieu's painting entitled Stand Alone. Mr. Mathieu says a good painting forces the viewer to spend time with it.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

It’s an interesting position from one whose representational art glides into abstraction and whose abstractions flirt with recognizable forms. None of these images are instantly grasped by the viewer, but that is Mathieu’s point.

“I want the work to take your eyes, then your body, and then your soul. I want it to show you the path but not give it to you. It forces you to spend time with it; a good painting does.”

Manuel Mathieu’s World Discovered Under Other Skies continues at the Power Plant gallery in Toronto to Jan. 3, 2021. Survivance, by the same artist, will reopen at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts Oct. 28 and continue to March 28, 2021.

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