Peterborough-born artist Rene Matić’s work probes the invisibilised structures of oppression that underpin society, troubling the easy narratives sustained by today’s cultural norms. Currently studying at Central St Martins, London, their multifaceted practice spans everything from painting, design collaborations, film and dance to projects like Do You Remember Olive Morris?, a sculptural work created in homage to community organiser, British Black Panther and feminist Olive Morris, commissioned by Tate and the Mayor of London for the Black Cultural Archives.
In anticipation of the screening of their 2019 film Brown Girl in the Art World III at London Short Film Festival, they sit down to talk to HUNGER about their practice, the crooked room and why they’re done babysitting the white gaze.
For our readers who are not familiar with your work, would you be able to describe some of the central interests within your practice?
I’m currently studying and working in London. My work explores the immeasurable dimensions of Blackness through the lens of my own personal experiences as a queer, Black womxn living in the diaspora. In doing so, I aim to expose, combat and question the power relations that pervade the art world and society more widely. I’d say this particular series, Brown Girl in the Art World, really embodies this project and typifies my wider practice.
My current work predominantly explores the Skinhead movement, its founding as a multicultural marriage between West Indian and white working class culture and its subsequent co-option by far-right white supremacists. I use this as a metaphor to examine my own experience of living in the Black British diaspora and also to excavate white jealousy, the continued legacy of colonialism and the fear of a Black planet – all things which find convergence within and upon my mixed race identity.
I work across painting, sculpture, film photography and textile attempting to bring to light (or dark) the fated conflicts and contradictions that one encounters while navigating the world in a body like my own.
What prompted you to begin work on the Brown Girl in the Art World series?
I think Brown Girl in the Art World I and II were the first intentionally reactionary works I ever made. All through my life and my practice, I have these moments where I come up against the ugly, brutal force of white supremacist heteropatriarchy. These forces which come to limit, restrict and oppress me and people with bodies and identities like mine. This series is a collection of those moments. Moments that I want to be loud about I suppose, or spend a little bit longer dissecting even though there are never conclusions. Brown Girl in the Art World III was, for me, a handing over of stuff, like; “here is all this stuff I can’t hold anymore so I’m putting it here.”
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"Brown Girl in the Art World III was, for me, a handing over of stuff, like; 'here is all this stuff I can't hold anymore so I'm putting it here.'"
There’s an interest in corporeality in the Brown Girl in the Art World series – in parts II and III but also the imagery of part I (“A link in a chain. Hand in hand, always.”). It seems like one of the concerns of the series is the potential of a “return to the body” moment. Is this an accurate reading? Would you be able to elaborate on the role that corporeality plays in the series and your work more broadly?
I think that BGITAW II, which is a photograph of me doing a naked handstand in a white boy’s gallery, is the corporeal manifestation of the essay BGITAW I and then the BGITAW III video piece brings those two excavations together. The way my body and bodies like mine are identified, othered and oppressed is at the heart of the conversations. But I would say at the moment I am more interested in pointing out the wider societal conflicts and obsessions with the body and how it is positioned and constructed as a problem. This recalcitrant body that is obliged to react or respond to reactions and responses. It’s a mother fuckin’ war zone. Like, you can look at me but I can look right fuckin’ back.
Brown Girl in the Art World II seems to marry this concern with the theme of space — taking up space, making space and inhospitable spaces. Would you be able to talk more about the work and its relation to space please?
Brown Girl in the Art World II was a huge turning point in my practice. It signals the moment where I started to think about weaponising my body in space. Since then, I feel that the conversation about taking up space as a radical act has reached a bit of a crescendo. I think more widely the conversation has now shifted focus to the emotional labour, the pain and the exhaustion that comes with having to forcefully take up space. This is what Brown Girl in the Art World III examines…. I think. It asks; “what is the cost of attempting to take up space in spaces that don’t want us?”
Brown Girl in the Art World I makes reference to Melissa Harris-Perry and the concept of the “crooked room” which makes more explicit the challenges of existing within a world dominated by whiteness and other oppressive paradigms. Is there ever a way of re-adjusting the slope of the room?
Ain’t that the question on everyone’s lips aahhh… I think that by confronting and exposing the crooked room we hand the problem and the embarrassment to the oppressor. It isn’t our job to re-adjust it. We shouldn’t really have to clean up this mess. Like [James] Baldwin says; “Well he’s unnecessary to me, so he must be necessary to you. So I give you your problem back. You’re the nigger baby, it isn’t me.”
By dubbing the video footage with meta-textual discussion of the intellectual processes behind the work, Brown Girl in the Art World III makes more tangible the additional labour that artists of colour undertake in comparison to their white peers. Do you think that this labour should be recognised and recompensed accordingly?
I think the most important thing is that we recognise this. In ourselves, our communities and our (chosen) families, we must recognise the power, value and significance of this labour. We shouldn’t always be looking for external validation, it waters us down and makes us lose sight of what we are worth. bell hooks talks about this when she says that we colonise ourselves when we look to the coloniser for approval. We subconsciously survey ourselves when working and living so that we fit, so that we are tolerated. BGITAW III is me trying to challenge that process, unpack it and undo it.
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"The conversation about taking up space as a radical act has reached a bit of a crescendo. More widely, the conversation has shifted focus to the emotional labour, pain and exhaustion that comes with having to forcefully take up space."
Brown Girl in the Art World III is in dialogue with (or is a response to?) another of your works, This all belongs to you. Would you be able to discuss the relationship between the two works?
Well everyone told me that This all belongs to you was gorgeous and stunning and I felt like I didn’t want my work to be read and watched that easily. I felt like I was lying. So I had a year of ruminating on that piece because I was so conflicted about its potential sugar-coating and the way I felt it had come to babysit the white gaze. BGITAW III came about as a result of this laborious process. In the piece, I try and unpack and explore what it would mean to try make the gaze uncomfortable. I don’t think the work successfully achieves that (and I didn’t expect it to), but it begins to think about how we could.
Would you be able to discuss the choice of location for Brown Girl in the Art World III?
I’m so glad you asked me this because because because, in the video I say that it was filmed in Cornwall which is so random of me because it was actually filmed in Skegness (I had been travelling a lot, don’t ask). But the voice recording is taken from a presentation I was doing at uni so I didn’t want to re-record it. I felt it was more important for me to keep the original audio.
I chose the pub in Skegness, which is a predominantly working-class seaside town where I was on holiday, because it asked me to. The sign on the front said “lease this pub” with a huge car park in front of it, like a stage. I first noticed it because it was draped in the Cross of Saint George which made the location, as an image, already so loaded. That kind of environment means different things to me for different reasons but, more than anything, it was a just stage I had to dance on.
Do you plan to add to the Brown Girl in the Art World series? If so, where might it lead next?
I think that for as long as I am a brown person working in the art world I will continue to reflect on what that means and what that looks like. At the moment, I’m more concerned with how gendered the title is, because I don’t feel like a girl today and it’s annoying that it says that. Having said that, it’s nice to map my growth through this series of works. Growth and strength and knowledge and ability.