Manuel Mathieu is a Haitian multi-disciplinary artist who confronts and challenges the abstraction of art. He has created his own distinct and visual language to draw on themes of historical violence, erasure, nature and the spiritual legacy. Since emigrating to Montreal at 19, Mathieu uses his art as a gateway to harness his past and present experiences. His newest exhibition, The End of Figuration, will open on February 17th at the De La Warr Pavilion. He engages with us about how his new paintings and fabric installation signify his unique definition of figuration.
Manuel, congratulations on your new exhibition opening next month at the De La Warr Pavilion! As an established artist with several exhibitions behind you, what does The End of Figuration mean to you in your artistic journey?
This exhibition is an opportunity for me to stop and examine the different processes and methodologies that have been central to my work. Whether it’s through modes of apparition, the relationship that I am developing with clay and fabrics, or how all of these relate to exist as one experience within the space. The End of Figuration is trying to propose a different way of appreciating, understanding, approaching and being in relation to figuration.
As an abstract artist, your art evokes a lot of movement and vibrational energy that tells a story of its own. How did you come to incorporate different artistic mediums in your art, and specifically, what are the reasons behind including fabric in your work?
The use of different mediums for me are connected to ways of thinking. From an animist point of view I am naturally drawn to certain materials and objects. For example, fabric found its way to me when I was doing a residency in Germany. I was intrigued by the idea of desire. Desire is something that can be generative and at the same time fatal. The fabric at the time became an instrument to articulate that dichotomy. With ink, soul, and fire, I started testing the limits of the material. It took me some time to realise that desire was only an excuse to engage with that material in a more intimate way. It becomes like a skin, a boundary, an envelope– a metaphorical veil to conceal. I am also intrigued by the concept of destruction through fire, exploring what remains afterward, weaving together ideas, and the concept of sending smoke signals.
Portal, 2021.
In speaking of your new artwork, you said that you think “figuration is a mode of apparition within abstraction.” Can you explain a bit more about that and how the relationship between figuration and apparition play a role in your work?
Apparition is a powerful container, a sort of transitory state where language fights to survive. It’s a dance between what can and could, the past in the future. It’s a space of intensification in other terms– the present. In this intensity my sensibility is the barometer for what stays. In this space of transition, decisions about composition happen very often. Composition can operate at different velocities, the exercise of apparition is a slippery one. On the surface, different temporalities collide to create the time of the painting. I like to think that apparition operates on two main axes: width and depth, physical and spiritual. Composition is where modes of apparition overlap and where I get a sense of the big picture.
Abstraction as a mode of apparition, on the other hand, operates differently. I will not try to talk about abstraction as a whole but more precisely about how it operates in my work and the familiarities that I notice. Inside of abstraction there is spirituality, figuration, symbolism. In the active space of abstraction there are repetition, metaphors, asemic writing, mapping, pareidolia, gestalt, thaumatrope, contradictions, the use of titles. They all serve as catalysts that affect our experience in front of the artwork.
Figuration on the other hand is the psychology of creating content. It is based on a common space that we share where there are recognisable codes directly tied to elements or concepts in reality. Those elements exist conceptually for example when I say, imagine a chair we can both see it but not in the same way. The mode of apparition of figuration happens when there is enough information that we can, by contemplating, agree that this is actually a chair. The chair exists in the crossroad of our imagination and on the surface of the painting. Because I see it as a conceptual experience, I define it as an abstract mode of apparition. This mode of apparition operates within abstraction. In the active space of figuration mechanisms like pareidolia and gestalt are very common. As a mode of apparition figuration sometimes uses gestalt as a way to complete the real. Not just visually but it can also be done emotionally. Playing with emotions complexifies what can appear in the process. Gestalt’s process at its peak happens in the mind of the viewer when he or she has very little to no clues.
The End of Figuration is a rather powerful statement. What are you hoping to communicate with that? Is it specifically about your work, meaning that you won’t paint any more figurative paintings, or is it a more general observation?
As an artist experimenting regularly with that exercise of apparition, I often ask myself, how is a visual common ground created? The mechanism of figuration is a good outlet to create areas of agreement. By common ground I refer to what we can agree and or disagree that we see. It is a place where we can equally navigate the possibilities of apparition where knowledge can be perceived as biased and that the only map is embedded in our intuition.
Through that common ground I want to cultivate a sense of equality where the viewers come as they are and that everything they bring is valuable. It’s important for me to create a space where we can freely question our capacity to see each other and that our disparities actually can become ways that we learn about the possibilities of being together in the present.
The understanding of that common ground started from an artistic point of view but I think it can be expanded to bigger perspectives and further the empathy we have for each other. This elasticity is at the heart of creating that space, and is at the heart of creating one future. The end of that common ground, the crossroad of our imagination, would be a tragedy for all of us. 
Your work centers around many themes including historical violence, erasure, and cultural approaches to physicality, nature, and spiritual legacy. How important is it for you to be politically involved as an artist and how do you strike that balance between your artistic vision and politics?
One of my values growing up was equity. I don’t only believe in using my work to underline the lack of equity but also to do so outside of it. Exercising art and embracing the spiritual legacy that comes with it is a way to preserve and put forward the complexities of my humanity. It sounds obvious but for certain people to this day Black people are not perceived as a human being or within the colonial legacy are perceived lesser then. By embracing my art, the spiritual residues of my thoughts, I want to believe that the world will also embrace my humanity.
I talked in my work about history, personal experiences, the mechanism within the work over the years, family and transformation. These moments are trampolines that help access new perspectives of history, stretch different ways of apparition and enter in relation with the world. What is happening outside the work is also very important to me. The fund I initiated at the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts for underrepresented artists and the programme that I put together with AWARE in Paris, both named after my grandmother, Marie-Solanges Apollon, the financial support I provide to Black woman film directors in Montreal are some of the many ways that I am trying to create space and propose alternatives to our common future. Alternatives where marginalised stories can exist and that Black women have more opportunities and are more present in shaping their destiny.
Thinking with the Figure 2, 2022.
I’d like to know a bit about your artistic process. How has this process evolved with you as an artist?
My process is life’s process. I try not to have such a strict line between my life and my art. As I am shaping myself as a person the things that I understand and or feel shape my work as an artist. Making art is a way of being present in the world, of staying close to the source, the divine and to keep digging into my soul.
Your identities of being Haitian and Canadian and living in both countries have had a big impact on your art. Do you think that your time studying at Goldsmith College in London has also influenced a bit of your style and inspiration as well?
Goldsmiths made me realise, surrounded by artists from around the world, that we are all trying one way or another to make sense of something that escapes us and make peace with our ephemerality. Living in London, the heart of the empire, certainly affected the understanding I have of myself and of my place in the world today. The cold war might have been cold for the North but it was very hot in the South. Dictatorships in Haiti (which lasted almost 29 years) and in many other countries at the time, left profound visible and invisible scars. Those scars are collateral damage of the establishment of capitalism, a political and economical system that is shaping the world to this day. Being in London and connecting the dots has taught me that there is a thin line between allies and casualties. It’s important to be aware of this because over time, learning how to tiptoe on that line becomes handy.
Speaking of identity, you were also named the first Black Haitian-Canadian artist to be acquired by the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts. How did that feel and what does it mean to you?
This acquisition helped me put together a fund for underrepresented artists in the collection. I am very happy that I can use that opportunity to help others. I would have hoped that the museum felt the necessity to do so before I created the fund. Too often the spotlight is put on my initiative and not on their lack of initiative. It is easy for one to be perceived as a false prophet.
Omnipresence, 2023.
Abstract art requires interpretation and involvement from the viewer, and your new exhibition is meant to invite people to see what you named the unrepresented energies of life. What is something that you hope viewers will take away from this experience?
I try not to influence the viewer. The shows that touched me the most felt like I was being exposed to the construction of a completely new and different approach to the world. With its own set of rules, a lexicon that took me as far [from] where I stood as possible. I simply hope that the show will accompany people to hidden parts of themselves.
Finally, what goals do you have for yourself personally and as an artist going forward?
I am creating perfumes with a renowned nose in Paris at the moment and producing a documentary on corruption and impunity in Haiti. I hope to keep expanding my mind and face the many challenges ahead of me with grace.
Manuel Mathieu, Unmade, 2022. Courtesy the artist and Pilar Corrias, London.
Within the figure, 2023.
Paris Index 2, 2023. 
Anatomy, 2024.