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OF SKINHEADS AND SKIN: The Artwork of Rene Matić

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Rene Matić’s first solo show may have recently closed at Bermondsey’s Vitrine Gallery, but the Peterborough-born artist has made their ephemeral exhibition permanent; its title ‘Born British, Die British’ is indelibly etched on Matić’s skin, reclaiming a phrase to fit their own experience of the Black British diaspora. Investigating Skinhead culture as a means to probe identity, for Rene Matić, the body is a battleground, dance is a combative rapture and clothing is an emblem of convoluted history. With a self-analytical wisdom beyond their 23 years and an immense artistic output – spanning film, sculpture, photography textiles and painting – Matić is a compelling force of subversive creativity.

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Coalition, 2018 - ongoing photography series

How would you describe your artistic practice?

I like describing my practice as RUDE. It means what it means… to interrupt, to be impolite, abrupt and offensive. As a queer, black gender non-conforming person in Britain – to be a glitch – is to be all of these things by accident. With my work I am trying lean in to all this accident.

Is the RUDE nature of your practice one of the reasons why you are fascinated by Skinhead culture, which of course partly stemmed from Rudeboys? I know that your Dad was a skinhead, but why do has that subcultural influence has perpetuated in your work?

ABSOLUTELY! I believe in the Skinhead as a concept and as a metaphor. Subcultures are so powerful because of their rudeness. Rudeness is a ‘display of disrespect by not complying with social norms. It is in the disrespecting that I find myself so encouraged and fired up. Disrespecting makes room for change and growth; it not only says to hell with subordination but also to hegemony. The Skinhead is by far the most radical, anti-establishment, anti-fascist subculture… that’s why it posed/poses such a threat to white supremacist systems – because it disrespected it. THAT is why it has been co-opted, coerced and derailed.

Blackness and black Britishness is a subculture in and of itself. It is to be outside of society… it is to be a skinhead or a punk without the creepers or the polo shirt. I like the ‘opting in’ of subcultures. There is a rare agency there… one that PoC rarely get access to.

Your first solo exhibition included a work called Muddy Puddle which showed archetypal Skinhead clothing strewn on the floor. Dick Hebdige viewed style as “intentional communication,” what does clothing represent to you?

Dick Hebdige also talks of the idea that whoever we are – if we exist in the same society – we will inevitably share some of the same materials, historical conditions and to a certain extent, cultures… even if we use those same things to stand in opposition to one another. I use clothes as a metaphor for this.

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Untitled (liberty,) 2018. Air drying clay, gold leaf

You had the exhibition title, ’Born British, Die British’, tattooed across your back, a film documenting this process was the focal point of the show. Could you elaborate on that incredibly intimate process?

As a ‘tattooed person’ I don’t think one ever truly understands the permanency of being inked; how can we rationally attest for our future bodies?

It was a ceremonial betrothing of Britishness upon my mixed-race skin speaking not only to the unique reality of hailing from the Black British diaspora, but also connoting the historical violence enacted on Black and Brown bodies in the name of ‘Great’ Britain, both historically and today.

The tattoo took about 40 minutes and of course, I was in the expert hands of Lal Hardy. Most of the time I was focusing on the music he had on – a compilation of Ska, reggae and 2-Tone. OUR MUSIC. The pain rendered me mute for the duration of the tattoo, which I wasn’t expecting as I had hoped to wax lyrical with Lal… but I relaxed into the fact that we were connecting silently, without words, just energy.

You were then photographed by Derek Ridgers, who is renowned for documenting British subculture. What is the significance of Ridgers being the one to capture your British bestowal?

Aside from being a huge fan of Derek’s work – Derek is partly responsible for imaging subcultures that, without the visible evidence of their existence, would have faded away without a fight. Derek’s work reminds us of the phenomena of British subculture. By having my portrait taken by him, I felt like I was inserting myself into that narrative and that legacy.

Your work is highly autobiographical, is it daunting being so personal? Do you think the artwork can be, or should be, separate from the artist?

All I can do is be autobiographical. I once had a conversation with artist Jesse Darling about how, as artists, we each have our own tool box. The tools are our stories and our experiences and that is what we use to build with and to build on. We do not choose the tools; the tools choose us.

If I am daunted by a thing then it means I do not know it. Joan Didion says something along the lines of ‘I write to find out what I am thinking’ and I make art to find out what I am feeling. The intimacy is a blessing. I don’t think art can ever be separate from the artist, when the tools that have been used are so nuanced.

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[Still from] We give a lead to Britain, 2020, HD Video with Sound

You often revisit work with thoughtful transparency, probing and peeling back the layers. Where does this self-awareness stem from?

HA yes, I find it so helpful to revisit and reflect on past works because sometimes it is the first time you can really see and understand it… after you part ways. Being transparent allows for mistakes and messiness. Brown Girl in the Art World III voices the messiness and, in turn, helps clean it up a bit.

I think a lot of it also comes from imposter syndrome which is a symptom of the weight of being a black, queer artist. I am never really sure about anything, so why pretend that I am?

I’ve read that Patti Smith’s Just Kids has been a big influence on you. You recently responded to Smith’s New Year’s billboard for CIRCA, how was that?

Responding to Patti’s work with CIRCA was one of the easiest things I have ever done. I suppose because I have been responding to her work since I was 15, as has my collaborator Kai-Isiah Jamal. It was so special to debut our first collaboration alongside Patti. Kai and I both live in our own fantasy world’s most of the time and so it was beautiful to merge those two worlds together in the name of punk and freedom.

What are your current inspirations?

Family, both chosen and blood; the love and care that is circulating and keeping us alive. I have been reading bell hooks’ ‘All About Love: New Visions’ and I am inspired by a devotion to loving and being loved healthily and happily.

What next?

I am working on a photography book with Arcadia Missa and I am just about to start working towards a solo show with a wonderful gallery and organization but all that is TBC.

Our ongoing series of reports on emerging and established artists with close-up Q&As, gallery reports and exhibition reviews, with a special emphasis on supporting diversity in art, women in art and the independent art scene.

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