We featured the work of Rene Matić back in 2019 (read here). So, their new two-month long show, Upon This Rock, (at the South London Gallery) was in our diary for a visit as soon as it was announced.
Matić is a Peterborough born and bred artist whose work has a satisfyingly recurrent theme of the exploration of ‘Britishness’.
The South London Gallery is a treasure in itself and Matić’s exhibition is housed in the Old Fire Station. Taking in four galleries, the exhibition is a journey through Matić’s personal and family life and in particular their existence within a British culture that at times seeks to deny their existence.
Gallery One documents Matić’s family and community and is part of the ongoing series “flags for countries that don’t exist but bodies that do”. An album of photos from the family in Peterborough, images from their own Peckham neighbourhood and an examination of faith. Faith and religion run through the exhibition as a theme, Upon this Rock being taken from the Bible passage in which Christ proclaims to Peter “upon this rock, I will build my church”.
The images include a tongue in cheek snap of a police car attending the crash of another police car and local shots of a flag adorned house from the time of the Platinum Jubilee.
Gallery Two with its beige hues and 1970s offcut carpet is a homage to the crucified Skinhead. The crucified Skinhead signifies the persecution of the working-class movement that has been used by anti-racist skinheads and appropriated by extremists. Deployed on the gallery wall are sixty crosses to represent every year of Matić’s father, Paul along with another twenty-five for each of Matić’s life. The artist notes “this work is about the cause and effect of pain and suffering and what slaves us-if anything-in the end”.
Paul, when growing up in Peterborough, had been a skinhead himself, a Black man in a movement that drew on both white working class and Jamaican rude boy culture. Accepted by some and rejected by many the crucifix provides a metaphor for the suffering he endured for his allegiance to that subculture.
Gallery Four is dominated by the wall mounted photo displaying the tattooed back of Matić, shot by the most prolific photographer of British subculture, Derek Ridgers, the tattoo reads “Born British, Die British,” a far-right slogan that is reappropriated and claimed as their own by Matić.
The gallery is another personal walk through Matić’s life, documenting their family through photographs, birth certificates, maps of hometown Peterborough, vinyl, and books. It is the story of a family in any British town over the past 50 years. The Richard Allen skinhead books sit alongside the recent copy of a newspaper with the headlines “Our Beloved Queen is Dead”.
We leave Gallery Three until last as we found here the most outstanding part of the exhibition. A 30-minute film that walks you slowly through the life of Matić’s father Paul, it is a story of a mixed-race person growing up in Britain. With perspectives from Paul, Matić’s mother Ali, their grandfather Julien and aunty Lulu, it is a touching story of family, of a lost mother, racial prejudice, of faith, perseverance, and togetherness. It is a glimpse into the life of a family and leaves you with admiration for their collective endurance that leaves them stronger.
A story of a family, of adversity and endurance, a candid and artistic examination of the idea of home, hometown, and homeland. The exhibition is a triumph.