Rene Matić: upon this rock
Rene Matić: upon this rock

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Rene Matić: upon this rock

Rene Matić’s work interrogates Britishness, and what an historic time to be speaking to them about their new exhibition upon this rock. ‘I actually just got it tattooed yesterday here’ they say, showing me the words written across their upper arm. A photograph in the exhibition shows more raw words inscribed on Matić: ‘Born British Die British’ is written in cursive across their back, courtesy of Lal Hardy who has been tattooing punk Skinheads since the mid-70s.

Rene at new wave tattoo  2020  flags for countries that don't exist but bodies that do

Rene at New Wave Tattoo, 2020

"a utopia that has actually already existed"

‘He's a really, really cool guy,’ Matic says. ‘My interest in him was to do with the bodies he's come into contact with, the amount of intimacy he's had with people who would have had that same tattoo. But maybe for a different reason.’ Yes, Skinhead culture has a complex legacy which, clearly, Matić doesn’t shy away from. ‘I often talk about it in terms of an afrofuturist history, like a utopia that has actually already existed. I'm interested in grasping on to those things because I always find that in terms of afrofuturism, and similar movements, it's always a fantasy – but with the Skinheads, it already existed, even though it was very quick and very short. There was a lot of solidarity between black and white working-class cultures.’

The Skinhead subculture emerged in the UK in the mid-to-late 60s and was born of a cultural exchange between Caribbean and white working-class culture, the artist explains, ‘and as someone who lives within that diasporic identity, I've always been looking for a culture to find a home in.’ For many, homely might be a surprising association for a movement that has come to be associated with neo-Nazism. Yet, for Matić, ‘My dad was a Skinhead – a black Skinhead. I grew up thinking that there were two definitions for the term ‘skinhead’. There was my dad, and then there were all these racist people. And I was like, What the hell?’

Rene's jacket  2018  flags for countries that don't exist but bodies that do

Rene's Jacket, 2018

upon this rock is something of a love letter to the artist’s father, who features in a new film work Many Rivers. ‘I always wanted to tell my dad’s story’, Matić says. Born ‘out of wedlock’ to a white Irish Catholic woman and a man from St. Lucia in 1962, under the weight of prejudice from the church, Matić’s grandmother left her new family unit for Ireland and was never heard of again. The film uncovering this history is ‘an attempt at filling these gaps for him, because my whole life he's kind of been tortured by this ambiguity. I set out to learn and to tell this story, which is really a story, again, about the cause and effect of pain and suffering – and what saves us?’

Rose in water bottle  2021  flags for countries that don't exist but bodies that do

Rose in Water Bottle, 2021

"It's important to have some kind of family and love and some-kind-of-something that is beyond you"

Good question – or is this rock, basting itself in raw sewage, beyond saving? ‘In my experience, the only way that one can survive this world is if you have something beyond you that you believe in, basically. Obviously, my family is a huge part of that, however sticky it can be.’ Indeed, many intimate, fly-on-the-wall-ish portraits in the exhibition attest to that. ‘It's important to have some kind of family and love and some-kind-of-something that is beyond you.’

Ve day  skegness iii  2020  flags for countries that don't exist but bodies that do

VE Day, Skegness III, 2020

For some people, that’s religion, and Matić extends their focus subcultures and symbols of suffering through bronze and wood sculptures of ‘the crucified Skinhead’. For others, of course, being British is that bigger-than-themselves – here, the St George’s flag and Union Jack feature more Martin Parrishly than earnestly. Besides photographing them, the artist has installed one of their own outside South London Gallery. ‘I can never see myself in a flag, I never felt represented by one,’ says Matić, and so their practice is an attempt to look at flags ‘in a more nuanced way’. Rather than anything so grand as representing ‘a whole body of people’, Matić’s flags seek to represent ‘a singular second or a singular moment.’

Chiddy doing rene's hair  2019  flags for countries that don't exist but bodies that do

Chiddy doing Rene's Hair, 2019

"toughness is a glitch of softness"

Fashion, of course, is another quasi-religion we all subscribe to, one that changes with the seasons. Having initially studied it, ‘I quickly realised that as a medium, it wasn't helpful to me, because I was trying to conceptualise or I was researching and then having to put it all into an outfit. Then obviously, as I realised that I was an artist, clothes found their way in somehow. As queer people, you know, the way that we dress and the way that we present ourselves is super important. These markers of identity are impossible to ignore, especially when you're talking about Skinheads or Blackness or queerness.’

Maggie in pink  2019  flags for countries that don't exist but bodies that do

Maggie in Pink, 2019

Matić’s work is by turns raw, contemplative, energetic, always refreshingly confessional. Being so exposed must require a toughness. It’s work that requires them to wear their heart – and their exhibition title – on their sleeve. ‘I literally do have a lot of skin in the game, but at the same time, I'm blessed to have my work. The artworks I enjoy have this way of skirting around the fact without having to look something straight in the eye; you're looking at it from a side angle. You get this distorted view of something, and that is where growth can happen. It reminds me of Legacy Russell's glitch feminism – when there's a glitch, you can fix it or update it, basically. And I think that softness is a glitch of toughness, and toughness is a glitch of softness. And that's just the tea.’

Rene and flag  2019  flags for countries that don't exist but bodies that do

Rene and Flag, 2019

As a portrait of contemporary Britain, upon this rock is a paean to family (chosen or otherwise), ‘however sticky it can be’. While I won’t personally be getting a ‘Born British Die British’ tattoo any time soon, Skinhead culture proves an apt lens to consider how persecution and alienation can transform into solidarity and triumph. As heat-or-eat Britain enters a new era of cruel and brutal immigration and asylum policy, we would do well to remember that.


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