Renée Mathews: Fluidity and Intuition
by Glodeane Brown, Guest Curator
Renée Mathews is an artist currently living in Montreal. My introduction to her work was in 2018 as part of the Hacking Black Futures exhibition at BAND Gallery and Cultural Centre in Toronto. The immersive installation transformed the space into a future home existing in a Black-centric society devoid of oppression, discrimination, and systemic issues. Her inventive denim wigs imagined an ideal future where Black hair is not policed, shamed, or deemed “unprofessional.” The wigs are made of old jeans that were deconstructed by hand. They propose an alternative to current synthetic hair options, which produce a lot of plastic waste. As a Black woman who has done almost everything with her hair and has experienced hair policing, this project spoke to me on many levels, and I was not surprised to see that it won the Juror’s Choice Award at Toronto Design Offsite Festival.
Art has always been in her life. She grew up in a creative household surrounded by art, recognizing early on that art was the only thing in school that really moved her. She could complete all the other subjects just fine, but art was very fun. She credits her high school teachers for recognizing and encouraging her skills and interest. A paper wig that Mathews made in 2015 in high school served as a kind of precursor to the denim wigs.
Sustainability is an important part of her practice. Though she is an interdisciplinary artist, she has avoided painting as an artistic medium until recently, finding it to be expensive and inaccessible because you must keep buying paint. She prefers using materials that are already around her, instead of having to buy new materials. The process of making the wigs was a long, windy, twisty process. Her hair has always been a playground of self expression. She was using wigs as part of her experimenting when it occurred to her that the wigs were plastic items that had a short lifespan. Frustrated by this, and by plastic waste in general, she investigated alternatives and started experimenting with bio plastics. When those experiments failed, she turned to the fabric pile she keeps around for sewing. Realizing that the fray on some ripped jeans resembled hair strands, she started pulling them out one by one. Mathews has a skin picking fixation and though she has not been diagnosed, thinks she most likely has OCD. The integral picking action of the fabric became a meditative process for her and served a major function of mitigating self harm behaviours. Once she had her “stacks of hair”, she moved on to the design phase which she describes as a fluid and frustrating process. She almost bailed out of the exhibition out of frustration when things weren’t coming together as expected but is glad that she didn’t. So am I. From concept to exhibition, the whole project took her about four months.
Mathews’ beautiful collage works are both digital and analog. She prefers analog and the tactile processes of combing through books and magazines, cutting and pasting. With digital works, she can’t get as fully absorbed in the process. Working intuitively and fluidly, letting her hands do what they want, is a big part of her overall practice and results in better than imagined finished works. With drawing and collage, she’s found that if she starts out creating with a specific vision in mind, she’ll try too hard to stick to that vision and the result will be too rigid, and not what she really wanted. Sculptural works are more of an intensive process requiring more research before getting started.
When asked what kinds of feelings she wants to evoke in audiences that engage with her work, she takes a long pause to think about this. Ultimately, she wants people to stop and think and doesn’t want to always prescribe something to it. She enjoys putting what she needs to put in the work and then hearing about how people interpret the work, letting them read what they need to read into it. She gives the example of the variety of audience responses and interpretations to her denim wigs at the Hacking Black Futures exhibition. These interpretations sometimes allow her to see her own work in different ways, and she’s thankful for that. Keeping things ambiguous helps her to avoid getting pigeonholed. She’s felt external pressure that she then internalized about the unstated but expected criteria of having to create work solely about social issues. “If I’m not saying something about a social issue then is my art even worthwhile? I don’t think that that’s a fair question to ask myself.” Recently, she’s tried to move away from the title or label of “Black artist.” As a biracial and light skinned person, she doesn’t want to be the poster face for Black artists.
Future projects she hopes to work on include working with musicians on album covers and vinyl pull outs, and once it’s safe to be less than two metres apart, a queer focused, BIPOC focused cuddle puddle.
Guest Curator Glodeane Brown (she/her) is an arts management professional, an arts and culture blogger, and a public art coordinator. She was previously the General Manager at CAFKA – Contemporary Art Forum Kitchener and Area, a contemporary public art organization that puts on a free biennial of art in the public spaces of Waterloo Region.
Glodeane is the Founder and Editor of Culture Fancier, the blog she started in 2016 to educate, entertain, and inspire people. She writes about art events and regularly features local and international creative professionals. She has worked with several arts organizations to provide services ranging from jurying to facilitating panels. She is a Director at Arts Awards Waterloo Region, and a Guest Curator at Mind’s Eye Studio Art Gallery where she has curated solo and group shows featuring local artists. In 2020 she received an arts award from Arts Awards Waterloo Region for her contribution to the local arts community.
Renée Mathews is an interdisciplinary artist with a practice that taps into drawing, sculpture, collage, writing, photography, and movement. Driven by an insatiable and often childlike curiosity, her thoughts and therefore her work tend to revolve around concepts of time, spirituality, and inner worlds. She has been involved in several group shows locally and internationally, and has done commercial design work for companies in Canada, Malaysia, and Laos. In 2018, she was a recipient of the DesignTO Juror’s Choice Award and was a jury member the following year. Born and raised in the Greater Toronto Area, Renée now lives in Montréal where she is pursuing a BFA in Art Education at Concordia University.
~ Posted by Glodeane Brown