First Haitian-Canadian Acquired By The Montreal MFA Aims To Bring More Diversity To Museum

MTL Blog got the chance to speak with visual abstract artist, Manuel Mathieu!
Contributing Writer
First Haitian-Canadian Acquired By The Montreal MFA Aims To Bring More Diversity To Museum
  • Manuel Mathieu is the man behind the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts' new fund, the Marie-Solange Apollon Fund, which seeks to bring more diversity into the museum's collections.
  • I got the chance to speak with Manuel about his influence for the fund, his life in Quebec and across the globe, his view on society's role in preserving art, and much more.
  • Read my interview with him below!

Manuel Mathieu is a young Haitian abstract artist who has chosen to use his successes to help other unrepresented artists gain a voice. He started the Marie-Solange Apollon Fund at Montreal's Museum of Fine Arts, which sets out to diversify the museum's collection, with this vision in mind. The fund's creation began in 2018 but was officially announced this month, in December 2019

Manuel left Haiti when he was about 19 years old to come to Quebec to live with his grandmother, the "backbone of the family," after whom he named the fund.

He received a Bachelor’s Degree in Visual Arts and Media at UQAM in 2010, and then went on to do a Masters of Fine Arts at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Currently, Manuel has an artist residency at Akademic Schloss Solitude in Germany, where he lives in a (literal) castle and spends his days doing what he loves: creating art. 

He will be back in Montreal, the city in which he spent a part of his young adulthood, in April for a solo show at the Museum of Fine Arts — his first solo museum exhibition.

I got the chance to speak to him about his goals for the new fund, his view of restrictive labels, what he learned while living in Quebec, and so much more.

Questions and responses have been edited for clarity.

How did you feel when the Museum of Fine Arts first wanted to acquire the painting of your grandmother, knowing that you’re the first Haitian-Canadian to have a piece of artwork in the museum?   

"Well, my piece was in the exhibition Here We Are Here: Black Canadian Contemporary Art, which began in the Royal Ontario Museum and then made its way to Montreal."

"Once the show was over, the Museum of Fine Arts decided to buy the painting of my grandmother. I didn’t know it was going to happen."

"The piece now resides in the Wing for the Arts of One World at MMFA. After it happened, I found out I was the first black Canadian artist to be in the collection — I was surprised by that."

This new wing is made up of "10 fully refurbished galleries [that] create a dialogue between works of ancient cultures and those by local and international contemporary artists from a renewed intercultural and transhistorical perspective," according to the MMFA's Instagram page.

What was your inspiration for the Marie-Solange Apollon Fund?

"I was tired of the idea of 'you’re the first black to be doing that, you’re the first nation to be doing that.' There are a lot of doors opening right now, so there are a lot of people being the first to do this and that in different communities."

"I wanted to take the narrative further. Not just being the first to do something, but to also add something else to the mix."  

"I’m an artist, I don’t have a constant flow of money. Sometimes I sell, sometimes I don’t sell. So, I was looking for people to invest, in different kinds of fields like doctors, or lawyers, or engineers, people who have a steady income."

"I was looking for people like that to invest in a fund that would contribute in helping the museum acquire works of underrepresented artists in their collection — but I couldn’t find anyone. I looked in several communities, I approached several people — no answers."

"So, I figured, instead of running after the rabbit, I’ll just invest my own time and my own money into it. And maybe that will create a snowball effect and have people feel more engaged and concerned about what’s happening."    

"It seems like the fund is getting a lot of [attention]. I know it’s going to be a project that is going to need a lot of my time, it’s not something that I can just do then go on with my life."  

"I know my grandmother would have been really proud. It took me a long time to figure out that I wanted the fund to have her name."

"I wanted the name to be personal, but at the same time, I wanted it to be something people could relate to, so it was a slight contradiction."

"I found a bunch of random titles, then I sat down and understood that I needed to find a way to bring the fund close to me. That's when I decided to name it after my grandmother."

How exactly did you start the fund on your own?

"It’s the money from the museum buying the painting that I used to create the fund. And now people get added to it. Most of the people donating are Montrealers." 

"We’re not a lot yet. It’s fresh. We've already acquired the first artist by the fund, Leila Zelli, who is an amazing Iranian artist. I’m happy for her."

[rebelmouse-image 26887637 photo_credit="Courtesy of MMFA" expand=1 original_size="940x676"] Courtesy of MMFA

[rebelmouse-image 26887638 photo_credit="Courtesy of MMFA" expand=1 original_size="1201x677"] Courtesy of MMFA

"You know, I didn’t want it to simply be announced as a fund, I wanted to prove that it was a fund that was actually doing things and buying work. Not just an abstract concept, but something that’s actually making a difference in people’s lives. The fund seems to have been well received, so now I can focus on opening more doors."

Do you feel as though the Museum of Fine Arts has been receptive of criticism about a lack of diversity and to the inception of your fund?

"Well, the fund started because I started it. That’s part of the problem, why do I have to start something that is necessary for our society? Reality is, we shouldn’t see it from the perspective of 'oh the museum should have done that,' we should see it as 'we as a society should have done better.'"

"The museum is a tool to preserve our history. I was the person to put my foot down and say I wanted to start the fund, but really, anybody could have done it."

"The museum is doing its job: to put out exhibitions, start conversations, and facilitate certain people to have a voice. But, if someone wants to start a fund, have an impact and spark that type of change, they can do it — no one is holding anybody back."

"Until someone does it and it looks obvious, it’s hard. Society could do more; it can do more. The fund is still on, we’re still looking for people. It’s not like 'oh the fund is here, problem solved' — no."

"My goal is to turn it into a capitalized fund so that there are new artists being bought by the museum every year until the end of time. Then, the idea of the unrepresented artist will be out of the window in the next three to five years."    

How do you think your time in Quebec affected the artist you've become today?

"When I think about my time in Quebec when I was 19 and studying, I would go to art galleries and there were no black artists. It’s only recently that there are black artists in the gallery, and by recently, I’m talking in the last year or so."

"What I’m trying to say is that I didn’t have anybody to look up to while I was studying. So, I had to think outside the box and don’t accept the status quo, which is an attitude I still have. It’s this type of attitude that started the fund."

Do you feel as though specific labels dictate your artworks?

"My mentor, when I started making art at 15 or 16, told me to travel and stay open to the world. I think that’s what saved me. I didn’t grow up as a kid thinking I was Haitian, Canadian or Quebecer, instead I absorbed everything the world had to offer and started defining myself from there. That definition started from my own sensibility and not preconceived ideas of reality. So, that mentality blurred my boundaries about who I could be in the world."  

"What you need to understand about labels is that the way they work is that they make you feel like you’re a part of something, but by being part of something, it also takes some things away from you."

"It doesn’t give you the possibility of being something else outside of the label. That’s where it becomes dangerous." 

"I want to just focus on being and doing who I am. I realized that the destination of the work resides in itself so if I focus on the work it will make its way to the right audience. At the end of the day, it’s all that matters, that art changes the heart of people that are actually seeking to see the world and themselves in a different way."

"If you look at the trajectory of my work, it underlines that. I used to make work that questioned if I was a Haitian artist if I was a Canadian artist — but thankfully, I didn’t stay too long on that. Looking back on it now, that can be a trap."

The MMFA says the fund is "devoted solely to the acquisition of works by emerging Quebec and Canadian artists who are underrepresented in the Museum's collection."

To find out more about the Marie-Solange Apollon Fund, you can read the MMFA's press release here.

Alanna Moore
Contributing Writer