Matters of Land and Labour with Artist Michele Mathison

Italy in South Africa People Published on 27 December 2017

Throughout his career as an artist, Michele Mathison has been making work that engages with issues central to the lives of the economically disenfranchised in South Africa and Zimbabwe – land and labour. My Italian Link brings you this exclusive interview with the artist.


Who is Michele Mathison?

Land, labour, and maize loom large in Mathison’s oeuvre, their presence due in no small part to his upbringing in Zimbabwe, a country where the majority of the population live in rural areas. At present, Mathison lives and works in South Africa and Zimbabwe. The two countries are inextricably interlinked by the mass migration of Zimbabweans into South Africa, movements which Mathison echoes with his own, individual, migration between the two.



An Interview with Michele Mathison

Are there any Italian artists or artistic movements that have influenced your work?

Definitely. The Arte Povera movement has had a big influence on my work. Contemporary Italian artists, especially sculptors, have always been influenced by Arte Povera, particularly in the use of low tech and industrial materials. One could say that I have a loose association with Futurism and Constructivism, as well.


Did you grow up in a creative home or community?

Yes. When I was young, my mother and I moved to Mozambique, where my uncle was a well-known architect, and at the time my aunt was working as a photographer. We always had really interesting art and posters around the house. Art was definitely part of my upbringing – later, growing up in Harare, I was always involved in the art community.


Which contemporary South African artist are you most interested in?

I’ve always loved the stuff that Cameron Platter does, interestingly enough, and I admire the work of Haroon Gunn-Salie.

manual exhibition

“Manual” exhibition at the Whatiftheworld Gallery in Cape Town, October 2014.


Zimbabwe’s rich sculptural history is clearly visible in your art – while growing up there, how did you learn about and engage with that history?

Growing up in Zimbabwe, you almost can’t escape sculpture. Sculpture plays a huge part in the crafts tradition in Zimbabwe, and that has always spilled over into a very active and interesting national art scene. I think Zimbabweans constantly engage with art. Personally, I had a great art teacher at school and I went to art classes at Delta Gallery on Saturdays. The National Gallery in Zimbabwe is also a wonderful institution.


Has your Italian cultural heritage played a role in forming your artistic identity?

My mother inherited Italian culture through living there for ten years, and my father lived in Italy for his whole life, both in Rome and the countryside, so Italy and Italian culture have been a part of my life forever. My father studied as an architect and a draughtsman, as well as working as a painter and sculptor. I went to the Venice Biënnale in 2013, with the Zimbabwean pavilion, which was incredibly inspiring and magical. Venice is such a great place to be surrounded by history and culture.


How do you decide which issues to tackle in every new body of work?

I work in an interesting neighborhood called Denver, in Johannesburg, which has a history as a place of light industry and commerce. During the 80s and 90s, Denver was very much an immigrant community. In some ways I react to the things that I see around me. I’m interested in things that become symbolic, especially infrastructure, spaces, and materials. I am constantly fascinated by the ingenious use of materials that I see on a day-to-day basis. All of this has influenced my current body of work, States of Emergence.


Which Italian and South African artists do you feel your work is in dialogue with?

Your work is part of the inaugural exhibition at Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town. What are your feelings about the museum and its position within the world of South African art?

I think we want to see this museum around for a long time, and as it’s the first museum of its kind in Africa we have to give it a bit of time to grow into itself. It needs to grow into what kind of work it wants to show, and how it represents African artists. On the whole I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for the art world and artists in South Africa.


See more work by Michele Mathison here:

My Italian Link showcases many more Italian/South African artists! Read about them here: Cameron Platter and Nan Kolè.

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