Rene Matić Arcadia Missa
Rene MatićArcadia Missa
Installation view, Rene Matić, upon this rock, South London Gallery, London, UK (2022). Photography: Andy Stagg.




About this series


flags for countries that don’t exist but bodies that do is a love letter – written in images – bringing together a carefully selected series of photographs taken by Rene Matić (b. 1997, Peterborough) between 2018 and 2022. Although the photos were taken across England, theirs is not a love letter to this country or any other. As Hannah Black notes in her introduction to the collection, Matić’s rendering of London, and England more broadly, is anti-symbolic, “all drab brick and interior.” Against an unsentimental backdrop of aging flats, seaside towns and flag-laden council estates, the iconoclastic romanticism of Matić’s imagery translates and subverts the traditional markers of an exclusionary nationhood into the transitional space of a precarious, diverse community. Matić’s is a love letter to a country that doesn’t exist and to a community that must, can and does.


Rene Matić lives and works in London. Through photography, painting, sculpture, film and textiles, their practice explores the immeasurable dimensions of Blackness. Working through the lens of personal experiences as a queer Black womxn living in the diaspora, Matić exposes the fated conflicts and contradictions that one encounters while navigating the world in a body like their own.


The Skinhead movement – founded as a multicultural marriage between West Indian and white working class culture in the UK –, is often at the centre of Matić’s work. Whether in video performances such as 2020’s Born British, Die British, where the titular phrase was tattooed onto Matić’s body, or in the Fred Perry-clad self-portraits in this book, the totems and artefacts of the Skinhead subculture appear again and again in Matić’s work. The movement, and its subsequent co-option by British white supremacists, becomes a metaphor and a cipher through which to examine Matić’s own experience of living in the Black British diaspora, as well as to excavate white jealousy, the continued legacy of colonialism and the fear of a Black planet – all things which find convergence within and upon their mixed race identity.


flags for countries that don’t exist but bodies that do is a document of this convergence, interspersing images of white british nationalism – through snapshots of traditional iconography, slogan t-shirts and the union jack – with moments of love and intimacy. Photographs of protest banners and political graffiti sit amongst portraits of the artist’s friends and family, each centring the cultural signifiers that fill everyday life. Through the photo-series, Matić presents a complicated relationship to British-ness, a relationship full of anger and resentment but complicated by love.









Installation view, Rene Matić, upon this rock, South London Gallery, London, UK (2022). Photography: Andy Stagg.








Rome is Not a Human Habitation, by Hannah Black

From the book on this series


The photographs in this book span two or three years, and so their sequence tells stories, if you think of narrative as partly just a function of time. Maggie’s hair changes colour from platinum with dark roots to glossy black to orange. Maggie is a constant; we already know that they and Rene have promised each other not to die. A pair of photographs, Maggie on Halloween and Maggie on the toilet, suggest that in love there is no backstage.


“Carry love like a passport, a prophylactic against exile from the self.”


No backstage, no ruin, no border, no impassable terrain. We are in a country, but it’s not Britain, and, though Rene has “Born British Die British” tattooed on her back, we are never going to die. We live in Dreamland, as a neon sign suspended in Margate darkness promises or warns. Relations between friends and lovers form a lattice to protect against the hostility of the city, the architecture, the sky. Taking advantage of luxurious flesh asleep in small rooms in cramped buildings, the dream of Dreamland expands against disintegrating concrete, against the continent of damp that marks the wall. Getting fat on itself, the dream leaves traces, scratches in plaster, flags planted for no reason in an un- marked expanse. I make out “RUDE BOY”, “KELLY”, “1991”. Every year still exists under the year that now is, a palimpsest or a book of photographs. Time walks around as people—people walk around as little concentrations of time.


2020: someone in Peckham has taped a handwritten sign to their window reading BORIS IS A PILLOCK. Union Jack bunting outside the local Spar hangs limply above a government-mandated celebration of the NHS. It is a dreamless time. The dreamlessness of the surroundings intensifies the inner dream. Sometimes it’s day in here and other times it’s night. Within this shared and internal world, Rene and her friends make something of nothing, weaving together a social canopy to defend against the bad weather of the state.


Rene wonders is it gay to love something that doesn’t exist, like a country? Next to a couple of plastic Union Jacks tucked into a waistband, a navel asserts itself. If I can’t die, can I at least have been born? Here on the belly is the sign that I was cut from the person who birthed me, that I was separated and engulfed, that I chose, on a soul level, to get involved in this mess. As the kingdom falls from and towards ruin, Travis and Nadine are dressed for a party. The psyche erases nothing, it keeps it all in trust, every moment of grace and every mistake. Every year and every person still exists under whatever is here now, glossy pages under your hands.


Patriots are in love with symbols, like the woman who married the Eiffel Tower, the woman who married the Berlin Wall. London, in Rene’s photographs, is an anti-symbolic city, all drab brick and interior, a constant churn of capital, constriction and construction, cranes reaching up from Kings Cross to a rare blue sky. Blue, red, white, and a St George’s cross. England could fall into the sea for all I care, except that you are here.


Carry love like a passport, a prophylactic against exile from the self. Unpeopled, these streets would be a desert dry of meaning—it’s love that elevates accident into symbol, happenstance into a life. Loss is an ocean surrounding the island nation of the present. We crossed loss to get here, leaving sunlit poverty for a new kind. Someone has graffitied a question on a sad-looking wall in South London, “Let’s go home?!” Home, to be born and die and promise not to die.


Don’t laugh in the cemetery. These corpses could stand and walk anytime, if captured in the right light. Despite this, death closes around us. Rene and her love go on living. Maggie’s hair changes colour again, like mysterious lights in the sky. Rene gets her nails done in the style of the flag of St Lucia. History can be worn like clothes but never taken off. You just go on layering garment over garment. Kai’s Bad Brains T shirt. Maggie in satin. Rene in bleach-distressed denim, smoking cigarettes with her dad. “I chose this, and you,” the photographs of perfect outfits imply.


Freud tried to imagine the psyche as a city: “let us suppose that Rome is not a human habitation but a psychical entity with a similarly long and copious past.” On, within and around the Palazzo Caffarelli stands, too, the ancient Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus—“not only in its latest shape, but also in its earliest one.” The Septizonium of Septimius Severus still towers over the Palatine alongside the pussy palaces of a line of gay Caesars, all now standing and immortal beside the ever-living Castle of San Angelo. Nero’s Golden House and the Colosseum share the same location, intertwined in space and time.


But the visualisation is impossible; Freud’s imagination crowds with stone on stone. The past has to die sometimes in and of itself. We have to die in and of each other, and allow each other to die. Don’t be afraid, the camera suggests. I’m right here, and here, and here.


Overlaid on the present moment is our first meeting, and we are also here now together, with all that we have come to know in pain and pleasure, and we are miles away from each other and talking on the phone. Hope coexists with disappointment, and all our moments of conflict and harmony share the same space, clashing, gorgeous, unsynthesised. If we go to a party, we are always at a party, and if we wake up next to each other in a chaos of animal-print sheets, we are also at that exact moment walking around a seaside town at night. We have memorised each other’s faces over months and years and, at this point, we have only just met. We have said our last words and our first, and all the words in between, those that we put almost no thought into, and those that we laboured over, afraid that we would not be understood. We are full of longing and we have had enough, OK? We are furious and content, bored and excited, hard and soft, wet and dry, dead and alive in the infinite city of our love.





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