Rene Matić’s latest photographic exhibition follows a friendship with performer and playwright Travis Alabanza as it blossoms from the Pxssy Palace dancefloor and into the living room
“I met Travis in all our sweaty flesh at Pxssy Palace around 2017 or 2018,” recalls interdisciplinary artist Rene Matić, looking back on their first IRL meeting with Bristol-based playwright and performer Travis Alabanza at the London-based QTBIPOC club night. Longtime social media mutuals, following one another’s lives and work from a digital remove, they would reunite sporadically over the years via the escapist, euphoric spaces of the dancefloor.
Yet for Matić, there was an undeniable sense of kinship underpinning their relationship – one which transcended the fleeting nature of their meetings. “I'm interested in these kinds of relationships that permeate the QTPOC community - the ones that exist when the room is always too loud to have a conversation,” the artist tells Dazed. “The ones where the communication only continues in fire emojis and comments on Instagram but the ‘so nice to see you last night, love you!' is still very real and very felt and very mutual.”
So, when Matić was approached by the Martin Parr Foundation and tasked with creating a new body of work focused on Bristol in 2022, they saw the commission as an opportunity to cultivate their connection with Alabanza in new ways. “I started to think about this idea of intentional love and the love that only exists with certain people in certain places – the club, the corner shop, the pub, the church,” Matić adds. “I thought about Travis, as someone who is from and lives in Bristol, as an opportunity to get to know not just the location but the person, intentionally.”
But while Alabanza generously agreed to embark on this journey with Matić, they had some initial qualms. “Travis called me and was worried that I was expecting an array of partying and ‘fun’ to photograph,” Matić explains. “They told me they were really a ‘homebody’ which is different to the way they are framed online.” Alabanza’s word choice here reminded Matić of a quote by bell hooks (“I’m such a girl for the living room. I really like to stay in my nest and not move. I travel in my mind, and that’s a rigorous state of journeying for me. My body isn’t that interested in moving from place to place”). This would later inspire the exhibition’s title, girl for the living room and lead Matić to depict their subject in moments of rest and stillness which “we are rarely afforded as marginalised people”.
Work on the project began in 2022 and is still ongoing, but the work displayed in the exhibition documents a series of encounters between London and Bristol. Now no longer seeing one another solely under the bright lights and carefully fashioned glamour of the nightlife or theatre space, the collaborative series takes us into the blossoming friendship between the two creatives as Matić’s lens depicts Alabanza in places and scenarios where they can simply be - without a pressure to perform or an expectant public waiting to consume their words, experience or presence.
Often with their face out of frame, these candid 35mm photos document the performer in the kind of everyday, domestic situations usually considered too banal to find their way onto social media (except, perhaps, during the heyday of BeReal) but which are often shared between close friends and flatmates. There are images of Alabanza waiting at a bus stop, pictures of the performer with their back to the camera while cooking in a pink-and-yellow kitchen, and snaps of fry-ups with friends against formica-top tables. We’re taken into the green room, too, invited to witness the vulnerable moments which bookend Alabanza’s work on stage. Here, we see dressing room tulips defiantly displayed in a makeshift, paper cup vase and makeup wipes poised perilously on ceramic sinks – backstage detritus which marks the transformation of our ‘girl for the living room’ into an internationally recognised performer.
And while all the pieces displayed in the exhibition document a growing connection, there are particular exchanges which will stay with the artist as defining moments of this developing friendship. One such moment occurred during an afternoon spent walking around Alabanza’s former childhood estate. The day is immortalised in one of the hand-written letters included in the exhibition, as well as a portrait of Alabanza regarding the camera face-on while wearing a black dress and motorcycle jacket and reclining against an alley wall which bears the graffiti “gay”. Alabanza asked for the photo to be taken – and for Matić, the image represents a mutual understanding between artist and subject. “They didn’t have to explain much about why they wanted me to take that photo in that location in that outfit. It was a moment when it wasn’t about getting to know because there was already a knowing (there always was).”
The body of work might document a specific relationship between a specific sitter and artist, but really it is a testament to the power of love and vulnerability – and marks out affection and intimacy as subjects which deserve more attention. “I am realising how important it is to me that I create these intimate archives. I have and will continue with Travis and lots more of the people I love,” they say. “I worry that in the culture we live in, if something isn’t imaged then it is absent. Narratives of love and care are so often absent in our archives, if there is an archive at all.”
And while the project addresses gaps in the representation of queer people of colour, Matić sees this not as a primarily political project but, instead, a personal one. “I am aware, as Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa articulates, that representation at the level of the image should not be mistaken for political representation,” they add. “That is not my hope or my duty. My hope and duty is to know love and know it well.”
a girl for the living room runs from July 13 to September 17 2023 at the Martin Parr Foundation, Bristol.