Navani Knows Voodo Fe’ Mathelier: The Art of Freedom

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This piece was originally published on www.livedancelove.com

When my homegirl Selene first told me she was filming a video piece about the artist Voodo Fe’ and asked if I’d be interested in interviewing him I was intrigued by the way she described his work. I am always up for meeting creative folk. But what really captured me about him was this overarching theme in his work to take items and materials deemed trash and make them something beautiful. It’s this idea of being reborn, reinvented and making something from nothing, that really resonated deeply with me. It’s what initially drew me to other art forms like Hip-Hop. On the heels of his latest exhibit opening I had the opportunity to speak to Voodo Fe’ Mathelier and get the story behind his many triumphant ventures in street art, music and fashion leading him to work with brands from Calvin Klein to the NFL. To my surprise, the most outstanding tidbits he taught me were not even about art, but rather how to live life. Here the Brooklyn-bred artist shares why he believes he has been able to make a living as an artist, what his greatest gift is, and what everyone’s number one job is.

Tell me about the current art exhibit you have up in Park Slope…
The show opened September 14th at Park Slope Eye. I ended up selling 10 pieces. Yay! Over the past two years I’ve sold about 80 pieces, so my name is starting to become something in that world. I actually don’t know much about that world because I don’t go to galleries, or art shows or museums.  A lot people that attend that stuff are kind of corny to me, I don’t know how else to say it.  I roll with a different brand of people, which you will see reflected at the exhibit. The artwork involves a lot of stuff I find literally in the garbage. So, if you throw it out I can make a diamond out of it. It just needs a little bit of polishing and I can polish it up.

That aspect of your work right there is what drew me in personally. I love the idea of taking something considered “trash” and “worthless” and making it something beautiful. Can you talk about how that theme emerged?
The work represents a mirror image of what my life has been. I was on a really destructive path until I had to turn my life around. I was dealing with the typical drug issues, alcohol issues, bipolar issues, and dyslexia and on top of that I lost both of my parents very young. I’ve had intense surgeries one where my doctor said I wasn’t going to be able to walk. So, apparently, I am doing things in my life I was not supposed to be able to do and what it comes down to for me is will power.

How long have you been an artist now?
I would say for as long as I remember, maybe like four-years-old. When I was little I used have this odd fascination with rubbing my hands on the carpet. I would just sit on the living room floor Indian style and rock back and forth and rub my hands back and forth on the carpet and zone out. And I would catch my parents out the corner of my eye looking at me like, “WTF is wrong with this guy?” [Laughs] So, my mom started bringing home paint and crayons and markers and said try doing something with this, see what this does. And I just gravitated toward it. I wasn’t really good at school but I was good at creating. I never wanted to say I was the best artist or best musician or best fashion designer; I just want to be the best creator. And her putting those tools in front of me allowed me to do that.

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You call yourself an “artist’s artist.” Can you explain what you mean by that?
I think a lot of times there is this misconception that the artists have a mentality of doing this [their art] purely for the art form of it and I don’t think that’s fair. I think an artist’s artist should be someone that wants to do art for the money of it. It is someone that wants to make a living from his or her work. Why can’t you get paid full value for your piece of artwork? You create from your heart, or create from wherever you want to. I think it is a judgment thing. As much as artists say it it’s about being free and all that other stuff, we as artists are very judgmental towards each other and we stifle and lock each other in and I think that’s bullshit. If you are good at something, let your product be good and get as much for it as the value that you earned it for. I don’t believe in the concept of “starving artist.” That’s just stupid to me. If a doctor is good at his job we praise him and he makes a lot of money. But within our own industry of art we are the only ones and cut each other down and rip each other apart for making a dollar. I do not care for that. I charge a pretty penny for what I do, I’ve earned it.

How did you grow into doing fashion, graphic design and music?
In terms of music my brother Jean was always in a band and played all kinds of music. By bother Patrick played drums. So that was an easy transition. If you can imagine the stock market ticker going across a screen, that’s what’s it’s like in my heads but instead of being music it might be an idea for a piece of clothing or a sneaker design, it might be a patent idea which right now I am working on a couple, it might be different avenues for different creations to come out. Then what would happen is that one of them would slow down really slow and speed off again. So I know whatever it is I am supposed to focus on that thing that slows down – I have to grasp it before it speeds off again. My job is real easy, I just have to figure out what it wants me to do and then do it. I don’t have an art book, I don’t have a sketch pad of ideas, I don’t have a memo notebook, the ideas are just there and if I am supposed to do it, it gets done. I don’t question it, I never asked about it, I don’t want to ask about it, and as long as I trust it then it trusts me and allows me to make it happen. My whole concept in life is I am going to do whatever keeps me from getting a real job and that’s my art. I don’t like waking up and answering to anyone, if I want to sleep until noon, I sleep until noon and do so proudly.

Who are some of the people/companies you have worked with thus far?
I’ve had the opportunity to design clothes for Calvin Klein and G-Unit, graphics wise I‘ve worked the NFL and NBA, just a lot of different things that I can brag about to my niece. It’s not about patting yourself on the back; it’s really about showing you can do it.

What are the “Nutz and Botz”?
It’s an interesting idea, it’s these little intelligent microorganisms that live on the human body that don’t know they live on a body and there’s going to be a war between the Nutz who are the workers and the Botz who keep the Nutz in order. Relo, the main character who is a Nut, is going to gather a few of his members to follow a passion. So the whole story is finding out what that passion is, that thumping he hears which in actuality is the human heart. But the overall moral is to follow your heart. It’s a mix between Toy Story and Lord of the Rings, with a strong objective and point. We’ve got the clothing line already, we’ve got the sneaker line, the toys are ready, it is a whole business venture on it’s own.

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How did you learn to separate being an artist to running the business side?
I have a system that works. I have a four-day workweek. I have my time scheduled, I have my staff, I have my management team – I have a lot of people in place and a lot of things happening. And it’s all organized. I think the best thing that ever happened to me was people [in the team] f*cking up around me. It takes you out of being an artist now. Art is cool but now we dealing with the politics of business, now we dealing with the ethics. Now it’s a thing of following other people. Now it’s a thing of following your words. There are steps that you have to take to be successful and the people I am following now have put me under their wing.

What are your ultimate goals as an artist?
My goal is to be a billionaire before I lay flat. That’s my goal. If anyone dares to tell me that’s unrealistic two things occur: first, I tell them, f*ck you. Second, we never speak again. I only deal with people that are on that level. It doesn’t have to be a billion dollar lifestyle, I mean having the open mindedness to say hey if that’s what you want go get it.  My friends aren’t all about money, there’s more to life that that. There are five areas [in your life] that need to be addressed including your spirituality and your thoughts. Are your thoughts positive and are you learning new things to be positive about? It’s your sense of family, health then your economics. Each of those components you allow 20% and that totals your abundance, and I just want to be truly abundant. And it’s not about making a billion dollars and saying look at all the sh*t I’ve got, it’s really about saying okay, a school in Brooklyn needs funds to buy computers for the kids. I want to be able to write a check anonymously and leave it at that. I know what it means to be poor, not just poor but poor to the point that I had to cut up my T-shirts to use the bathroom, poor. Where I had to steal toilet paper from the YMCA poor, to be homeless poor. It’s the whole thing of the control of it [economics]. Economics equals freedom. Many people go to work but don’t have the freedom to tell their boss f*ck you. I want that freedom.

Who inspires you?
Me. I have enough confidence in myself to inspire myself. I have enough confidence to be in a lane where I don’t run with a pack, I would rather lead it. I don’t care what other people are doing or what’s considered hot.

What is your strongest gift as an artist?
My greatest gift is my audacity. I have no issues saying I am better than Basquiat. I’m a better painter than Basquiat. I wouldn’t say I am a better rapper than Jay-Z but I know how to beat him, don’t rap against him. How do you beat a master chess player? Play him in tennis.

Speaking of Jay-Z, what did you think of his video for “Picasso Baby”?
You know I haven’t seen it yet. But I am so impressed by that man and he has helped me want what I want because I see it’s possible because someone from a similar upbringing made it. I am not a drug dealer, not in the projects, but as a Black man in Brooklyn, who is close in age that you can actually touch. It’s not like a Mark Zuckerberg – I don’t know anything about him, we don’t have the same experience. I understand Jay-Z’s experience. I know what quarter water is, I know how it feels to be shot at. I don’t want to be him and I am not in competition with him either. My only competition is myself. I want to be the best version of me.

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What else are you working on right now?
We are waiting on an order from Urban Outfitters, so our clothing line Voodo Fe’ Culture will be based out of there. I am working on my next new record so I will probably record my first song by the end of the year, probably be released by spring. I’ve taken a hiatus from painting – I just need a break from it to work on other things. I now do custom made pillows so if you send me a picture or painting I make my own rendition of that and then print it on a pillow or clock. So then you have a one-of-kind piece. I am also working on a book about fighting bipolar disorder without pills. It’s really a manual for people diagnosed with low-grade bipolar disorder. The pill thing was just not for me. When my doctor wanted to prescribe pills they told me it would take away my sex drive and my creativity, and I was like no you not taking that away from me. So, it became about different methods of treatment – tapping, therapy, the conversations you have with yourself and taking your happiness out of other people’s hands. It is no one’s responsibility to make you happy, that is your job. I made it my personal responsibility to make sure I am happy. I only do things that make me smile, I am amazing at saying no to everything else.

Catch Voodofe’s work on exhibit now at Park Slope Eye: 682 Union Street, Brooklyn NY. For more info visit http://www.voodofe.com.

Photos via Sonya Mull and Instagram.