Words Okwui Enzewor Photography Flora Hanjito
There is little irony in the work of Nairobi-born, New York-based artist Wangechi Mutu. Yet, one of her first important works, Exhuming Gluttony: A Lover’s Requiem, was born precisely out of irony. A theatrical room-scale installation fusing sculpture, architecture, theatre and religious altar, was developed with British-Ghanaian architect David Adajaye as a response to the increasing commercialism of contemporary art in the mid 2000s. That Mutu conceived it to subtly critique greed and covetousness in the art world precisely at the point when her work was rising dramatically in desirability and value revealed not only her unremitting integrity, but also her capacity for risk-taking.
Mutu is one of the most important African artists to have emerged globally in the past 10 years. Less than a decade after completing the venerable Yale University graduate art programme, the 38-year-old has produced an arresting body of work. Incorporating sculpture, video and installation, Mutu first came to prominence with her unruly collages. Often large-scale, with an overwhelming visual punch, the collages’ febrile and dense surfaces exude topographical excess. What is laid out before the viewer is a kind of orgiastic field that simultaneously suggests a wounded body and a violated landscape. Her work at its most powerful is sometimes inscrutable, and seems to occupy contradictory ends of the artistic spectrum by being at once alluring and menacing, attractive and repulsive, poetic and monstrous, figurative and vegetal.
Constructed on a ground of translucent mylar, Mutu’s intense, bold, gestural and vivid collages are part painting and part pastiche. They often depict warrior-like feminine figures engineered into a hybrid species that is neither human nor animal. Close scrutiny of the collages reveals the diverse origins of the accumulated, compacted images, harvested from fashion magazines, medical journals, ethnographic publications, natural history catalogues and documentary photography.
Pop-culture, media reportage, degenerate human anatomy and exotic ethnography inform her politically charged works, especially with regards to references to the bodies of black women and Africa, or to violence, war and ecological disaster. Her artistic debts align her with a group of powerful feminist precedents and contemporaries including Hannah Höch, Louise Bourgeois, Annete Messager, Adrian Piper, Martha Rosler, Marlene Dumas, Kara Walker and Candice Breitz.
Mutu’s art, though unabashedly inflected with a tough feminist stance, also registers a deep humanist concern. Her series of bleak, deeply reflective videos depict an endless penance – a nod to her Catholic background while growing up in Kenya – thus revealing the ravaged body of woman exposed in a context of patriarchal incarceration, social isolation and implacable vulnerability.
She has had solo shows at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Miami Art Museum and ArtPace, San Antonio and earlier this year she exhibited My Dirty Little Heaven, a retrospective at the Berlin Guggenheim as part of her tenure as the inaugural Deutsche Bank Artist Of The Year 2010.
I went to Mutu’s studio in Brooklyn to meet the artist at work.
O: Where did your journey as an artist begin?
W: I was 17 years old studying at an international school in Wales. I had a phenomenal art teacher who treated the pupils like artists. He gave us studios and sketchbooks and told us that whenever something inspires us – watching a film, or finding something on the street – to install it into our imagination. It was liberating to realise that everything we do as human beings can be incorporated into our art and that really switched me on. I thought ‘I can do this’. Art became a constant; it was this vessel that everything fell into in a perfect way for me. But I also realised that no one was going to stand by me while I proclaimed myself an artist.
W: Art just wasn’t something that people pursued seriously at home in Kenya, even in a middle-class family of intellectuals like mine. So, there was no respect to be found in being an artist. It was like ‘Are you serious?’
O: Did you have an awareness of African contemporary art at that time?
W: I didn’t have access to African art at school, we went to museums to see European artists and studied the Modernists. And the Kenyan artists that I knew of were predominantly old men whose paintings played with the traditional idiom of Western art. There wasn’t a spark in their work that related to my experience as a young woman.
O: What gave you the courage to move forward and become an artist?
W: I went back to Kenya after school and worked as a graphic designer. I was 19, living on my own and taking care of myself, but I’m very competitive so I decided to go to university in the States. I got into Parsons in New York and after two years I transferred to Copper Union, which was a phenomenal place. During my time there I learnt to embed a political and social element into my work. I then went on to study sculpture at Yale.
O: How did you develop your artistic language, which is very powerful, aggressive, poetic and in some ways, monstrous. What triggered the mature work you’re making now?
W: Those elements you describe stem from experiences when I was much younger that have become reoccurring themes in my work – females, violence, augmentation, the shift, the manipulation of space. When I was about 14 years old, the Kenyan education system was overhauled by President Moi, which was a good thing but he did it too quickly and to cut a long story short, there was a horrible tragedy. A group of young men at a co-ed school entered a girls’ dormitory. Seven girls got killed in the stampede and over 70 of them were raped.
The public reaction was ‘Oh they’re just boys, and only a few girls died’. It was spoken about as trivial. It was then that my place as a woman hit me and I understood that there was a difference between women’s rights and human rights. At the same time Moi was going from a moderate dictator to a pretty vicious one and freedom of the press was crushed. You’d see something reported on TV, one time it was a slum being bulldozed with women and children still in the houses, and a day later they’d deny
it had ever been broadcast. I couldn’t believe that these things were happening in my country, and that fuelled the idea that images and art are a powerful way to counter issues.
O: What is your creative process?
W: I’m not a very linear thinker. There are many tributaries that start to build. If I’m working on a body of work, I collect images, read articles and keep working on things that are bothering me. At some point a themic landscape forms. I choose the pose or type of landscape that I want, and then I go about reducing it. I start to look at the marks on them, the landscape, references, and think about what would be under the skin and under the clothing.
O: How do you know when a work is finished and ready to be shown in public?
W: When I get nervous about it being sent out into the world. It sounds funny but I’m comfortable when I’m just moving along and it looks great, and then it comes to a point where I know not to go too far and over-complete it because at that point it’s quivering and almost has a vibration. Often these characters are psychological states to me, they’re bodies that are a narrative in the form of a figure, a moment encapsulated in the female form. They’re not portraits or literally what a body could be or should be, so there’s this constant impulse for me to place things in them, to infuse them with references. And that’s why there’s this disjuncture of harmonies and disharmonies, there’s many voices in them.
O: Describe your working day.
W: I live and work in the same building, which is perfect for me. My day’s about reading the paper, going upstairs and looking at the characters up on the wall, making coffee and putting the right music on, and then I start to compose piles of things I want to take from. I cut ferociously out of magazines. There are categories of things – eyes, wings, hair – so when I need to find something that’s like a frog’s leg or that looks like foliage, I’ve got it. I’ll work on eight to 10 pieces at a go. Cross contamination happens all the time.
O: Tell me about your 2006 collaboration with British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye.
W: It was inspired by my Catholic background. I thought about the Last Supper and the tables we congregate around for meaningful events and decided to do piece that had a massive table in it. Around 2003 there was an incredible growth in the art world and the way that art was perceived on a financial level, which coincided with my career growth. But it all felt frightening and weird to me because it didn’t connect. In my mind, the one thing it did connect to was the war in Iraq, which started at the same time as art buying went crazy. I met David and we decided to work on something together with a great scale. We were interested in showing the moment of gluttony, a ferocious appetite in the room. I really wanted to make it a theatre, and for the audience to become complicit in it. So I started to people the place, to evoke a community that had gone viciously wrong.
O: Does the piece represent your struggle with the Catholic faith?
W: It’s so embedded in me, it’s hard to figure out whether I am resisting it or embracing it but I really enjoy the rituals of Catholicism. It’s gorgeous, gory, ancient, pagan – I embrace the imagery. I used wine stains to reference blood, waste and death because I was also thinking about our lack of humanity at that moment. And I used animal pelts to create this massive, pregnant trophy on one side of the wall.
O: Your bleak videos seem completely at odds with the excess of your 2-D work. Can you talk about the sparseness of these videos, which often focus on you as an isolated figure?
W: The videos express womanness and ruminate on the black female body. I enter the essence of a very basic, mundane activity until there’s a form of ecstasy, and then I complete it. I think about the massiveness of the tasks we undertake as women. It’s usually quiet and emotional but I always do it myself because the pieces are about existentialism, my own thoughts on what I’m here for. In Cleaning Earths for example, in which I’m scrubbing the ground, I deal with the choreography of suffering, penance and labour.
O: Does talking about notions of being an African artist bother you?
W: When I say I’m an African artist, I mean it’s part of my practice, part of who I am because I was born and raised there. But often when people say I’m an African artist, it’s reductive – it’s exotic, it comes from a world that’s in the past. Even broaching the idea of race is very complicated because Africans have a different historical experience to those who were abducted and brought here to the USA. They’re equal senses of alienation and exile but the myth that’s loudest is the slave narrative, which doesn’t apply to a huge amount of Africans, myself included. I always say that I was racialised in America, I understood my blackness before I got here but not because I was from a black majority country. We don’t break things down in terms of black and white, but we do have the colonial issue. My work relates to the forced creation story that the colonialists invented us.
O: You are the Deutsche Bank Artist Of The Year 2010, what does that mean to you?
W: I was honoured that I was picked by a group of respected people. The prize meant I got to create a show at the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin, and an accompanying book. I wanted someone who didn’t know me as an artist to walk into the show, which was called My Dirty Little Heaven, and meet me through the work.
O: You’re working on an exhibition with British-Nigerian filmmaker Zina Saro Wiwa called Sharon Stone In Abuja, what is it about?
W: Sharon Stone In Abuja explores the Nollywood phenomenon. Zina’s asked me to be a part of it knowing that I have an interest in ritual, femaleness, magic, drama, the body, wigs – some of which you find in Nollywood films. She’s also picked other artists who dabble in the same terrain, including Pieter Hugo and Mickalene Thomas.
O: What are you making for the show?
W: I don’t know. I also have a new solo show at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery, in New York City. It’s all a work in progress.
Wangechi Mutu: My Dirty Little Heaven, £30, Hatje Cantz