Wangechi Mutu (E)


A meeting with Wangechi Mutu

By Rob Perrée

Wangechi Mutu from Kenya is one of the most important African artists of the day. She uses her collages to create a bizarre world centred on the role of the woman, especially the African woman. ‘I’ve got nothing against my work being included in a feminist exhibition. You’ve got your head buried in the sand as far as that’s concerned. You are in denial. You don’t think it’s necessary any more, you think women now have their rights, just because they do in your country. I come from a country where that’s not the case by a long way. In Kenya men have all the rights. Women have an inferior position. You show the same kind of denial when talking about the race problem. It’s another example of shutting your eyes to reality. Things are a lot more sensitive than you tend to think’. It’s the only time that slight irritation is discernible in Wangechi Mutu’s voice. I’d asked her whether it bothered her that her work would be on show at the Museum for Modern Art in Arnhem in a feminist context. It was the one occasion that our conversation turned from being an extremely cordial and interesting exchange of views into a slightly formal interview where I asked the questions and she felt compelled to answer. My meeting with Wangechi Mutu nearly didn’t happen. A few weeks earlier her young daughter was born and ‘required all my time and attention’. Giving an interview would be problematical under such circumstances. It was only when I assured her that I had no objection to her dividing her attention between her daughter and me that she allowed me to come. When the child again begged at her breast during our hour-long conversation and again required a clean nappy, Wangechi was unable to resist the temptation to tease me for my understanding. ‘You asked for it. You said you didn’t mind. I warned you’. She laughed infectiously. Brownstone Wangechi Mutu lives in Bedford Stuyvesant, a district of Brooklyn. When I’m in New York that’s where I stay too. It is traditionally a neighbourhood inhabited almost exclusively by black Americans. There is high unemployment and considerable hidden poverty. Life takes place mainly on the streets in summer. There’s not much to do, just a few playgrounds. Restaurants, coffee shops and stores are establishments of ‘the city’. But on every street corner there is a convenience store, the kind where you can get everything and nothing. There are dozens of churches, large and small, often of obscure origin, breakaways of breakaways. Sometimes a clergyman picks a faith all of his own. The district has been changing over the past few years. Houses in Manhattan have become so expensive that more and more white people are looking for dwellings in districts like Bed Stuy. With them they bring the amenities of downtown. Now there is an Internet cafe, a genuine hotel with four rooms and a few real restaurants that serve more than just chicken nuggets. A few years ago the first bookshop opened its doors. The offering is confined to books of black writers. Wangechi Mutu feels at home in this district. She lives in a Brownstone, a townhouse built more than 100 years ago using brownish red sandstone. Stone stairs lead up to the front door. It’s typical of the neighbourhood. She lives in the basement and upper floors. The elevated ground floor serves as a studio. It is a large extended room with all walls covered by works, works in the making, cuttings, picture postcards and other images. Cupboards and tables are buried beneath similar materials. Pots, scissors, pencils and brushes complement the still life impression. In a small side room there are rolls of paper and plastic. Two computers adorn a small table. Yellow memo stickers and other notes are scattered around them. Behind me there are two cases full of art books. In front of me there is the bookcase where Wangechi places her catalogues and other publications about her work. One thing is patently clear – this is a room where work gets done. It’s an inspirational environment where the artist’s assistant occasionally walks around forlornly. Apparently I have occupied her place of work. Wangechi Mutu was born in Nairobi, Kenya. In terms of standards and values, she comes from a traditional family, one where the father sets the tone and makes the rules. She attended primary school in the town where she was born. Then came a chance to go to an international school in Wales. It wasn’t because the household had a lot of money, but because she was chosen on the strength of her accomplishments. ‘So I was surrounded early on by children from all kinds of countries and all kinds of races. I never considered it a problem’. The school was not a regular secondary school. It devoted a lot of attention to social issues and set aside lot of time for creative subjects. Wangechi discovered what she wanted to become thanks to a Dutch teacher. ‘Oddly enough I’ve forgotten his name, but the man was so enthusiastic and so motivated. He saw the talent that I apparently had. He was the one who first introduced me to art. At that time I knew nothing about it.’ Working class After this grounding Wangechi returned to her native country for a few years and took all kinds of jobs. Among other things she had traineeship in a fort on Lamu Island, in the north-east of the country. Two Swedes were going to convert it into an art museum. The centuries-old location played a major role in the slave trade until 1873. ‘It was actually a shame to change such a building with such a history into an art museum’. She quickly discovered that becoming an artist in Kenya was virtually impossible. It came down to be obliged to make all kinds of objects for tourists. While she has nothing against arts & crafts, she did not see herself being happy with such prospects. ‘There is little if any interest in my country for the kind of art that I wanted to make. What’s more, there are not any good, modern art courses’. Against the will of her father – ‘He didn’t think it was necessary for me and my little sister to study’ – she decided to look around for a suitable art academy abroad. She ended up in the United States, the country that offers the widest opportunities when it comes to scholarships for foreigners. ‘It was naturally a terrific opportunity, but suddenly I found myself dropping from the middle class into the working class. I was a poor artist. And overnight I became a member of a minority. I wasn’t used to that either. I suddenly realised that I had entered a country where I didn’t belong, one that wasn’t mine’. The decision to leave her own country was not based purely on an artistic reason, however. Wangechi Mutu had problems with her parents’ generation, people who abided by the rules and laws of the British ruler, people who ‘tried to do everything just like the English did it’. But she was also critical of the failing black governments that followed independence and in fact merely brought a different kind of suppression. Especially in her teenage years Kenya had an atmosphere of ‘fearful silence’, one in which it was impossible for people to express their opinions. In 1993 she moved to New York. The first part of her education was at the city’s Cooper Union for the Advancement of the Arts and Science. Afterwards she attended the Yale University School of Art in New Haven. As early as 1997 she was one of the participants in the second Johannesburg Biennial. It was a highly promising start to a career destined to become extremely successful. Over the past four years she has had solo exhibitions at the Miami Art Museum (2005), the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2005), the Vienna Kunsthalle (2008) and the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art (2009). It is remarkable that the growing interest in her work has not translated into a bulky folder of cuttings with extensive reviews by authoritative newspapers and specialist journals. Mostly they are small articles, and they are not always ecstatic. Roberta Smith, an influential critic of the New York Times, still head ‘mixed feelings’ in 2006 when she saw Wangechi’s work for the first time in a gallery exhibition. One year later the Village Voice limply called her a discovery. But the Los Angeles Times was upbeat in 2008. The newspaper said that she gave a ‘stunning form’ to ‘the interconnectedness of just about everything’. It called her exhibition a ‘five room extravaganza’. In between Wangechi offers an explanation for the reserved stance adopted by the Press. While the women that she depicts in her work are seductive, ‘many people feel uneasy when they look at them’. She has the impression that many men would cross to the other side of the street if they encountered such women in real life. Another possible explanation is that her work does not meet the expectations that many people have of African art. Wangechi is not the untrained or outsider artist who builds on a tradition of popular art and pretentious craft. And the fact that she additionally has the nerve to reuse images from the popular press, even porno images, does not exactly improve her status in the serious art world. Shouting At the start of her career she made mainly small drawings. They were figurative illustrations of women, drawn in simple, black lines, but always with a somewhat macabre feel. Figures emerge from other figures at impossible places. Blood flows freely, certain parts of the body have been ‘cut off” or enlarged. She often writes short texts to accompany them. They provide an insight into her motives. ‘I have the right to shout. I have the right even if I don’t know what kind of right’. And: ‘I’ve tried so hard to be a villain’. Sometimes she poses the questions that viewers often ask themselves, like: ‘Why do you never draw men?’ She quickly switched to collages and recently to spatial installations. Collages were popular among many Dada artists in the 1920s (including Hannah Höch, Kurt Schwitters, Théodore Fraenkel and John Heartfield). It was a medium that broke with traditional forms of expression, just as Dada emphatically wanted to break with the past. Moreover, a collage is ideally suited to engagement. Höch, for example, was amply able to incorporate her feminist ideas. The well-known black American artist Romare Bearden was said to have used them for the same reason from the 1960s. Through his collages he was able to give implicit support to the civil rights. Existing images from the media blended seamlessly into his politically tinted story. When I ask Wangechi whether she has been influenced by these people she starts to laugh. ‘Of course I know all the names you just mentioned and of course I admire those people and I have been influenced by them, but there was a very practical reason why I started using collages. Collages, particularly the small ones that I made at the start, are something you can make anywhere, anytime. You need little space for them. You can do them in between other things. That was important, because I didn’t always have the space that I now have. I led a fairly nomadic existence. And to be honest I can’t draw or paint very well.’ Her first collages were on paper. She got the material from advertisements in fashion magazines, from pornographic publications and all kinds of other printed material depicting women in a way that fulfils male expectations, especially those of white men. They became pinups far removed from her personal views, but that painfully accurately responded to the customary image. She complemented the photo fragments with water paint to create complete women who, even though made up of cut and mutilated photos, still look sweet and sexy. ‘You must view the collage in that context. The picture that men have of women, especially African women, is a construction. It is a combination of what we are and what they think we are or want us to be. The medium of the collage is well suited to this. But you must not look upon the collages as criticism of the mass media that provide me with the material. I mean the newspapers, magazines and all the other image providers. That’s not what I’m doing.’ There is another reason for the nudity of her figures. She is also referring to the colonists and missionaries who associated the nudity of Africans with primitive, wild and uncivilised, something to be ashamed of. The indignation and fury about that kind of thinking is why Wangechi Mutu now seizes up it to engage in provocation with near satanic pleasure. Grace Jones She once discovered mylar, a synthetic material, a kind of bendable plastic. The colour is white but it is slightly transparent. One of its properties is that it allows the paint to sink in slowly and awkwardly. This allows the paint to go its own way. It is a property that fascinates Wangechi, because it lets her inject chance into her work. Her women thus change from pinups to strong women, fighters, victors, types like Josephine Baker and Grace Jones, women who frighten men. women who do battle with macho men, women who left their country and had to rediscover themselves, women who personify all the things that concern black women and that black women encounter, sexuality and pleasure, but also agreed, colonialism and racism. There are women with sharp high heels, with claws as feet, with lethal weapons in their hands, with the external features of a scarecrow, with fast motorcycles under their feet. At first sight it appears to resemble festive attire, but the attire consists of all kinds of aggressive details that hardly deserve the festive label. This intimidating effect is sometimes reinforced by the dimensions of the works. Wangechi is now bold enough to go to great lengths with dimensions. The women literally predominate. As she uses mylar she is able to add to the existing image fragments dots of water paint that have dried up leaving sharp edges. Sometimes they are barely distinguishable from the breasts and phalluses that surround them. They do not mix. They allow themselves to be guided a little, but they also go their own way. It makes them blend in with the content tie in a surprising way. The depicted women do not usually have pronounced surroundings. By leaving the space around the women empty, Wangechi universalises the women – and thus the issue – although they are unmistakably women with a dark skin. ‘Naturally. It can’t be any other way. I’m an African woman. I carry that legacy with me.’ In recent years Wangechi has also been making spatial installations. When I asked her about this she originally reacted as though even she didn’t know exactly how they slipped into her work. It is as if they lead their own life, one that the artist has not yet got completely under control. A short time later she did advance a possible explanation. ‘I don’t like making things that people expect to make. The more famous you become, the more this problem occurs. I don’t want to make allowance for the market. If you do that you go under. I simply want to make things that are close to me and that are on my mind.’ Shining example What was on her mind played a major role in the installation that she made in November 2008 in New Orleans, as part of the ‘Prospect1’ biennial. As the location she chose the 9th Ward, the district hardest hit by hurricane Katrina, where the most victims occurred, where the poor black population lives. It was here that she set down a black, wooden structure of a house. In the middle of the open house she placed a simple rocking chair, again painted black. Nothing else. It stands as an unmistakable statement. She told me at the location – it was the first time that I met her – the story behind the work. The installation is intended to be a mark of respect for the woman who had lived at that spot for 35 years. ‘She was an important person in the neighbourhood. She had survived the disaster and even her house was still standing. But it needed to be repaired. Due to bureaucracy and the bullying of the insurance companies she was ultimately forced to leave the city. She didn’t even have the money to make her house inhabitable again’. In the evening the house is lit up to pay even greater homage and, literally, to serve as shining example. Fury also bubbles to the surface in the installations in which she transforms the walls of a museum hall into a kind of human skin in which bullets have punched bloody holes. She hangs bottles of wine from the ceiling, upside down. The red liquid drips on to the floor and the stale air gradually takes possession of the space. She is making such an installation in Texas, where she is confronted by violent border conflicts and all kinds of blatant environmental pollution. Throughout our conversation I had a feeling of surprise, sometimes confusion. Wangechi’s stories leave nothing unsaid. They are sometimes painful, they always ooze great commitment and engagement, but are told in an even-handed, patient, friendly, almost relativising manner by a woman apparently completely in balance, one who intensely enjoys her young motherhood and who is genuinely surprised by the growing success that she is achieving with her work. Pointing to her child, she says: ‘She was not planned, but I’m very happy with her. I’ve just finished the preparations for a number of important exhibitions. I can now devote time to my little daughter. She came at the right time.’ Wangechi’s assistant winds up a number of business matters with me. The woman herself has already taken her leave. ‘She really must go to bed now. It was time.’ Outside it still refuses to warm up. Unrelenting snow continues to determine the streetscape.

Rob Perrée
Brooklyn, February 2009.

Wangechi Mutu’s work was exposed in the Museum for Modern Art in Arnhem last August 2009 in an exhibition called ‘Rebelle. Kunst en Feminisme. 1969-2009.’

(translation of the text in ZAM Magazine, 2009)