Kenya artist Wangechi Mutu’s provocations of the status quo have moved beyond the white cube, writes Stefanie Jason.
Lately Googling ‘Wangechi Mutu’ yields almost as many links to activism as it does to her art. Sure, her oeuvre is magnanimous for a 44-year-old artist and comes with esteemed accolades, but her recent work with campaigns that aim to empower is considerable as an extension of her craft.
Over the last two years, the trajectory of the Nairobi-born, internationally acclaimed artist’s career has taken on a new shape stretching beyond the art world, quite like the dangly limbed alienlike creatures that take centre stage in her creations.
As her work with organisations and activists transcends the gallery space, the premise in which her activism lies is as much a challenge to the system as the scenes depicted in her collages, videos and installations.
‘The most important thing for a contemporary artist is to be a truth seeker, not necessarily a tradition keeper,’ Mutu said, while giving a walkabout of her 2013 exhibition A Fantastic Journey. (The exhibition featured one of the works she will present at this year’s FNB Joburg Art Fair – ‘The End of Eating Everything’, an animated short film in collaboration with US singer-songwriter Santigold.)
Exploring her canon, one can see how – in seeking or exposing the truth – Mutu unsettles the spaces within and outside of the gallery. Since embarking on an art career after completing a master’s degree at Yale University, the Kenyan artist’s early work features cut-out collages of sole characters in varying colours and shapes. Sometimes plump-limbed, brown-skinned figures with round bosoms and buttocks that appear distinctly feminine, even if slightly distorted; other times muted-toned mythical characters that look half-animal, half-human with a range of facial features: piscine, faceless or grotesquely disfigured.
Most of these subjects exist in a setting where the land or the sky bubbles beneath or shoots out like tentacles. But whatever the detail, Mutu’s women grab your attention for their strength or sadness, fear and bravery.
‘My life’s journey is to continue thinking and mining this notion of femaleness and feminism, and advocacy for women through the sort of fictional, sci-fi narratives that I create,’ Mutu said, at the time of A Fantastic Journey.
US Art critic and curator Grace Kook-Anderson looks at the depictions of these forms, specifically Mutu’s exhibition at the Pacific Northwest College of Art’s 511 Gallery in March. In relation to iconic Western figures ‘like the Virgin of Guadalupe, or the relief of muses on a Roman sarcophagus’, Grace writes: ‘Mutu’s figures are quite the opposite of Western icons; they challenge previous traditional imagery (like 19th-century colonial illustrations of the “Hottentot Venus”) and upend assumptions of the gaze.’
Set in futuristic utopias or dystopias that have become a signature of Mutu’s aesthetics, these characters and landscapes open dialogues about blackness and feminism, while challenging the Western art world that has a history of prescribing what African or black female art should look like, and ghettoising art from the continent.
Mutu explores this, saying about the art in ‘A Fantastic Journey’, ‘these works are sometimes not recognisable to anybody as an African artists’ work, but the truth of the matter is I was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya, and a lot of my work is still with this notion of being an immigrant, being a woman, being a creative person. Being someone who left home to self-invent.’
Mutu left Nairobi to study art in the UK and the US, where she lived for over a decade from the late 1990s. Earlier this year, she moved her family and studio to Nairobi.
Beyond the confines of the art world, Mutu’s work disrupts. In 2015, she founded and launched the Africa’s Out! movement which, according to the website, is a bold loudspeaker for gender and sexuality equality that calls for radical change through ‘imaginative activism’.
The inaugural event focused on the rights of the LGBTI community especially on the continent, and in countries where archaic anti-homosexual laws still exist or crimes against those in the community go unpunished.
The movement was inspired by the public coming-out of renowned Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina in 2014, the year in which Kenya proposed a bill criminalising homosexual acts. Earlier this year, the organisation honoured gay-rights activist and photographer Zanele Muholi from South Africa, a country that has one of the highest rates of corrective rape.
‘Only one week prior to Binyavanga’s [coming out] letter,’ writes Mutu, ‘former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan passed a flat-out anti-gay law, which makes same-sex relationships illegal, punishable with up to 14 years in prison. Uganda passed a similar law on 24 February 2014, punishing “aggravated homosexuality” with up to life imprisonment (revised from an earlier proposal of the bill in which individuals would receive the death penalty). With this sort of climate rampant throughout the continent and the world, our action is more important now than ever.’wangechimutu.com; africasout.com
Wangechi Mutu is part of the Special Projects programme that focuses on East Africa at this year’s FNB Joburg Art Fair from 9 to 11 September at the Sandton Convention Centre, Joburg.
Photo Credit: Richard Burrowes