Reverberating Images

The Various Arts of Wangechi Mutu

A successful collage is synthetic, its disparate component parts adhering as a rational whole. It would be impossible to imagine any other configuration of its diverse elements, recombinant and now perfect. Wangechi Mutu’s luscious, fantastical, multivalent, clamouring collage works hang together as intense composites— evidence of mind wrestling with matter. Prodigious, complex visual presentations, what they are not is static or fixed. Not one is a lullaby to sleep by. But disharmony is not what she’s after either. In fact, it’s the juxtapositions of various histories, mythologies and representations recombined and adjacent, abutting and intersecting that evidence the real interconnectedness of the world as it should be—creatures all of us, including nature, collaged together as a functional operating reconciliation. Us the world, “conciled”— since first days, or reconciled since we woke.

Wangechi Mutu, Even my old soul has an old soul …, 2019, ink and watercolour on Mylar, 111.5 x 81.5 inches. All images courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

It wouldn’t be possible to say it better than art historian Kristine Stiles did in Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey, published by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in 2013 to accompany the travelling exhibition of the same name. Stiles wrote, “She cuts into what separates us with the precision of a surgeon before suturing our reconstruction from the fragile visual slivers of the wounded family of humankind, already fragmented, deformed and traumatized.”

Wangechi Mutu intends the collage work to be aesthetically engaging—beautiful the way something seductive needs to be in order to do its stuff, and while she’s not interested in a binary or dialectic either/ or approach, the works mustn’t be so beautiful as to be comfortable to the eye and its beholder. Her model is the oyster, which requires an irritant to produce its nacreous beauty; pearls are abundant in Mutu’s collages.

The painful and destructive interruption of colonization is a persistent presence in Wangechi Mutu’s work, appearing in as many and myriad forms as that unspeakably brutal and deliberate habitation, invasion, eternal occupation, resource- and greeddriven political manifestation could provoke. Still, Wangechi Mutu harnesses it practically as an explanation for the efficacy of collage. She refers, in this interview, to artists who were all victims of colonial education: musician Benjamin Clementine and artists Chris Ofili and Ana Mendieta—all of them sharing the skill of “splicing, and dicing and recreating and inventing, misusing and abusing and highlighting the various languages that we were taught in our schools.”

In her striving to imagine a better, more generous and inclusive future, Mutu give us, in her collages, sculptures, drawings and videos, images of the future, taken in many instances to an unhappy extreme— bloodied, savage, distorted, imperilled and cataclysmic. Carrying on is apocalyptic, even if presented as alluring and seductive, in the way that her work unavoidably is. But carrying on—continuing, as the future state implies—is what we must do, and her work suggests a better way is possible. Kristine Stiles noted in her catalogue essay the ideal of intersubjectivity, writing that Mutu’s art is the pictorial embodiment of that ideal, “one that pictures the awkward, failed but philosophically moving attempt to arrive—even momentarily—at what must and can only be an image of constantly shifting needs, desires, identity, and knowledge in the effort to imagine the other imagining us.”

Simply, this is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Wangechi Mutu’s work evinces her persistent empathy in reading of the psychic and physical pain and distress of others. Anger, too, impels the work an unmistakable emotional state but deflected in part by its being carried by hybrid figures, by creatures not readily identifiable—testing the us-not-us possibility of avoidance and exit. With image and accompanying text prodding in full the idea of the social contract, Magnificent Monkey-Ass Lies, from 2004, is one example. Anger almost spits from the text of her nonetheless beautiful work: “So I was thinking if you were on the auction block would I even bid on your white ass. This cold has made you thin and bitter, but my heart still aches with love, and I remember when animals devoured us and we tasted good to them. Everything I am saying is dedicated to all you magnificent monkey asses, yeah you. Your greatest invention is the desire to own every demon on earth.” Wangechi Mutu’s text for Magnificent Monkey-Ass Lies speaks with contempt about the “desire to own every demon on earth,” to own every everything. Yo Mama, a double panel, large collage from 2003, suggests the opposite—not the desire to scoop and grab and dominate but instead to allow for multiple worlds, to acknowledge and encompass them all.

Tree Woman, 2016, red soil, paper pulp, soil, wood glue, wood, 78 x 34 x 30 inches (figure), 32 x 36 x 4 inches (pedestal).

The colour pink engenders a welcoming positive response, rosy in its assurance of well-being. This is the ground of Yo Mama, a fierce and alternative originary myth, no less bloody and with similar bad outcomes for the snake but paralleling the dispatching gesture of the Virgin Mary with her tiny foot on the head of the now dead serpent. Mama has, with one stylish stiletto heel, pierced the snake’s neck—if such an anatomical description applies to a snake. Blood drips and spatters and seems, in the adjacent panel, to be generative in a spermatazoac manner. The length of the snake’s body coils and loops from just over Mama’s shoulder, across and to the next panel. Mama is chic, shapely and powerful. Dressed in spangles, hair arranged elaborately and well, groovy and wise and entirely in charge. An island that is a pink jellyfish, tentacles waving like party streamers, with a forest of palm trees proliferating on its dome, is connected to Mama by the sensuous loops of the snake. With wit and relentless beauty Wangechi Mutu persuades us to consider broadly, with generosity and compassionate interest and in an expansive state of more rather than a limiting regime of less.

The following interview was conducted in spring, 2019. The artist has a number of exhibitions and installations scheduled in the coming months, including: The Façade Commission: Wangechi Mutu, The NewOnes, will free Us, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, September 9, 2019, to January 12, 2020; “Are We There Yet? Arts of the Black Atlantic,” Ellen Johnson Gallery, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH, August 2019 to May 2020; Rock My Soul, curated by Isaac Julien, Victoria Miro London, London, UK, October 20 to December 20, 2019; Inaugural Exhibition: Waking Dream, Ruby City: Linda Pace Foundation, San Antonio, TX, October 13, 2019, to 2022.

BORDER CROSSINGS: I see your reposed portrait head called This second Dreamer (2017) as an Africanized version of Brancusi’s Sleeping Muse (1910), which leads me to one of the many fascinations I have with your work. It has to do with the relationship between the reclamation of a language—in this case an art historical one—and the invention of the pictorial language in which you were finding a way to represent the Black female body. What can you take from what already exists and what do you have to invent on your own?

WANGECHI MUTU: There is a smaller and earlier version of This second Dreamer called Mwotaji, The Dreamer (2016) that is more the size of my head. But the sculptures of disembodied heads are related to my Maria (1997) work, a Virgin Mary with the head of a doll that I was so obsessed with. I found this doll head in the street when I was an undergraduate student and kept it around for months; it was completely separate from its body and it was from a brown doll. Something about this head floating along on its own in the city produced many images for me. I went on to produce Maria and then after, I painted fallen heads, sleeping heads; I made collages and paintings. And then later on I produced the floating heads in The End of eating Everything (2013), my animation film. But I never thought to reference Brancusi directly. I actually love his work and am still fascinated by the work of a number of those modernist artists who unashamedly harvested many of their ideas from traditional African sculpture. What sculpture has allowed me to do is to regain the confidence that comes from working with material that is of my birthland. I can’t say it any other way. For me, it is a personal piece; it’s this head in recline, cast from my likeness, that is positioned as if in peace where it is. I was thinking about the brutality of separation from one’s home and history and at the same time very much enjoying paying homage to the beautiful hairstyles, the braided coifs, and all this incredible and ephemeral body art that should be understood as art. I am conscious of the discussion of Africana and modernism and what modernity has extracted and derived from classical, tribal African art. What I’m trying to do is take history home, take history to the heart, take art history deep into my own personal experience, and tackle these issues from a much more authentic space and not from a place where I’m recreating a romantic notion of something or someone I’ve never met.

The lens through which I view Banana Stroke (2017), the extraordinary performance piece you did with banana leaves at the Met, makes me think of Rebecca Horn and her painting machines, or her kinetic sculpture called The Kiss of the Rhinoceros. You say you’re bringing it back home, but I find a previous home for what you’re doing in contemporary art. There are differences— your piece has a balletic quality and Horn’s painting machines are mechanomorphic—but when you perform, are you also playing inside a framework that has already been gesturally enacted?

This second Dreamer, 2017, patinated bronze and wood, 8.5 x 14.75 x 16.25 inches, edition of 3.

Of course I’m aware of her work and I love a lot of what she has done. I think that I am able to trick the eye and the mind because the banana leaf is used constantly in very specific moments of protest and political dissent. When something public needs to be said, Kenyans and a lot of Africans would take banana leaves off the trees, which signified “We come in peace, but we also want to be heard.” Then they’re seen as big paintbrushes that are beautiful extensions of my body. Sure, Rebecca Horn is interested in that mechanization of the body, as well as in an exactitude that I associate with a Germanic way of thinking, but she is also dedicated to pulling apart what the female body can represent and also how art functions within a space and in a context and where it comes from. It can be this mechanical apparatus that just moves back and forth—a lot of her pieces do that—but then there are these wonderful dissolves and shifts that happen because these mechanisms that she creates never do perfect things. So, yes, I’m looking at her, but I’m thinking more about Ana Mendieta’s feather applications, her beautiful blood drawings; about Coco Fusco’s performance in a cage, dressed as the last of the Amer-Indians; of Adrian Piper’s dance performances; of David Hammons’s basketball drawings; and Senga Negunfi’s soft sculptures—these and many other performance artists who have worked with ephemeral materials to create objects, drawings and paintings that are not necessarily even visible after the action, that are not preserved as pristine moments of singular genius. There is extremely poignant art all over the world that is done in the earth and on walls and in the caves and on skin, and I’m also reverberating from those kinds of images.

What I find so compelling is the rich way that you conflate meaning. You explain that the figure in Yo Mama (2003) is a tribute to Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, the mother of musician and activist Fela Kuti, but you put her in stiletto heels, which she uses to decapitate the snake, and we’re right back in the world of the Virgin Mary. In Catholic iconography Mary stands on the head of Satan, who is a snake. I have the feeling that all the layers are intentional. Is that making you too conscious as an artist?

I think you’re right. One of the things that make me most nervous is that we’ve decided to take only certain lines of history … let me put it this way. The Virgin Mary is the result of many, many his-stories that came before her emergence, and there are many fertility goddesses and virgin births and deified humans from all the way before the ancient Egyptians. With time they were adapted and changed for the purposes of whatever culture and environment they were in. Water women, Nguva, Yemanja, are part of these female mother goddesses I have studied. Eventually the domineering Catholic religion stopped at this veiled, white-skinned woman whose eyes are looking down upon us all and the only skin revealed is on her hands and face. I’m asking what happened to all the other versions; what was so wrong with them, or frightening about them? What was so powerful about them that we have had to cloak this one or cover or disguise this one so she dominates with her very static, stoic, serene look, or whatever I can call it? For me, she is placed there to represent women, and yet she doesn’t capture the reality of women’s experiences with power. So I’m peeling back and squeezing out all the other versions and I’m not being particularly tidy because colonization is a messy, singularizing story. It says, “I don’t care if you understand it or not, but it is the story that we brought and it’s the story that you’re going to believe and that will take you forward.” Why don’t we bring all these truths together and see if they make any sense?

Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary (1996) raised some questions for me. Along with acrylic, glitter and polyester resin, he included elephant dung in the image, which gave Rudy Giuliani, who was New York’s mayor at the time, a justification for attacking the “Sensation” exhibition when it came to the Brooklyn Museum. Giuliani read it as desecrating the Virgin, whereas Ofili saw elephant dung as sacred material that he was using to enhance the image of Mary. As a result, the piece was totally misread. So I’m nervous, not just about your work but about any work that comes from cultures with which I have little or no familiarity. I don’t feel I have the ability to understand how much meaning it carries. How do I read things better as an art critic? It’s a question that anybody who looks at your work is obliged to ask because the more I hear you talk, the more I realize that you’re coming out of a world that I have to learn to recognize.

But do you feel that same way when you walk into a cathedral or if you go to another country and you see traditional art? Does not being able to understand the origination and the language and the details and the intricate symbolism make you feel, “Oh my gosh, I can’t see the beauty in this because I don’t understand it”? My learning about contemporary art was close to what you’re saying in looking at my art, having to take in things and say, “You know what, I really love this but I have no idea why.” Maybe one day I will have a sense of where it came from and why someone would paint something so inexplicable but captivating. But for now, I’m falling in love with it, with absolutely no explanation. That is what art is about, for me. We’re doing a disservice to ourselves when we look at a particular art form and say, “I’m confused, I don’t have enough information, so I can’t go any further.” If you start to worry about not understanding the language, then you’re not listening to the music.

**That’s interesting because you played “Winston Churchill’s Boy” by Benjamin Clementine, the lyrics of which come from one of Churchill’s legendary speeches, which Benjamin turns into his own narrative. Do artists steal the power of previous iterations and articulations and then find ways to articulate their own concerns? **

Absolutely. I think that Churchill was a brilliant leader, but he was such a cruel person. I’m not a Churchillian but I think that Benjamin Clementine, Chris Ofili and even Ana Mendieta were all victims of colonial education and, in a way, it is why we are so good at splicing and dicing and recreating and inventing, misusing and abusing and highlighting the various languages that we were taught in our schools.

**So would that naturally predispose you to collage because you inherit all these languages and you have to find ways to cut them up, to commit surgery on them before they can be reconstituted? **

For me, it was a very natural way to work because of my layered education and upbringing. I love drawing, but I always try to find new ways to draw. I think drawing with scissors was a way to extend the ink line. I still cut and draw with scissors and X-acto blades, similarly. It was another way to move a mark across a page and remove the things that disturbed me. Originally, what I did was to take a magazine and cut out of that page and see what was under, and cut out another page and see what was under that. All the layers came through, and it was amazing because without the editor’s even thinking about it, on page after page after page, there was all this image content, conversation and alignment. I have a few pieces like that and they are not particularly easy to preserve, so they are with me. But that was how it started: I was really thinking about the layering of information and imagery and the correlation between different pages.

That’s also a sedimentary process, an unearthing. You’re literally digging up different layers.

Precisely. It is very archaeological and it is very much the way in which histories need to be revealed next to one another. This kind of segmenting of histories and languages and people allows us to position things against one another, and when you place them closer, or allow them to play with one another, things happen that are pretty amazing. You realize that there is something quite uniform about humanity and our desire to make art and make mysterious things. But there is also something important in being irreverent about things for which we have so much respect. We make art because we’re scared of why we’re here. We created religion because we’re fearful about our existence within this universe. So if you look at them in a much more comparative fashion, I feel that you get down to the essence, which is: we’re here to continue to be here. What I’m trying to say is that the only way to continue is to be conscious and conscientious and compassionate with our variety of ignorance. Art brings me closer to humanity, to my humanity. I don’t know what brings other people closer to their humanity, but there must be an activity that makes you feel most human and connected to others. For me, it’s making things that push me to think.

Is there any medium you haven’t yet tackled?

I am sure there is, but not a medium that I really want to work in. I trained in sculpture, but I ended up painting after graduate school. I learned to shoot video and edit in graduate school; I always made a video every year and a half or so. I would say to myself, “It has been a couple of years, I feel I should make a video,” and I would inevitably have an idea about that. I’ve worked with stop-motion animation, but I usually hire talented animators. I write from time to time; I enjoy writing.

You move like a dancer in your performance pieces.

I was in musical theatre as a young girl, and played music, trained as a singer. When I was younger I loved singing and that was what I really wanted to do. My mother, whom I adore, is the queen of boundary making. I went back home after high school and I joined this little funny band that had only guys in it. I was the vocalist, and begged her to drive me to rehearsals because she wouldn’t let me drive myself to band rehearsals. I suppose she was sick of driving me one day and she said, “You know, you’re going to end up on stage and only loose women end up on stage.” And it just crushed me because it was already difficult to go to these rehearsals and it was difficult to imagine being on stage and on top of that showing up with your mother every rehearsal. It was then that I decided that whatever I did, it had to be something where I didn’t need people’s opinions or to have to worry about their applause. I think that’s partly why artmaking came to the forefront. I wanted to be alone when I made work. I was happier and better at artmaking anyway, so perhaps what my mother gave me was inadvertently a gift because it pushed me in the right direction.

**When you began to invent your version of the Black female body, you went to a series of sources that included everything from motorcycle and automotive magazines to fashion and porn. **

I used materials that I was attracted to or curious about and that I found interesting or problematic. Initially I didn’t overanalyze why I was using them. So, for example, with National Geographic, with fashion and pornography magazines, with beads, feathers, glitter and pearls, the more I looked at these materials, the more I realized they are what I wanted to articulate about femininity and violence, about colonial trauma and personal alienation. Pearls are produced because the oyster “ingests” an irritant; they are the beautiful results of an animal’s trying to soften the pain, the pain of a foreign body’s irritation in its body. I’m constantly trying to turn something that is painful into something beautiful, to present things that are hard to look at in a way that makes them magical and beautiful.

Certainly, fashion and porn are ways of picturing the body that have a very distinct, even codified way of rendering the body in space. They describe a typology of gesture. When I saw your Tree Woman (2016), even though she’s made from red soil and paper pulp, I couldn’t help but notice the sexy shift in her hips and her stiletto heels. She makes me wonder if it is possible to borrow from the language of porn and fashion in a way that doesn’t trap you in the production of seductive images.

I use and produce these gestures the way I do because I find them very attractive myself. When I was in Lamu on the northeast coast of Kenya, the Swahili women quasi-adopted me. Because it is such a strict Muslim area, the women don’t socialize out with men and vice versa. As a result, I have no idea what the male part of that society does. But until the bride and groom were brought together, the women dressed, ate, danced, smoked and celebrated only with other women. It was sensual, feminine, glimmering, erotic and colourful. Away from the men, they could be “badly behaved” women because they felt liberated. I was 18 at the time and was in awe of how utterly rebellious and gorgeous these women were. They were made up, hair glistening, covered in henna and dressed in shimmering bright colours, and it wasn’t for any men; it was because they wanted to look and be seen. When women want to dress up and be sexy, it is not just for men.

**When you do Eat Cake (2012), your performance is such that the character you play is not just a madwoman in the forest, she is also carnal. How did you conceive in your own mind what you would look like in doing that performance? **

I write out these films first and I create diagrams and drawings to organize the story. For that one I wanted to have everything the woman did be quite symmetrical and orderly, as though she was an altar. After the libations, as things move along, she begins to lose structure and her centre. I remember telling my DP that I had only one take, that the cake was going to be eaten only once. I told him that I was going to disintegrate into a state of greed, ravaging the large cake, leering around as if someone might be coming to steal it away. So, the idea was to start off quite rational, or at least to seem like things were under control, and then for this consumption and this masticating behaviour to take over and turn into something quite primal. I’m still baffled by that piece. But Eat Cake is definitely about consumption and America.

**I get a sense that one of the things that is exciting for you about your two studios is that you make more sculpture in Kenya because you can walk out the door and find the materials you need; you just pick up whatever is around and make your sculpture out of that, you don’t have to go anywhere to buy paint or brushes. Is Kenya a place where you get closer to the rootedness you are talking about? **

Nairobi is like my collages; it is full of a lot of contrasting elements and very rapid development, new highways, huge informal settlements, skyscrapers, herds of roaming cattle, huge scavenger cranes, metal scrap animals and a vast amount of young people moving, growing and populating the city doing amazing or awful things. Nairobi’s indigenous forests and nature are threatened by this stealthy and chaotic growth. The tension between how things remain natural and their disappearance is palpable. I use fibreglass objects, mannequins and car parts that I bring back as material from New York. So I don’t know if I could just make earth works; I don’t know if I could just sit in the soil and mould and sculpt mud. I wouldn’t be me. I am a city girl and there is something about combining man-made and organic objects, something about utilizing these poses and these manufactured notions of beauty together with this very “the-earth-made-this-for-you” material. It is different from using a brush and a tool in the way that I do in my paintings. The other thing is that it is so difficult to use some of my collage photographic materials. They don’t survive well in the light; things bleach in a much shorter amount of time than they do in the northeastern United States. So I’m not using photographic material right now. But I am painting. I’m using big figures against landscapes and birds and dreamy colours, but not in the same way where I created these intricate and delicate connections between organisms and the human body previously. That kind of environment was created with multiple, multiple layers of bits and pieces of paper. Being in a country that is significantly poorer is grounding and I’m inevitably influenced by it. It’s not even about whether the earth is nearby or that I have rocks and stones; it just brings everything back to “this is what we’re doing in this place, because this is what is really happening right here.” When you are travelling or living in a poor country, it doesn’t matter how wealthy you are; you absolutely understand that poverty is there, and what humans living in it look like. You see what men’s, women’s, children’s rights and the lack thereof look like; you understand what pollution looks like and what rivers that are full of sewage smell like. There isn’t as much façade to disguise those conditions as there is in wealthy countries. Hiding injustices is expensive and complicated and takes time. Resolving injustices is expensive, too. Since artmaking is about creating a real connection with people, with material and with things that are in that place and that earth and of the world that we live in, I think it makes me that much more fluent and sharpens my instincts to be able to work in Nairobi.

Two of your animated videos, The End of carrying All (2015) and The End of eating Everything (2013), have eschatological titles; they are about the end of things.

It’s also about the beginning.

So are they endings that are resonant with new beginnings?

I hope so. I don’t know what is going to happen. I recently read that we have 11 years before we arrive at a place where we can’t turn back. Some scientists believe that it is already over, that we are actually beyond repair, but if we have only 11 years and if we don’t change in that time frame, which is a decade and one year, then nothing will be reversible, which is one of the most insane things to think of if you have young children. What I do know is that it seems sooner than later and we’re pretty close to messing it up.

A number of years ago you did an interview with Barbara Kruger in which you talked about art’s being a sanctuary. That’s a beautiful word but in the current political situation, it has taken on implications that you couldn’t have been thinking of. Do you feel more of a responsibility as an artist to deal with the world that America is now shaping? Do artists have to respond to the world we’re now in, to reach out and make larger statements? Do you feel that as an ethical obligation? I haven’t just begun to feel that I have an ethical obligation.

I have always felt that way. For me, it was such a big decision that art was what I was going to do, to feel empowered enough to move out of my parents’ home at such an early age, to say what I had to say, to speak to women, the downtrodden and those whom I look up to. So I always felt an obligation to contribute something, to say something. You know, the minute I left home I threw myself into art because for the first time in my life I became a minority, an immigrant and poor, and I had to fend for myself and I needed that pillar of art. So I had no choice and I didn’t want to have a choice because what I’m doing is what I love and I know so many people would prefer to do what they love, which is work from their minds and use their intellect and their hands and bodies in a very creative and yet respected way. I get to act out, speak up without terrible consequences. So art is a sanctuary; it is a safe space in so many ways and I have to honour it. I don’t take it for granted.

In your performance piece at the Met, you include a Derek Walcott poem called “A Far Cry from Africa” that goes, “I am poisoned with the blood of both, / Where shall I turn divided to the vein? / … how choose / Between this Africa and the English tongue I love? / Betray them both, or give back what they give? / How can I face such slaughter and be cool? / How can I turn from Africa and live?” I get a sense that the poem was also about you and your relationship to Africa.

Absolutely. He wrote the poem for me and for all of us who are caught or exiled between places and histories. The poem talks about the rebellion, about the Mau Mau and about the murdering of African people, about colonization and racism, and it talks about the beauty of the continent. It is a beautiful poem, a powerful poem, and reciting it was an important part of the performance. ❚

This interview lives within The PAINTING Issue #151, available for purchase here!

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