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Artist interview: Wangechi Mutu and her warrior women

One of the most dramatic artists to emerge from Africa in the past decade discusses the arts of immersion, identity, politics and collage

Wangechi Mutu

The Kenyan-born, Brooklyn-based artist Wangechi Mutu, 40, is best known for her elaborate collaged works on paper and Mylar polyester film, conjuring up fantastic, fearsome creatures out of fused fragments of pornographic, ethnographic, fashion and nature magazines, mixed with vivid pools and splatters of ink and acrylic paint. Fellow artist and admirer Barbara Kruger has described Mutu’s work as exploring “issues of sexuality, wounding, race, exile, pleasure, greed, war, colonialism and trauma, to name but a few”. Okwui Enwezor, curator and director of the Haus Der Kunst in Munich, has declared that “in the past decade, Wangechi Mutu has carved out an extraordinary critical space in which to think about the… media production and contemporary consumption of images of African and black bodies within the global economy of mediatised signs”.

For her own part, Mutu welcomes multiple interpretations of her work. Speaking from her Brooklyn studio last month, where she was preparing for two major shows—at the Nasher Museum of Art in North Carolina (opening 21 March) and Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art in May—as well as preparing to give birth to her second child, she declares: “I think everyone reads the work depending on where they are coming from. I don’t want my work read from one angle. My approach to race and ethnicity and my identity all shift depending on where I am.”

Mutu has called her hybrid beings “human conditions”, “Chimeras” and “Warrior Women”, and they have won her a burgeoning international reputation. She was part of Charles Saatchi’s “USA Today” exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2006; her work has been shown at London’s Tate and MoMA, New York, and there have been solo shows at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art (2005); Vienna’s Kunsthalle Wien (2008); the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego (2009) and the Art Gallery of Ontario (2010). She received the Deutsche Bank Artist of the Year award in 2010, along with a solo show at Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin, where the judges praised the way in which her work “questions our conceptions of beauty, our image of the other, of what is foreign”.

Her personal experience is a crucial point of departure in the work. “I’ve always enjoyed but also slightly suffered from the understanding that what’s going on inside of you and what people are seeing from the outside is not necessarily the same thing,” she says. “Perception is so subjective, so mutable and so powerful because it can be sculpted and moved around, and that is the essence of how I work. I juxtapose and slice up reality and fiction quite easily because I’m aware that it is up for grabs and a powerful tool to explain how we take control of our reality and use it to send messages. It’s something I’ve always had.”

Mutu’s reality has certainly been one of striking contrasts, and from early on has helped to shape an outsider’s view. Born in Nairobi to a middle-class family, where her mother was a midwife and her father ran a paper-importing business, Mutu went to a Catholic school for girls, which she acknowledges as “fabulous as a place to inspire myself in terms of pictures and stories”, but where she also acquired a sceptical view of Catholicism. “There were all these white nuns and African girls, with the Madonna also this virginal young girl and I thought, what does this have to do with us and me?” At 17, this self-described “city girl” left Nairobi for the United World College of the Atlantic (now UWC Atlantic College), based in a 12th-century castle in south Wales, in the UK, where Mutu took the International Baccalaureate. The setting provided “the escape I needed. I was up for an adventure”, she remembers. “It was very idyllic and it was where my understanding and ability to say that I was an artist was born.”

After a brief return in the early 1990s to a Nairobi much changed by a failed coup and increasing political and economic instability, Mutu left for New York and has lived there ever since. However, she considers that her sense of dislocation is more than a matter of geography, and in fact stems from her earliest years. “I came out to New York at the age of 20, but I think even as a young girl in Kenya there was this sense of disjuncture and not feeling at ease with my place. As a young creative female, there just weren’t enough inspirational role models around me.”

After a brief spell at Parsons, she graduated from the Cooper Union with a BFA in 1996. Two years later, she won a full scholarship to Yale’s Graduate School of Art and Architecture, where her teachers included William Kentridge, Paul McCarthy and Jeff Wall and where, as she puts it, “my work bounced all over the place”…

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