By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted from Wilmette, Illinois, US January 24, 2018)
Wangechi Mutu’s art has been exhibited literally all over the world. The award-winning multi-media artist who is unquestionably the best known Kenyan creative anywhere has had exhibitions everywhere from London, Moscow and Johannesburg to Paris, New Haven (where she got a Masters of Fine Art from Yale) and New York where her 2014 one-woman show entitled ‘Wangechi Mutu: An Fantastic Journey’ at the Brooklyn Museum of Art proved to be one of many watershed moments in her extensive artistic career.
And yet, Wangechi has never had a one-woman exhibition in Kenya. One has to wonder why since I’m told she moved back to -- or at least in between – Nairobi and Brooklyn some time ago.
What’s more, she was born and raised in Nairobi, attended Loreto Convent Msongari and didn’t leave for university studies until her late teens. She was also here in time to witness the Mothers of Political Prisoners protests in the early 1990s which she has referenced in interviews as having had a profound impact on her art.
In fact, once one is able to unravel some of the intricacies and symbols in her art, (which some see as beautiful, others note is fantastically (and consciously) grotesque, but which I would describe as magical, surreal and ingenious), one can appreciate that she has explored a wide range of political, social, cultural and even anthropological themes in her work.
One art critic simply said she explores ‘life, death and femininity’ in her art, which is true but also a simplification. She also explores everything from the effects of colonialism, war and sexism in her art.
The one focus that’s been consistent in her work is her fascination with the female figure which she sometimes fabricates with animal, machine, human and plant-like features.
I was fortunate to see one of Wangechi’s collage paintings (relatively) up close recently at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. ‘That’s my death mask you’re wearing’ which she create in 2004, made me wish I had been in Brooklyn for her major ‘Fantastic Journey’ show.
But as much as I would have loved to see her previous exhibition and would especially want to see her work displayed in Kenya, I understand that this 40-something year old artist has been busy since she (like Lupita Nyong’o) completed her studies at Yale.
She’s also been very blessed, having had wonderfully-well received exhibitions everywhere she’s shown her art.
For instance, she was named ‘Artist of the Year’ by the Brooklyn Museum where her ‘Fantastic Journey’ not only featured more than 50 of her incredible works, aptly described as ‘feminine and futuristic’. It included one monumental multi-media mural as well as her brilliantly animated video, ‘The End of Eating Everything’ which she collaborated on with another feminist artist Santigold.
She was also described as a ‘super woman’ and ‘feminist sculptor’ by one arts critic who noted that Wangechi may be primarily known for her ‘wild collage’ paintings (a term coined by Teju Cole in the Guardian). But she is also a sculptor and performance artist as well as a photographer, painter and filmmaker.
That reporter also described Wangechi as a ‘homegrown feminist’ since the artist herself has said she grew up in a matriarchal household (in Nyeri) and never doubted that equality among women and men was the norm.
That message, that feminism needs to be recognized as normative, is one that both women and men in Kenya need to hear and understand more clearly. I suggest it could best revealed and explored more fully through a solo exhibition in Kenya by Wangechi. That way, we would have the opportunity to see her art up close and personal.
After all, her art has gone all over the world. Perhaps now it is time for it to be shown back home, especially now that the contemporary art scene in Kenya has been radically transformed since she left in the early 1990s.
Welcome home Wangechi!