Hailing from Kenya but studied in the United States, Wangechi Mutu is internationally
renowned for merging anthropology, interwoven traditions and surrealism through experience as a different often more empathetic approach to the visual representation of women.
Recently, she sat down with PORT's Victor Maldonado to discuss her exhibition
The Human Hybrid at PNCA
the inaugural show of the new Jordan D. Schnitzer Exhibition and Visiting Artist
Victor Maldonado and Wangechi Mutu
In a relaxed setting Mutu and Maldonado two sat down, talked shop and explored how,
myths, belief systems and the way art history is coming around to the methodologies
that cultural historians not tied to the art market have accepted for many decades. Watching them I was struck by the lack of sophist ideologies at play even when discussing old hierarchies like Picasso and established sculptural traditions,
The conversation has been edited for clarity. - jeff jahn
Victor Maldonado: How did you find your installation of your exhibition; The
Wangechi Mutu: Oh, I love it. Yeah, its beautifully done. It is a small,
elegant show and its serendipitous that this collector happens to have almost
all of my prints. There are a couple of things he doesnt have but its
Installation view The Human Hybrid at PNCA's 511 Gallery (left side)
V: Walking through the exhibit with different people one of the things that
kept coming up was, what is it like for you for these works to come together
in this way?
W: Its very satisfying. I mean, Ive been making the work that you
see as you walk in on the left... medical illustrations, essentially the histology
series was made in 2005 on an actual Victorian print, these twelve different
gynecological diseases and issues with the female reproductive organ. So, that
whole moment is, you know, ten years ago, so its good to see this work
living, breathing, looking better than when I first made it.
V: It has a lot of impact?
W: It has a lot of impact, so thats always really good, but I think what
is also important to me is that there is this kind of consistency, that Ive
been exploring a certain area of thought and interest in terms of material and
subject matter. I mean, it holds together really well. The most recent one is
a bronze and that is the new series of water goddesses that Ive been thinking
about as an extension of new mythologies and ideas on how to represent the female
form. Ways that weve never seen before.
I love swimming and I love the ocean. Also, I like mythology that sort of attaches
the female body to the ocean. So, it was great to come up with a figure that fit
into that interest of mine and also that it looks good. Interesting enough, the
first one I made an edible version of her. So shes actually called Chocolate
Nguva and the original edition was actually edible chocolate
Wangechi Mutu, Chocolate Nguva
Bronze, 10 x 16 x 14 in, Collection of Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation
V: Why edible?
W: Well, funny enough the reason that I started exploring water woman, in particular
from Kenya, there is an actual mythology based on, a whole set of mythology and
stories, based on this particular female form. I say female form because she is
human on land and in the ocean she turns into this animal called a dugong
A dugong is actually real and endangered animal on the on the East African Coast.
But they also go all the way to the Pacific so you can find them in Australia.
I saw them in an aquarium there. They are these beautiful, big, chubby sea cows
and they get hunted and they get eaten because, apparently, they are very delicious.
V: So do you see storytelling as the activity you want your collages to enact?
W: I dont think of all my collage work as narrative per se but I think
in this case what I was thinking about, what I was interested in was how the
female characters have been created, throughout history and in their various
forms as they show up in different cultures in almost identical forms, a virgin
goddess. The Virgin Mary seems very Christian, you know, very Catholic Madonna,
but its in so many different cultures. There is this appearance of this
human virgin human being who is half divine and half mortal because she connects.
First of all, shes a virgin and shes able to give birth to a man and
also she is pure and she is beautiful. So this is something that appears in many,
many different cultures. Similarly, I knew that the water women story had to exist
all over. In any coastal culture there are water women myths. The thing about
East Africa is that we have not imaged this myth. There is not enough of an image
history of her so East African culture only has the Yemojas
of West African culture, which are so prevalent that they have actually translated
into the diasporic cultures in Brazilian and Jamaican cultures that the Yemojas
end up there on that side of the Atlantic. So, the trans-Atlantic African slave
trade made it so that Africans brought their mythologies there.
Dona Fish. Ovimbundu peoples, Angola. Circa 1950's-1960's Wood, pigment,
metal, mixed media. Private Collection. Photo by Don Cole
I became really curious what does our myth looks like, this alluring, powerful,
terrestrial and aquatic being? She has a very particular way. When you hear
the stories she has a very particular look. People on the street talk about
seeing them, you know, which is crazy and wonderful when people are still holding
on to the mythology in that way so it is alive in the mouths of people.
V: Well, the way you talk about it, it seems like a kind of code and before
we can tell stories we have to have very succinct images that guide our way
through there. Its very apt to what you talk about. If you were steeped
in anthropology or history you might or might not feel that free to play with
the design of myths.
W: That is true.
V: One takes myths and assumes that no body made them and that they were always
W: That they were always there but they were made by someone and it is interesting
that the people and the cultures that made them, not to say that they are not
original but they always kind of fall back on the same motifs. The phenomenon
is something which I find amazing and powerful.
That is what Im going for. Im looking for these trends. For the
reasons nativity goddesses look a particular way and show up at different part
of the year and how that turns into Easter that show up during the harvest season,
whenever it is. And, then there are these water myths that also produce females
of a particular kind and they are all also hybrids.
Siren, Italian ca. 1571-90, Collection of the Metropolitan Museum
You know the kind in Ireland are kind of like seals (Selkies
not fish and the Scandinavians have the fish version. I love that kind of legitimization
of how our brain seems to create or resolve our humanity. It grounds us here in
the way weve been here for this long and about these things that we are
afraid of and why were afraid of them.
Now what Im particularly interested in why women play a role as an especially
frightening creatures in very particular ways and in different ways from men.
I think men play similar roles but Im very interested in the female goddesses
and the female mythology.
Undine (Giving the Ring to Massaniello, Fisherman of Naples)
, J.M.W. Turner (1846)
V: And the aesthetics of power associated to females in mythology as well?
W: Correct. Exactly and especially the power that lies deep inside the fear,
the fear factor, a lot of it is about that these woman are powerful so we have
to be scared, they are beautiful so we should be afraid of them. They are witches
so we have to be afraid.
V: So, where is the power of eating one of these beings?
W: Well, Im being an artist at that point. My thing is we do consume
of the black female body commercially and intellectually and visually. And,
this is a body that is devoured, in my mind, in ways that are not respectful
and so in that moment of eating and devouring, consuming of the black female
body we are agreeing to the fact that she is not as valuable. I guess it is
not as coveted as the white female body.
Wengechi Mutu, prints from the series Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tumors
Im thinking about very much in a critical fashion you know? So, what
I wanted to do was have everybody in the show eat of this myth and this story
and this body and agree that we are all playing a role in both the dehumanization
of the body but at the same time in agreeing how delicious and whatever. It
is chocolate, so it is kind of like a double-edged sword and I made sure that
anybody that wanted to have a sculpture had to bite it or lick it. You couldnt
just take one, you werent allowed to collect without partaking.
V: Complicity and recognition? Bell Hooks really talks about that in Eating
W: Yes, she really is one of my heroes.
V: Not that your work is illustrating any ideas that Bell Hooks brings up about
gender, power, normativity but really how at large scales cultures are different
things than on an individual basis. And, there seems to be an individual exchange
that only on strange tools like your collages can enact. That kind of experiential
insight, like you dont know how something tastes until you put it in your
mouth. So it becomes a very cult activity. We do it every day. But, I think
building on you ideas of womens bodies as a myth driven design object
in terms of desire, power, fear, beauty but also, I think, as Bell Hooks would
say, once I stop fearing it then its about sexualizing or putting it in
my mouth. I think in her essay talking about a black and white dichotomy that
you may find at top tier Universities in terms of the kind of cross-cultural
pollination that can occur intellectually at Universities and what does it mean
to know the other? Do you resist it? Do you accept it and how do
you accept it? I mean, how much are you thinking about those forces?
W: I also have a Catholic background so this notion of eating the divine in
order to gain transcendence and join God is very much in place in Catholicism.
V: So, take me there. How do you see your work helping you transcend some of
these things that were talking about?
W: I think its about understanding that we are all participating. As
you say, were complicit in the unsavory elements of our culture. Be they
issues of violence and war and how womens bodies are violated. I question
them but I also try to go as close to the issue as I possibly can of course
without participating in any kind of hurtful behavior.
When Im thinking about war, when we desecrate the environment Im
always questioning. So I could stand up here in my lofty studio and say you
are doing this and you are doing that. But we all in it. We are all somehow
participating in it because we are of this time and we havent made enough
decisions as a collective to change things, right?
So thats why were still producing images of women in a particular
way. And, Im not saying Im not working against it Im just
saying that there is something about humanity that works together. That we create
social contracts that eventually change how things are done. But instead of
critiquing it fully from the bleachers, from way back, I try to create these
sorts of rituals that allow me to get as close to it. So with cutting
I try to enact what I thought what may have happened during the massacre.
Now, I have no experience or in harming or doing anything awful to a body but
I know that the craziness about that genocide is that I could say, oh
this could happen in Germany or Iraq and whatever, is that first of all
those people are very close to my people. Really very close in terms of geography.
Our history is very similar in a sense that weve both been colonized.
Establishments that are foreign place themselves inside of our culture. And
then of course we are farmer people so there is this element of food and lack
of resources playing a role in creating a very desperate environment, right?
And, then propaganda of course and colonization adding these racial, hierarchical
issues, that were part of life and that these people believed that certain people
should be killed and others shouldnt. Now, when I went out to do the cutting
on the border in the Presidio, in the border between the United States and Mexico
I was thinking about farmers and laborers and what women do, most women do all
day long. You know, how they work with their bodies, how they feed their families
and how thats a kind of essential and primal.
There is no distance between life and feeding. Youre going to get food
to keep your family alive and if you dont they wont be alive. And,
those tools that are used to farm are also used to arm and certainly the women
were actually not as responsible for the killing as they were more on the other
end being the violated and the victims.
But, I do try to think, well what if I was the perpetrator? What if I was the
young man who has somehow been duped into thinking this was the appropriate
way? To behave that I need to annihilate an entire ethnicity? You know, whose
to say I wouldnt have if I wasnt born into the right family, a particular
family with an education and the ability to run out of the country when the
war started? I would have maybe found myself with a machete in my hand, too.
Wangechi Mutu, prints from the series The Original Nine Daughters
So I try to think about those kinds of questions as well. And then, I think
I look at work like these amazing testaments, these kinds of moments of war
and hardship. I love Picassos work as much as I find him extremely problematic...
in La Guernica we have one of the most powerful pieces and I try to think how
is it that? What was he thinking when he created this work? How it was created?
How it reminds me again of those African motifs Im also excited by and
interested in? At the same time I go, oh my God, were still doing the
same thing. You know that was then but has it changed?
V: I think its something that gives your work impact is that like Picasso
you are using the artists eye to look at the world.
V: Which is not an eye that judges but that asks, do you see what I see?
W: Yes, its an eye that looks from different angles which arent
always all critical.
V: When I learned about Cubism in school I didnt realize that it would
be the mechanism that could help me upset colonization.
V: Or any type of monotonous single vision.
V: And, I think that one of the things that your work allows me to realize,
thinking about the multiple sources that these mythical women that you create
come from is that Cubism isnt just about the artist moving around the
room in space but your work is about multiple voices creating identity at the
same time. And I think that even thinking about the span of time that Jordans
collection has been brought together there is a wonderful consistency that emerges
and it doesnt seem like youre waning from this approach. It feels
like youre gaining speed and becoming more biting in your movement in
terms of really upsetting these colonial motifs that separate us. Really those
kinds of symbols unite us as different kinds of cultures. Is that something
you brought to your studies in anthropology or is that something that studying
anthropology gave you? When did you have the sense that sense about people...
that we are not one thing in a vacuum but that we are fluid and changing?
W: I came to the States to study art and anthropology and I it was actually
very lucky because it was available because the New School is divided into the
different universities. There is Eugene Lang, there is a graduate school, there
is a music school and then there is Parsons. So, when I applied to Parsons I
was told that of course you could take a couple of classes in cultural anthropology
but youre more likely to be successful if you do it in a BA or BFA program
at the New School so thats what I did.
The reason I was doing it was because, yes, I wanted to find a way. I wanted
to find a language that describes human behavior within culture. So its
not so much sociology and psychology and also evidence of our behavior so there
is cultural anthropology where there are things that we have made over the centuries
and years and thousands of years that serve as evidence of our intellect growth,
our cultural differences, our existence here.
Were not just animals. We are here making things to prove that we are
human and then we look at those things as say look humans were here, to prove,
we use them as scientific artifacts, that allow us to time shift, to look back
in time and read ourselves. But, then I also wanted to think about how do we
study human behavior when we dont know the people? So, you have to learn
the language in order to study people and come up with these matrices to study
people and you realize you are just applying your standards and your language
and your ideas to what they are. So everything you are analyzing is actually
relative and completely subjective and based on the subjectivity of the person
who is studying them. Of course, the best thing about studying anthropology
when I did it is that it was being deconstructed.
It was kind of being torn apart and opened up and so a lot of what we were
studying was that a lot of the people become very much the people who they are
studying. So I was really interested in and in love with people like Maya Deren
and her work studying Haitian culture, which became very critical for me...
again with the Catholicism thrown in there and the diasporic element and then
the issues of race and movement of Africans.
Wangechi Mutu, Second Born, detail (2013)
All this stuff was so important but still she (Deren) was this anthropologist
who went to Haiti and studied Voodoo and she became a practitioner and I was
very curious about that kind of thing because it obviously means that we are
affected by the things that we are learning and that everything is cross pollinating
as it grows in knowledge of other things. Thats the only way. So that
the purity of Western art and Western history was falling apart as I was understanding
So, it was looking at it from different angles but it helped me grow my muscle,
my sort of post-colonial mind muscle, and then it helped me grow my work formally
because I realized that these are fractured histories and they are puzzles.
They look whole and they look seamless but they are full of multitudes of parts.
Then of course we could talk about who writes history and how we all know that
the winners write the history.
V: But, very few people I know sit down and discuss history. History is one
of those things, like myths, that is just received and often times not questioned
or investigated or observed as a design object.
W: Correct and I think in art it doesnt happen as much, but I think historians
think about it quite a bit. In fact, Post Modernism was this kind of taking
aim at the purity of intellectual practices. But I think art history is now,
or at least the people I know, are working extremely hard to figure this fragmentation
out and to look at art history as a kind of river with many tributaries and
also that tributaries come and go and that it parts ways in some cases.
But I think for me as an African coming in to the North, rich, West, when I
did I needed to find my confidence, I needed to find my voice. I needed not
to be squashed under this kind of very white history that I was being taught
in school, which in fact wasnt legitimate because I also came to the States
at the time when the Black Male show was put up by Thelma Golden and then all
of these really very powerful black artists like Glen Ligon and Carrie Mae Weems
and Fred Wilson who did the mining of the museum and Fred was my teacher at
the time. So Im looking at these institutional critique artists undoing
this fabric of what is considered the perfect fabric for art, white art history,
and Im realizing, oh okay, so we have a role to play in rewriting this.
And, in fact someone is writing this history and its just not falling
from the sky on a scroll, you know?
V: And that like art, history is a series of aesthetic choices that are based
W: Yes. Standards and values and they are constructs.
JJ: There is a process, one of syncretism that Catholics and Vudun know all
about and it isnt just visual art that is being made syncreticaly but History.
Real History is being made through a syncretic process of accumulating beliefs,
values and stories.
W: Yeah, and I was reading Robert Farris Thompson and then I ended up at Yale
and he teaches there. I didnt go to his class but I heard a lot of his
lectures and realized, okay this is what Im going to spend my time
doing because its what Im kind of made of.
Also, the generation I came from out of Kenya, right after independence, is
a wonderful, optimistic, moment when the country is in full growth and the West
is like very happy about what Kenya represents as a democracy and a capitalist
nation. So of course we are being treated very well by the rich North. But then,
when things get bad, you realize, oh, we have to define who we are and then
that questioning of who we are as a nation was almost simultaneous to who I
was. All because I left at the same time we were having these deep, deep problems
with the dictator.
So the art parallels, my art is about my growth as a person but also my seeking
to legitimize and discuss art history from a place of honesty. Like, how
did Western art get to this point? It not because these while male painters
were geniuses and realized how to fragment space, no, something happened. The
same thing happened in the Renaissance in some ways a cross pollination created
a huge burst of intellectual curiosity. Trade from the East and trade from Africa
made all of these questions about the authenticity of that moment fall apart
and then you have to reformulate it and then you build things and you discuss
things and you discover things and I think thats why I make collage and
that why I work the way I do and thats way I ask questions why I am critiquing
them and Im always putting myself on the spot while at the same time Im
trying to create a deep opinion about what I think should be happening at that
Thats also why I do this multi-headed works. Because I know that as Im
asking myself a question Im also questioning the question. Or, if Im
saying this is how it should be then Im also asking why. Why does it have
to be that way, because I say so? Its allowing for discussion to occur
within the work and that in fact that discussion has a particular aesthetic
history gets more grounded in African art and how we break up space and open
up reality rather than the West has been progressing.
Wangechi Mutu, Second Born (2013)
V: So, lets do a little bit of time traveling.
W: Okay. I thought we just did.
V: We did. We did a lot of traveling back to the tributaries you were taking
about. But, I wanted to end this interview by thinking a little bit about the
future that you see yourself writing maybe not in the Western art canon because
it has been exposed as a fraud and maybe not just as a fraud but as a front
to something more of an inner textual transmission and appropriation of culture?
W: Correct. But, thats what I think it is. Its not so much that
its a fraud but that its an admittance that it has relied on so
many different histories in order to get thus far.
V: So where do you want to take it this open, free, large memory of the past?
What is this future youre headed to as an artist?
W: I mean to me, one of the things is that I know for a fact is that we are
tiny little barnacles in this earth of ours so what we are doing here is minor
in the larger realm of what has happened to the Earth. So, what I want to see
is more compassion. I want to see more discussion. I want to see more appreciation
of culture and learning and people for what they are doing and for what they
are as opposed to what they look like or the color of their hair or whatever
it is, these funny little things that weve been using as criteria for
judging intellectual and artistic prowess have affected the way art history
has progressed thus far. I dont know what I want to see. I want to be
surprised but I want to see the surprise come from the fact that there are a
lot more women intellectuals in universities and there are a lot more, a bigger
diversity, of work in museum collections that is challenging the museum and
allowing the museum to grow and not just be this kind of archaic vestige and
a fearful space that refuses to see that it is a good thing to change and be
influenced by different languages, cultures, spaces and people.
You know its happening. Im being surrounded by curators of different
backgrounds and not just even Black female curators but from around the world
because I think its also global and a lot of the issues that were
running into that are big. Big questions that will devour and destroy everything
including museums. Libraries will disappear if we have environmental havoc.
So, for me what my work is trying to say is that we are connected. That art
should speak to that connectedness as opposed to a narrow population narrowing
down the focal point. The art for arts sake category of artist is a legitimate
category but it is not a great time to making that type of work because of the
urgent issues in front of us.
I mean that seriously, because I read up enough on the environment and even
the rise of terrorism. Its connected to a kind of anxiety and it behooves
art to find a way to ask the right questions. Because art can ask questions
first of all without expecting answers. In a way that allows peoples emotive
and intellectual capacity to soften and open up to one another so that people
who sit next to each... who will never have a conversation and have nothing
in common will sit down together and watch Hamilton and say, oh my God
I get it, You know, I know why. I understand why I havent
made that jump but I realize that we are all just people and we are all here
to be here together. Or, you and I read a book and you realize, oh
I think art does that different than a politician speaking to us or even a
religious leader or even a celebrity. I think there is something about art that
is unassuming that is not trying to convince you of anything but leaves you
feeling a lot more empathetic and aware than you came in feeling and I think
that is what I would like the future to be about. Divisiveness and categories
that encourage elitism and hierarchy can be broken down through art and imagination.
So that is what I want to do. I want to play a big role in dismantling. As I
like to say, dismantling the little empires inside of our selves.
V: Wonderful. Thank you for your time.
W: I dont know how youre going to transcribe all of that.