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Wangechi Mutu- Redesigning the Face of Art


Commonly considered the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in visual form such as drawing, painting, dance, music, literature or sculpture; art and its various branches of activity produces works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty, emotional power or other in depth meaning.

Its creators therefore are unique beings whose aesthetic skills imprint splendor upon generations unborn etching their expertise on the sands of time for posterity to tell their story.

Wangechi Mutu, enterprising in all respects is one of such endowed creatures. Innovative, courageous, and daring Mutu, one of the 2013 class of 20 Young Power Women in Africa is one of Africa’s emerging female power brokers.

Born 42 years ago in Nairobi, Kenya, 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…”

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 she 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 marred by a failed coup and increasing political and economic instability, Mutu left for New York. Conscious of an obvious sense of dislocation hovering over her, Mutu, a firm believer in the need for inspiring role models, considers that her sense of dislocation is more than a matter of geography, and in fact stems from her earliest years.

She recounts;

“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.”


Wangechi Mutu who currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York is considered by many to be one of the most important contemporary African artists whose work has achieved much global acclaim in recent years.

On moving to New York in the 1990s, she focused on Fine Arts and Anthropology at The New School for Social Research and Parsons School of Art and Design. After a brief training 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”… and in year 2000, she received an MFA.

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.

Her work explores the contradictions of female and cultural identity and makes reference to colonial history, contemporary African politics and the international fashion industry. She draws from the aesthetics of traditional crafts, science fiction and funkadelia.

Her works also document the contemporary myth making of endangered cultural heritage piercing together magazine imagery with painted surfaces and found materials. Mutu’s elaborate collages mimic amputation, transplant operations and bionic prosthetics.

Her figures become satirical mutilations whose forms are grotesquely marred through perverse modification, echoing the atrocities of war or self-inflicted improvements of plastic surgery.

The power woman examines how ideology is very much tied to corporeal form, she cites a European preference to physique that has been inflicted on and adapted by Africans, resulting in both social hierarchy and genocide.

Her figures are equally repulsive and attractive. From corruption and violence, she creates a glamorous beauty. These figures are empowered by their survivalist adaptation to atrocity, immunised and ‘improved’ by horror and victimisation.

Their exaggerated features are appropriated from lifestyle magazines and constructed from festive materials such as fairy dust and fun fur. Mutu uses materials which refer to African identity and political strife; dazzling black glitter symbolises western desire which simultaneously alludes to the illegal diamond trade and its terrible consequences.cats

Mutu’s work embodies a notion of identity crisis, where origin and ownership of cultural signifiers becomes an unsettling and dubious terrain. Her collages seem both ancient and futuristic and her figures aspire to a super-race, by-products of an imposed evolution.

Interestingly, Mutu’s works often make the female body central, and confront the viewer with “plant-like or animal-like elements and intertwined abstract patterns” that merge the organic and the surreal with human forms.

These hybrid creatures have bodies made of a combination of machine, animal, human, and monster parts. She constructs these warrior-like females out of magazine cutouts, sculpted and painted surfaces, and found materials.

The sources her collage images range from are a variety of media, including commercial fashion and lifestyle magazines, pornography, and automobile and motorcycle magazines.

In her own words, these distorted yet elegant figures that she creates are based on the concept that, “Females carry the marks, language and nuances of their culture more than the male. Anything that is desired or despised is always placed on the female body.”

Mutu calls her hybrid beings “human conditions”, “Chimeras” and “Warrior Women”, and they have won her a burgeoning international reputation.

For her own part, the exceptional sculptor welcomes multiple interpretations of her work. Speaking in an interview from her Brooklyn studio, 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.”

Her personal experience is a pivotal point of departure in her craft. Explaining this she says;

“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, 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.”smh.com.au

As Jim Rohn one of America’s foremost business philosophers aptly puts it, an enterprising person is one who comes across a pile of scrap metal and see’s the making of a wonderful sculpture. This, summarily put, is the story of Kenyan born artist, sculptor and anthropologist Wangechi Mutu.

Lovelyn Okafor
Lovelyn Okafor
Lovelyn Okafor is a Journalist/Writer, Poet, Lawyer and God-Lover. She enjoys a good read and sees everyday as an opportunity to live and enjoy her calling whilst working towards perfecting it. She believes that someday soon, Africa will reach her full potential as the light-bearer of the world. You can find her on Twitter: @lovelyn_o

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