What exactly is a feminist sculptor? Wangechi Mutu can tell you. A “homegrown feminist” since childhood (“I considered myself a feminist before I even knew what feminism was.”), her art explores ideas like race, gender, technology, colonialism, and consumption — often through a lens that challenges and deconstructs cultural depictions of women — African women in particular — and the female body. Hoping to achieve a balance of art and activism like her icons before her, from Arundhati Roy to Nina Simone, Mutu reminds us why that message matters, both in art and in life. "Because we assume it’s normal for women to earn less, work harder, be tidier, and demand not as much as a man, to me, it's important to stand behind feminism as an idea." At 42, the Kenyan artist is regarded as one of the most significant African artists of her time. Her beautiful, unsettling, mysterious, powerful, erotic, even scary compositions are pieced together from magazine cut-outs, synthetic materials, beads, strips of leather, and fake hair. Adding even greater depth to these awe-inspiring pieces: the fact that her subjects of focus are typically female figures — strange chimeras bearing human, animal, botanical, serpentine, and machine-like traits.
Her recent show at the Brooklyn Museum, “Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey,” presented a sprawling tour through more than 50 of these works. It was an epic, provocative, multi-medium retrospective; and for anyone who was lucky enough to experience it in person, it's easy to see why Mutu earned the museum’s distinguished Artist of the Year award.
(Published: November 19, 2014, Refinery29)
For Mutu though, the end result isn't the awards — of which she has many. And, it's not institutional recognition, either — although both MoMA and London's Tate Modern both count her work among their collections. It's the story she's telling, and continually redefining and retelling. "It's a never-ending, infinite lifetime task, and I’m happy to be doing it consistently," she says.
When we sit down at her home studio in Brooklyn's Bed-Stuy neighborhood, what strikes me most is her honesty. While the artist is obviously powerful and firm in her convictions, she is also unafraid to recall and share her past insecurities and speak openly about self-doubt. She recounts how, given her home country's lack of encouragement for artists, her decision to leave Kenya for the United States in the mid-'90s was an unwavering one — but life upon arrival was a bit more difficult.
"I always knew that I wanted to talk about things what were relevant to me as a Kenyan, and here I was as far away from Kenya as I could possibly be, in a population that doesn't know that much about the continent, so those hurdles felt impossible at a certain point," she recalls. She also had more practical concerns: "How do you make art when you're trying to figure out how to pay your groceries, or keep the lights on?"
It's a refreshing dose of realism from someone who received a very public shout-out from Beyoncé this February during her month-long #28DaysBlackHistory initiative. That was a happy moment, Mutu said of the honor, but coming from a cultural background in which praise is hard to come by, her greatest sense of accomplishment actually comes from one of her youngest critics. Up ahead, an intimate look at the artist in her space, as well as Mutu’s personal perspective on creating art with a message, what success means to her, and the responsibilities she feels as an artist and a mother.
For the full interview, click here.