Wangechi Mutu and Her Post Human Kenyan Mutants

Photo: Courtesy of Edgar Arceneaux.

I first met Wangechi Mutu when I had my first art opening at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects in 2002. The show was entitled "Rootlessness" and looked at the relationship between "Star Trek" and Alex Haley's "Roots." This meeting of science fiction and the African diaspora experience in America has framed the dialogue and friendship between Wangechi and myself since then. This interview was recorded from the afternoon to the early evening on Nov. 2, 2012, the day before her opening at Vielmetter Gallery. The show was entitled "Nitarudi Ninarudi I plan to return I am returning." and was an ambitious exhibition that was a self reflective examination on exile and alienation brought about by her unresolved visa status, which has prohibited her from leaving the U.S. for several years now. We talked during the final push towards completion of the show as she put the finishing touches on a very large drawing (at this point she has yet to title the work) that had been moved outdoors onto the gray sidewalk. She had just run out of spray paint so our interview began in my car with me driving her to the local art supply store.

Driving down Washington Blvd.

Edgar Arceneaux: So I read the press release from your first show at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects (SVLAP) in 2003 and in it you stated: "I was born and raised in Nairobi Kenya. My present home, New York, is a place of great privilege and enormous resources, my home of birth is experiencing an unbelievable crisis of confidences as we try to define who we are to each other and to the world at large. In the immigrant nightmare series I articulate the memory of the various places that I have had to live in, bringing together dissimilar objects, drastically unrelated worlds and ordinarily incompatible creatures... I intend to complete this particular series with drawings that reveal an overlap between Kenyan folk tales and the myth-making machine of Hollywood."

Wangechi Mutu: Hollywood myth making? I said that? That was really unfortunate.

Edgar Arceneaux: Please interrupt me and tell me where I'm going.

Driving down La Cienega Blvd.

Edgar Arceneaux: Well, I thought it was interesting because of the merger of technology, nature and flesh, and if you talk about Hollywood, those are the qualities a sci-fi movie has. I remember the first time we met, you were walking down the stairs from my first exhibition at SVLAP and you were wearing a reflective metallic silver jacket, and I was like, "Who is this person?" Even then there was this sci-fi quality about you.

Wangechi Mutu: That's so funny, I loved that jacket for precisely that reason, I thought it was the most comfortable sci-fi, everyday thing.

Wangechi Mutu | Photo: Courtesy of Edgar Arceneaux.
Wangechi Mutu. | Photo: Courtesy of Edgar Arceneaux.

Inside the art supply store we continued our conversation.

Edgar Arceneaux: Do you have a favorite Kenyan folktale that might be relevant to you now?

Wangechi Mutu: I do because I've been recently digging up all of these stories, this family of beliefs, a whole set of mythologies about water women, which are actually mermaids. But in Kenya and East Africa they are very sinister. They do what mermaids supposedly do in many parts of the world, which is to trick men who are sailing on the ocean, or who are fishermen. They also change into land women. If you hang around in the coastal small towns and people get comfortable with you, they will talk about these women as if they're normal people who hang around the village. They'll tell you that so and so visited this guy and you know how she is, and her feet don't touch the ground, or she has goat feet, or they have something strange about them. And I just love this thing about them, which is that they are always shapeshifting to test people of their wisdom and intelligence and to find human failings and weaknesses.

The research is hard, because they are such deep village beliefs and on the internet you can't find much information about them. There are these fisherman who are talking about these nguvas [mermaids of East Africa] that's what they're called, but now they are beginning to talk about them in relation to this one manatee like creature that we actually have. It's similar to the manatee you have out here, it's like a sea-cow, or a hippo that got lost in the ocean. It's very vulnerable and ill-equipped to protect itself. It has no natural predators. It is very voluptuous and they say this is what sailors were actually seeing and mistaking for women. But I love the idea that these women are out there tricking men and so forth.

I've been researching that and making artwork about women floating in water and some of them in the sky. Whereas, my last show in 2010, I had many rounded females in the ground, in the representational ground. I shot a water woman video in the ocean for me to perform and to feel for myself the idea of this creature, this aquatic being that is outside of its medium in a way. I think it does actually lend itself to this idea of feeling slightly outside of one's element at every given point because you're not actually from a particular place and it's not like a super overpowering feeling, but very subtle. It's that [feeling]: "this is not my place." There has been a big shift in my immigration paperwork and my actual status as an alien in the U.S. has changed. For the longest time it wasn't guaranteed I could come back in, if I left. But the feeling of "not being yourself" is exacerbated if you don't have a sense of choice of where you are at a given point; if you can leave or go back.

We arrived back at the gallery, parked and continued our conversation as we looked at her drawing through the windshield.

Edgar Arceneaux: And I imagine that this fear would be amplified by having a husband and children now and the home, the stability of the home would be in jeopardy...

Wangechi Mutu: So if I want to fantasize, a woman or a person that is more powerful than her circumstances, I construct this creature that is a combination of the mechanisms a woman would require to protect herself with objects that are considered to be powerful. Sometimes the masculine comes into play in these works. Motorbikes and weaponry are seen as masculine, powerful and futuristic, and I mix that with the female body, the vulnerable skin, flesh and bone, and I create these creatures that are, in a way, counter to what one would expect of a living woman. But also at the same time, proposing that this woman is able to survive and be capable of protecting herself. It's a definitely a play with imagination and transformation of what we can be.

Photo: Courtesy of Edgar Arceneaux.
Photo: Courtesy of Edgar Arceneaux.

Looking at the Background

Edgar Arceneaux: There's definitely a post-human or evolved humanity that your work is in conversation with. Humanity's evolution, along with technology and the way it radically alters the body, is more present today than ever before, which moves our discussion from science fiction to science fact, so we can think about the physical properties of your work materials. My colleague Kurt Forman, who's an artist, filmmaker and collaborator of mine, often points out that in Hollywood films, the politics are always visible if you look into the background. Specifically looking at the layers of your drawings, lets discuss the backgrounds of your pictures of which, on top, you collage: Paint applied as dispersed particles through airbrush techniques in radial bursts or color fields, washes that bleed or rely on water tension, repulsion between liquids that don't mix and drips as well as oozes.

What qualities do these particular states of the paint medium offer you that you find intriguing?

Wangechi Mutu: It's always been about trying to enjoy the process of making the work as I'm thinking about these issues, and not necessarily forcing the two things together. If I'm obsessed with this mermaid idea, I'm not going to try to render water as such, or aquatic beings. I'm going to research a ton of creatures, like these massive jellyfish that we've been able to find or deep in the ocean these creatures with an alien luminosity. So I'll do all this research, and enjoy doing it, and then I'll work and somehow the connection between the subject matter and the way I choose my materials begins to merge. But it's not overt, it's not conscious, it's not absolutely pre-meditated. Some of the pieces in this show have feathers in them because I'm thinking about movement, the constant exhale and inhale of sea creatures; there is always a subtle movement about them. I'm fascinated by that, and try to find materials that mimic their behavior. I love materials that don't behave in ways that are predictable. I'm not a good traditional painter, as such, because I'm not one of those people who molds a figure out of paint with shade and tone. I love when colors create themselves, when you mix a metallic this and an ink that, and all of a sudden you mix them together and it opens the ink up and you realize there are five different colors that have been used to create that one ink. But that only happens if you put something in it that allows it to separate.

Photo: Courtesy of Edgar Arceneaux.
Photo: Courtesy of Edgar Arceneaux.

Edgar Arceneaux: These are interactions that leave visible as residue the reaction between forces and matter.

Wangechi Mutu: I'm like the most amateur, homemade scientist wannabe person. I love to watch things open up, interact, react. And when they eventually dry, you get this really fantastic moment frozen in time. They finally look the way they have decided to look. Sometimes I'll go to bed and come back the next morning and it won't look the way I left it. And I don't consider that to be a negative always. It's about being okay with the elements inside the materials you use, as they express themselves.

Edgar Arceneaux: What do you think comes first, the interest in the nature of the materials, or the subject matters drawn with the collage?

Wangechi Mutu: I think the concept is there, but I never quite know how I'm going to express that idea. When I talked to Susanne (Vielmetter), I said I was really tired of mylar, and the protective casing. I want people to get closer to the work, the same way I feel when I'm making it. I was thinking a lot about the history of painting, the preciousness of painting and about what I felt more akin to, and it is more to sculpture and material. I was trying to figure out how to work on a material that is way tougher in terms of how much weight it can take, how many things I could put on it. Mylar has this resilience, and it's very strong. But I've been using vinyl and linoleum and thinking about going back more in my memory to materials I consider to be Kenyan. Believe it or not, the thing with the hair extensions relates most to my idea of being an African woman. Our obsession is not so much with the weave, but hair-braiding. A weave is human hair, it's about making your hair seem like white people's hair. Where braiding has a cultural line that goes pre-colonial, it's not just white people's hair being introduced to our community and culture. So there is something about this artificial-ness, this artificial hair and crowns and plumage that makes oneself seem bigger, more something than they are, that I've been obsessing about.

Edgar Arceneaux: I did have a third category of how I see you using materials, which is synthetics, be it hair, mylar, sheets of vinyls that look like wood. These are things that have the qualities of being natural but are actually made with machines. Blurring the lines between organic and synthetic imbues your backgrounds with additional associations to concepts of science fiction. When we talked about particles, bleeds, and strains of interactions in your art materials, these are also the same fear-inducing qualities of the antagonist in much of science fiction, fantasy and horror genres films today. Dispersions of airborne viruses producing zombies or wiping out of society with an incurable disease, or on the genetic level, dealing with bio-technology, genetic manipulation, mutation, genetically altered foods and the cloning of human beings. All cause radical restructuring and conflict within both the human body, as well as the societal body. In most Hollywood films, disfigurement is treated as something to be suppressed, pushed back into the shadows, but in your work, you use it as a means to dispel illusions. In spite of that, your work is very seductive to so many people, could you talk about why you think that is?

Wangechi Mutu: I don't even know what people are actually seeing, I can only see through my eyes, or how it feels to be making it, or what if feels like to see these characters created in their environments. I do know that I have a deep fascination in what is considered to be "not-normal," what is considered to be the quintessential look where an ethnicity is considered to be normal. Who came up with and why? What is the purpose of coming up with those delineations and categories? In many ways I see it as a thread running through my work. I see it in pinups, in female insects to cyborgs, everything has this question of beauty, appearance, perception, our claim to understand a person's history and their intentions is based on appearance. That is why I play with this notion of what draws you in, what gives you a sense of comfort, gives you a set of codes that allows you to judge this person. "Oh, I know this person, they're morally in the right place," and I can therefore allow them in. As a non-American, as someone bureaucratically and officially alien, that term itself raises questions about what that means anyway. If you see any depictions of alien in Hollywood or mass media and apply it to yourself, there is inevitably going to be this disconnect or questioning. That's where some of those things come from.

Photo: Courtesy of Edgar Arceneaux.
Photo: Courtesy of Edgar Arceneaux.

Edgar Arceneaux: Maybe that is where the mythological aspect comes in. It is the alien or someone from the outside that is the agent of great change. Because they are different or come from a different set of values or traditions, they can attack a problem in a way in which the person from that society just can't conquer.

Wangechi Mutu: Sure, but in the meantime the xenophobia and fear that is placed upon any being that comes across as foreign is so overwhelming that it is hard to separate the ideals that you have and vision you're trying to play out in your life with the day to day profiling. There is something about heroic characters that have seemingly entered a place from the outside and have tried to understand it, but that is not what's happening on a day to day basis.

Edgar Arceneaux: On the other side of that spectrum you have Joseph Merrick, commonly known as the Elephant Man, he was an Englishman who as a child contracted what is believed to have been Proteus Syndrome, a rapid and uncontrollable growth of cells that deformed his body. He was rescued from the life of carnival act by Dr. Frederick Treves. He was allowed to live in the London Hospital where he stayed for the rest of his life. He went from being a spectacle, to being a scientific specimen, to being a part of Victorian society. One of the critiques of Victorian society is that they domesticated Merrick so to counteract societies fear turning him into a kind of pet monster.

"Tis true my form is something odd,
But blaming me is blaming God;
Could I create myself anew
I would not fail in pleasing you.


"If I could reach from pole to pole
Or grasp the ocean with a span,
I would be measured by the soul;
The mind's the standard of the man."

- Joseph Merrick


Disfigurement is a powerful tool to produce new narratives and possibilities but my own anxiety is that the visual appeal of my drawings might override the more troubling aspect that I want to get across in the work. Do you have concerns about this?

Wangechi Mutu: Sometimes I do, but I know for a fact that I can't control what people see in a given moment and I also know for a fact that sometimes it's so clear depicting a particular body type, a physical manifestation of women to create tensions so people can focus on what the issue is. Perhaps my desire to be seen that way or not, as a woman, my intention doesn't articulate itself the same way in my mind as it does with the audience. Then five years later, it's the right moment, there's an acceptance. I think artists sit right next to their work, and one gets confused with the other. But then they're looking at you and saying it's not possible that you're looking at things in this way, or you're tricking me. I think it's very difficult as a young artist to think that every single angle in your work is going to be appreciated, discussed, digested. Some things take awhile to sink in, they're so contemporary that sometimes it takes awhile. I remember during the war that George Bush came into power, that it was the perfect moment to start annihilating a bunch of Arabs, if that's how I can put it, and I remember how I felt about that, the same way how I felt in Kenya with a Republican president. The US rules in much of the world in ways...I remember my obsession with discussing the war, and it took people who are American in birth and breeding to feel it, how absolutely frightening it was going to be. Once you start a war you don't just stop. It was going to go on for a while. Some of things I was saying about how we commit aggression against people, how we do not use diplomacy before we run in and invade, they weren't discussed, and now they are.

Edgar Arceneaux: And the cost is so clear. Since the government is now trying to figure out how to pay for it.

Wangechi Mutu: It's so obvious. So what I'm saying is that their intention, or whether the public is ready, or whether I'm expressing it well...I'm not the most didactic person, I guess.

The day got later and closer to sunset, so we got out of the car so Wangechi could get back to work on her drawing

Edgar Arceneaux: Let's talk about this piece on the floor for a bit. This figure is in a reclining position, but it also seems like she is dancing or there is a rhythmic quality and she is also composed of hairnets. We were talking about the way in which you render a figure, what were you thinking about?

Wangechi Mutu, "The storm has finally made it out of me Alhamdulilah", 2012, Collage on linoleum, 73" H x 114" W x 4" D (185.42 cm H x 289.56 cm W x 10.16 cm D), | Photo: Robert Wedemeyer.

Wangechi Mutu: You nailed it as far as the pose goes, I was thinking about something seductive but that she was also writhing in pain. She has this thing coming out of her belly, almost like an umbilical cord turned inside out and sort of creating, to my mind, these storms, this huge cloud and this huge cloud is made of out dozens of packets of synthetic hair. She's either created it, or it is embedding itself in her. It's kind of a post-coital position, or is she being tortured? She's got this big thing coming out of her hair, and there is a lot in my work right now about what hair means? Hair is alive, it's organic, it's snake-like, it's a monster, it's a bit of everything, it's also very much an adornment or a crown. It's also a curse in a way, the Garden of Eden and the snake in a way, all wrapped up into one. The face is a kind of mix, mutation of a mask, an amphibian eye and human eye, her mouth/area is an image an ornate pearl and gold encrusted jewel and an African man's head. Her earlobe is from an ornate piece of furniture, an ornate piece of wood. There are pearls all over her eyes. Her face is this blue, reptilian, asphyxiated head.

Edgar Arceneaux: It's hard not to read this eruption of her belly, you're not sure if she's giving birth to it or if the hair is birthing her. Also can you describe the face to me? It's unclear if she's looking straight ahead or...

Wangechi Mutu: She looking at you, Edgar.

Edgar Arceneaux: Okay, that's what I was thinking too. [We laugh.]

Wangechi Mutu: I haven't titled it yet, Im going to title everything tonight.

Edgar Arceneaux: One last question, you have a daughter, and there is always a little bit of "uncanniness" when you've made another person who looks like you but is not you at the same time. As children reach a certain age, they start to interact with the world through making things, has she made anything that has that caught you off-guard or made you wonder where that could have come from?

Wangechi Mutu: No, I think it's more the way she discusses things. As far as creative stuff, she loves to sing and dance. She doesn't gravitate to visual stuff as quickly. She makes up her own songs, she travels a lot, she's always singing about going to China and meeting a little girl there, or she'll tell you about a trip to Napoli and what she did there. She has a different way of thinking about reality.

Edgar Arceneaux: She has a different way of producing that's not you. I've never heard you sing before. I'm afraid to hear that.

Wangechi Mutu: I'm afraid for you to hear that too.


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