Wangechi Mutu in conversation with Trevor Schoonmaker

Trevor Schoonmaker: Let’s start at the beginning…can you tell me about your first artistic impulse?

Wangechi Mutu: From a very early age, I was an obsessive-compulsive drawer. Because my father owned a paper distribution company, I always had a lot of paper around.

TS: And that was in Nairobi…

WM: We lived in this one house until 1976, and I know that I used to draw so much, I’d run out of paper, and I’d end up drawing on the wall even though I clearly remember being told, “Do not draw on the wall.” But I just would go berserk and continue drawing, and so I was always battling my dad, asking him to bring more paper home […]

TS: So when and where did your career consciously begin? What was the impetus for leaving Kenya to go to high school in Wales? Were you already thinking about an artistic career or just about getting out of Kenya?

WM: My impulse to leave Nairobi was related to the fact that I was already a young artist, at least in my understanding of what an artist is. I already sensed that I was not going to be a desk-working person, or in the kind of professions that are seen as more stable or regular. I just knew it wasn’t for me. I was more interested in all of these avenues that allowed me to explore, to make things, to interact, to stay in constant motion, exploring ideas but also places. I was interested in travel.

I left Kenya in 1989 to attend high school, but I had actually been to Europe when I was fifteen with the school choir at my convent school. We went to France and Switzerland, and we sang and visited all of these cathedrals and churches that were virtually empty except for maybe half a dozen, a dozen at most, really old European folks who were so happy to see all these little African girls singing African versions of Catholic songs. We were very lively. We had a lot of fun. Of course, it was the first time most of us had left Kenya, but it made me want to leave and go to see places.

So by the time I was sixteen, dabbling in theater and kind of a restless teenager, it didn’t take me long to agree to apply to an international school […] My career — my artistic thing — has to do with seeing things outside of the box, feeling myself to be a person who is a little bit outside of the norm.

TS: And you felt that already in Kenya?

WM: Yeah. I felt that in my family much earlier. I remember enjoying getting out of the house to go to school, and my mom saying, “You’re so happy when you’re leaving the house.” And it was true. The house had become a very confining space for me for many reasons […] So I went to Wales and finished school in two years—by 1991 I was done. I came back to Kenya […] I was an artist, and I knew it, but I was trying to fit the idea of being an artist into the idea of being an adult who takes care of herself, who doesn’t rely on her family. There are not that many options in Kenya, so I was trying to figure out what I would do. I knew I couldn’t be an artist who makes things for the tourist industry — curios, jewelry. None of that was interesting to me, but that’s a big part of the, quote-unquote, art scene in Kenya.

I knew I didn’t know enough about contemporary art because I had studied art at my I.B. school, so I knew there was something out there that would afford me an opportunity, but I didn’t know what it was.

TS: When did you first become aware of contemporary African art as we think of it today?

WM: Well, there were some galleries — I always went to Gallery Watatu and Paa Ya Paa. The National Museum has art-related shows that tie into the exhibitions. It’s more like a museum of natural history, but they also show art.

I was aware of contemporary Kenyan artists, most of them older men who worked like folklorists, interpreting a lot of mythology and folktales through painting and sculpture. Even that was a disconnect, because while I understood what they were doing, I didn’t identify with them as strongly as I would have liked to, even though I really appreciated their work. But African artists, I hardly knew of any, to be honest.

TS: When did you start to see work by African artists that you did respond to? Was that in New York?

WM: In New York, ironically, you know, in the early ’90s. Richard Onyango, one of Kenya’s big painters, was one of the first shows I saw […]

TS: So you were at Cooper Union but you attended Parsons before that […] And did you go straight from Cooper Union to Yale, or was there time between?

WM: I had time in between […] I found myself in that space again where, well, I knew I was a visual artist but I didn’t know how to get started. You know — I have work I want to make but I also want to live and exist in New York City, pay my rent, so the two things fought each other. I decided I needed a couple more years of dedicated art school, art time, where I wasn’t chasing the clock or running in the rat race. When I left Cooper, I was very responsible. I paid my bills on time. I was living better than I had the entire four years before that. I wasn’t impoverished anymore, but I didn’t make any art, or very little. I had a hard time leaving work and going home to make art. I thought I could; hourwise, you feel like you can slip in four hours of art making, but in terms of energy and your state of mind, it’s not that easy.

You have to stay vulnerable to this thing within you that causes you to make art. You can’t approach it with just […] your head. You have to immerse yourself, and I knew graduate school would allow me to do that. But I also made a strategic decision to pick a grad school that had the right name, quote-unquote. You know, I think coming from a poor country, one of the advantages you have is that you are wired to understand that there are not enough safety nets out there to catch you. You really do have to set yourself up for being successful, self-reliant, figuring things out for yourself, because the state is not going to do it — we don’t have that option at home. If you don’t have family money, or it’s running out, then you’re on your own. The art thing is part wizardry and part practical stuff. I had to figure both things out — I picked Yale.

TS: You must have had a distinctive portfolio from Cooper Union to make that possible.

WM: I don’t know if I had a distinctive portfolio, but I learned a lot at Cooper […] By the time I got to Yale, I was ready for the rigorous critiques. And I also had experience being, well, a cosmopolitan African. I wasn’t provincial. So I think it was the good training, you know. I had a lot of confidence at Cooper.

TS: When did you start to develop your own unique artistic voice? […]

WM: Before grad school. At Yale, I just tried everything out because the resources and equipment and infrastructure were there. I did things in wood. I made videos. I sewed. I wrote. I drew. I did a variety of things in the sculpture department that I consider important to what I do now — they were very much about experimenting and really honing down to what I found to be my preferred way of working. But if you look at some of my work from grad school, you wouldn’t say, Oh, there’s a Wangechi piece […]

TS: Your work encompasses such a broad group of references — you borrow from everything under the sun — African culture, medical history, contemporary fashion. You have a special way of pulling everything together, of creating connections and critiques, to make these disparate pieces work as part of a “maximalist aesthetic,” as you’ve called it before. Can you say a bit more about how you weave meaning out of all of these threads?

WM: You know, I think what happens is that I use what I have right there around me […] I’m going to go through my magazines. I’m going to use a particular kind of paper. I start to see aesthetic and formal connections in imagery that actually have a lot to do with the content. One choice determines the next set of choices. And ultimately I come up with an image that I like and want to see, one that is lovely to look at but also very meaningful, that makes the connections I’m reaching for tangible. […]

TS: One of the central themes of your work for me is hybridization: […] male/female, white/black, human/animal, Africa/Europe, or even hand versus machine and the human race and Earth as an ecosystem. […] What are the core issues that keep rising up for you?

WM: I have different themes, and I mash them all together. One of the things that I’m focused on is finding new ways to interpret the female portrait by questioning those qualities we look for when we identify something as “woman,” or even “beautiful.” What do the words mean? And how are they particular to, and part of, different histories? We sort of assume that we are saying the same things and so run the risk of ignoring, of negating, the existence of people when we homogenize them.

TS: […] [A]re there certain sources you find yourself going back to over and over again?

WM: Fashion magazines, while they don’t contain any kind of critical examination of the content, tend to be printed on great paper and with such clarity that the bits and pieces I pull out of them are ironically more helpful than many of the magazines that support issues that I politically or emotionally care about. So I go to fashion magazines again and again.

TS: Their lack of critical heft works to your advantage?

WM: There’s this inverse thing where I go to these magazines for material and doing that allows me to critique them by breaking them apart and kind of vandalizing and dissecting them. I pull apart their structure, literally and physically and conceptually, and then reinterpret it for my own purposes and my own interests.

And while I can’t say that I’m a huge fan of National Geographic, the magazine is one of the biggest ingredients in my work — and I have such a problem with its approach. At base, National Geographic is very colonial, still has a deep colonial kind of patina on it. But they have some of the best photojournalists working on their team and run the best-quality mass-produced photographs, images that relate to scientific research, ethnography, and a bit of fashion, even though it’s usually tribal and traditional. I enjoy looking at those things and then reconfiguring them because I have a problem with the way they write about the world and what they choose to focus on. So it’s a playground for me to sort of mess around with that. But of course, that’s made possible by the fact that the magazine is reproduced so well, great paper, great printing.

TS: What better way to critique a colonial perspective on the world than to use its own materials and imagery?

WM: Yes, exactly. It’s a gift, an affordable gift.

TS: Thank you, National Geographic. What are your other inspirations? Are there any writers whose work has been particularly influential?

WM: There are many. I loved the first time I read Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and A Modest Proposal. And I admire Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, but also her activist work, like The Cost of Living. I listen to a lot of Toni Morrison interviews, and I’ve read The Bluest Eye and Tar Baby. […]

TS: And what about music?

WM: I’m really inspired by music. I try to go listen to a lot of live music, see people perform. Things happen in front of your eyes that, no matter how rehearsed, you can’t predict, and I think that’s very courageous and interesting as an art process — there’s an authenticity and immediacy to stage art, whether in music or theater. As a visual artist, you get to tidy things up, at least to a certain degree, so I’m drawn to music and performance for the dynamic time element and because it’s finite but stays in your memory, in your nerves, afterward. Visual art doesn’t behave for an audience exactly like that.

TS: […] Who has stayed with you? Because everybody’s taste changes.

WM: Who has stayed? That’s a great question. Tom Waits has stayed. He’s still in the collection. Björk doesn’t go back super far, but she has stuck with me for over a dozen years. I think she’s amazing. I would still buy every record she makes. Fela reaches all the way back, but Fela — there was this gap or this lull, you know. Way back as a child, I inadvertently listened to Fela on the radio and learned to understand Fela without even being taught how to understand him. And then he came back, in many ways due to the Black President exhibition.

Something else that has stayed with me — not an artist but a musical form — is Bhangra. Bhangra was bursting into life in New York at the same time I arrived, largely because of DJ Rekha. I remember thinking that both Fela and Bhangra were ghetto music back home. Fela was being listened to in Kenya, but not by middle-class kids like myself. And Bhangra was all over the movies and in the Indian stores. But in New York I discovered it was really everywhere. It was heartwarming because it was so familiar, and I got it; I knew where it was coming from […]

TS: So what musicians are you listening to now?

WM: Abdullah Ibrahim, Nina Simone, Just a Band, Björk, Fela, Asa, Jason Moran, Buika, Meklit Hedero, Tricky, Sigur Ros, Baloji, Glenn Gould, Oumou Sangare, Imani Uzuri, Santigold […]

TS: [In] your collages you create spectacular aggregates of animal, plant, human, machine. But much of your work also has a sense of location, even though it’s completely fantastical and made up. In your installations, for instance, you’ve been creating trees and root structures. Can you say a little bit about how you think about landscape?

WM: Landscape is important, but I’m creating a fictional landscape, so it’s kind of a romanticization of certain aspects of nature. I don’t try to strictly replicate things that I love but tease out ideas that are mythologically and historically important to me. Trees play a big role in my work, as a Kenyan, as a Kikuyu, as a person who loves plants. I love and need to look at nature. My mother is a gardener, and I was raised in a beautiful natural environment. I am very drawn to things that grow and change. I have a garden. I think about plants and animals that communicate very slowly but distinctly, and how they exist.

I think about those things in connection to my content — plants and animals are in our world, existing with us, and they have just as many rights to be here as we do. I think about that when I work them into bodies — human bodies, mechanical bodies. I’m also alluding to the fact that there is this connection — this deep connection — that we all share because we all come from the same place.

And trees are the matriarchs, the big mamas, of the forest, and they intrigue me. So I use a lot of them. Their form, the sculpture of trees is also very interesting to me — the roots and branches, the structure of a tree, how it holds itself up.

[…] [O]ne of the main things about a tree is that it plays such a central role in the creation stories that I learned, both Christian and Kikuyu narratives of creation. There is the tree, an original holy tree. And in Kikuyu, it’s actually the Mugumo tree, which is this big fig tree, and it’s the tree from which we were all birthed. You’re not supposed to cut it down or desecrate it. And the tree is female in my mind — I’m not sure why but I turn everything I like into a female — so it’s got this matriarchal quality to it. So that’s why the Mugumo tree keeps appearing.

And I always think that there’s something about trees that feels like they’re the original gallery space, the original place of worship and awe — where we brought our meager and modest human creations so that we could think about divine and unknowable things. I’m a city girl, so I didn’t grow up in the rural area where my parents grew up but still the reverence for trees is there. The Kikuyu lived in a very wooded, green, hilly area, but the trees were cut down due to development by the colonialists, who insisted on replanting fast-growing European trees that weren’t native to our land. So these trees not suited to the environment grew to full height in ten years as opposed to the thirty years it took for the original trees to reach their great height. It’s such a metaphor for what was happening at the time. And, of course in our area, the people who are replanting these trees were the Kikuyu — my people. They were forced to eradicate the indigenous flora and replace it with eucalyptus forests, forests of trees that don’t belong to our region, that don’t hold the soil, that don’t fit in the ecosystem.

* Interview conducted in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, September 2012Excerpted from an interview that first appeared in Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey (Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, $39.95, 2013). Trevor Schoonmaker conducted the interview, edited the catalogue and organized the traveling exhibition. He is Chief Curator and Patsy R. and Raymond D. Nasher Curator of Contemporary Art at the Nasher Museum. Used by permission.

Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey, Mutu’s first survey exhibition in the United States, runs until March 9, 2014 at the Brooklyn Museum.

Further Reading