An artist with roots in Nairobi and New York imagines a new destiny

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An artist with roots in Nairobi and New York imagines a new destiny
Pieces of wood ready to be treated at Wangechi Mutu’s studio in Nairobi, Kenya, Jan. 30, 2023. With sculptures that blend evolutionary history and science fiction, Mutu draws on her bicontinental life for an ambitious New Museum survey. (Khadija Farah/The New York Times)

by Aruna D’Souza

NEW YORK, NY.- “It’s the difference between a plant with one root and one with a network of roots,” artist Wangechi Mutu said. She was speaking in the clear light of her expansive, white-walled and wood-beamed studio, on the outskirts of Nairobi, about her decision in 2015 to begin dividing her time between New York — where she had been living and working since the mid-1990s — and Kenya, the country of her birth.

“If a plant has just one root,” she added, “that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to stand straight and strong. The idea of having many roots, of having your feet really grounded in different places, is extremely empowering for me.”

This idea finds its form in “In Two Canoe” (2022), a cast bronze sculpture installed on the grounds of Storm King Art Center. Two strange figures — part human, part botanical — undertake a journey in a shallow boat. Their branchlike limbs dangle over its edges, anchoring them to the earth. When she imagined these futuristic entities, Mutu was thinking of mangrove trees — plants that have traveled the globe, carried by people who have migrated willingly or by force for millennia, adapting themselves to every new habitat.

“In Two Canoe” will be among more than 100 works gathered for “Intertwined,” an ambitious survey of the artist’s career opening at the New Museum on March 2. It comes at an important moment in Mutu’s career, on the heels of a commission for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in 2020, where she filled niches on the building’s Fifth Avenue facade with sculptures, followed by the Storm King show, and a new installation that opened Tuesday at the Sharjah Biennial in the United Arab Emirates.

The New Museum exhibition will be the first time the whole building is turned over to a single artist. It will trace the continuity of Mutu’s thinking over the past 25 years as well as the profound impact her part-time move back to Kenya has had on her practice, especially her shift from the complex and lush collaged-based works on paper that brought her fame in the 2000s to a more recent focus on large-scale sculpture, installation, film and performance.

“The return to Nairobi was very important to her — the impact of the earth, the soil, have really helped center and ground her,” said Vivian Crockett, who curated the New Museum survey with Margot Norton. “At the same time, there’s a way in which, as a diasporic migrant person in the world, you’re never in a singular place.”

During our conversations on Zoom and WhatsApp since November, Mutu, 50, underscored the importance of mobility to her creative process, remembering a long period of her life when she was unable to travel. She left Nairobi in 1991 at age 16 for high school in Wales, then went on to college and graduate school in the United States. As soon as she received her Master of Fine Arts from Yale in 2000, her collages began popping up in important shows. Over the next dozen years, she became a fixture in international exhibitions and biennials.

But she never got to see those shows. People who apply for green cards, as Mutu did as soon as she finished her studies, are unable to leave the country without putting their applications at risk. The process was especially protracted for her — immigration snafus and the fallout from 9/11 meant she was stuck in the United States for 12 years.

“Sometimes it felt biblical, like I was just wandering in this desert, making things but never seeing what happened to them out there in the world,” she recalled.

She had made sculptures as an undergraduate at the Cooper Union, incorporating objects she picked up from East Village streets. She moved into film, installation and performance in grad school. But after receiving her MFA, she faced the reality of trying to be an artist while holding down a job and living in a small Brooklyn apartment. “I wanted to say the things I had to say, but I had to say them without the editing room and the tools in the wood shop and my thousand-square-foot studio at Yale,” she said.

The living space of her apartment became her studio; she slept in the hallway — “like Cinderella,” she said, laughing. And she turned away from three-dimensional work and toward collage, cutting up fashion and porn magazines and other printed sources, embellishing her works on paper with paint and ink, sequins and pearls. “Everything that I used initially for my collage work was quite inexpensive,” she said. “It was a lot of paper, a lot of Mylar, and those were practical decisions.”

Making these pieces was also a way of processing what life was like for an immigrant in post-9/11 America. “Mangling and distorting and cutting up bodies expressed the trauma and anxiety that I was carrying and that I knew others were carrying,” she said in a 2019 interview.

For “Black President,” a show devoted to the life and legacy of Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, organized by Trevor Schoonmaker at the New Museum in 2003, Mutu created “Yo Mama.” On one side of a diptych, a strange being poses like a warrior in a Vogue editorial, with mottled leopard-like skin, or perhaps a catsuit; the heel of her stiletto impales the head of a snake. The serpent’s decapitated body morphs into a jellyfish that sprouts palm trees and floats in a dreamy pink space.

As with much of Mutu’s work from this period, “Yo Mama” dismantles the racist stereotype of Black women as closer in nature to animals — a notion that surfaced from the fetid stew of the European slave trade and the colonization of Africa and was used to justify both. She transforms it into an image of beauty and power. (The move was in line with what many Black female rappers were doing at the time with their self-presentation; Mutu was particularly fascinated by a poster of Lil’ Kim she saw plastered on walls around the city.) Her collage painting offers up a body that transcends our ideas of what it means to be human — fusing human and nonhuman forms; reaching back into African, most often Kenyan, mythology and folk tales; and leaping forward into a science fiction future.

But there is a specific history and politics here, too: The “mama” referenced is Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Fela’s mother and a radical in her own right — “anti-colonial, anti-patriarchal, just amazing,” as Mutu described her. The two-part structure of the work was a nod to the way that the Kutis’ activism — mother’s and son’s — was part of a fruitful back-and-forth between those fighting to throw off their European colonizers and the sometimes repressive regimes that emerged in the post-colonial period, and Black freedom fighters in the United States, including the Black Panthers.

Other works from this period are harder to look at. “Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tumors,” from 2006, is one: a series of 12 collages in which pictures from a medical textbook are overlaid with facial features and other body parts clipped from magazines.

“There’s a push and pull between the violence embedded in the imagery and the future she wants to see, and how her beings seem to transcend it,” said Norton, of the New Museum. “She’s taken these images that have all of this misogyny and racism associated with them, and at the same time provides a kind of care in her handling of them.”

Mutu finally received permanent resident status in 2012, and citizenship a few years later. The ability to cross borders made clear to her how artistically limiting her exclusively New York life had been. Back in Kenya, she was struck by how much she wanted to make work with what she saw around her, like the characteristic red soil and cactus and minerals that were outside her door. “I had a sort of tactile, visceral reaction to what I was seeing,” she said. “‘Oh, that’s what this smells like, that’s what this feels like, that’s what you could do with this, that’s how this thing stains.’”

As her ambitions turned toward three-dimensional work, her pieces incorporated a wider variety of materials. The new sculptures surprised her friend Courtney J. Martin, director of the Yale Center for British Art, who had given up her rent money back in the early 2000s to buy one of Mutu’s collages.

“I think in some ways it’s all there in that early work, but I have to say, I didn’t see it coming,” Martin said. “I just felt bowled over by them.”

Nigerian American writer, photographer and art historian Teju Cole met Mutu more than a decade ago at a party that had migrated from the Afropunk festival to Mutu’s house in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn; the crowd, like the festival itself, he recalled, was “African American, African, futuristic, cosmopolitan, politically alert.” While underlining the creative leap that Mutu’s move to sculpture represents, he also noted the continuities between the New York and Kenyan phases of her career, after she began traveling with her husband, Mario Lazzaroni, a manager for Estée Lauder in Africa, and their two young daughters.

“I think the move really expanded her language — a kind of disciplined maximalism — into the earth, and into the natural materials, into clay, into wood,” Cole said. “And it contains all the stuff that had been incipient in her work: disregard of boundaries between human and animal, mythical and documentary, organic and cyborg.”

Mutu’s sculptures — whether constructed from an agglomeration of paper pulp, red soil, fallen tree branches and other items she finds outside her Nairobi studio, like her imposing “Sentinel” series, or fashioned in bronze — are steeped in her interest in anthropology and paleontology, the history of African art and cultures and the post-colonial struggles of African diasporic people worldwide.

The four figures that she made for the Met’s facade, titled “The NewOnes, will free us” (2019), fuse the image of the caryatid — a sculpted female figure from classical Western architecture that supports the entablature of a building — with African examples, and specifically drew from the female form supporting the seat of a Congolese “prestige stool” in the Met’s African art collection.

“Crocodylus” (2020) reclaims a disturbing picture by French fashion photographer Jean-Paul Goude of supermodel Naomi Campbell riding a crocodile — only Mutu refuses the primitive and exoticizing elements of the original, creating an otherworldly being that needs to be confronted on its own, utterly original terms.

“My point really is to try to use visual and art historical language and images and objects to flesh out a more African-centric history that predated colonization,” Mutu explained. “And when you start to look at it from that perspective, you see the amount of trade and interconnection, the number of commonalities there are between Kenyan cultures and the rest of the world.”

Her Kenyan origins, she is quick to remind us, are all of our roots: Scientists say the earliest stages of human evolution began in the Horn of Africa about 7 million years ago. (Mutu’s lifelong mentor and friend Richard Leakey, the renowned paleontologist, was key in establishing this timeline.)

“She’s looking at very specific histories and cultural histories,” Crockett said, “but also seeing the interconnectedness of various mythologies.

“There are mermaid-like beings in all these different cultures, and why is that? Why are we attracted to these particular tropes?”

Equally significant to Mutu’s supporters is the way that her investigation of history prepares us for the future, even in the face of environmental disasters, hardening borders, war and chauvinisms of all sorts. “There is something about her work that is at once critical and incisive and also optimistic and almost utopian,” said Kelly Baum, the curator at the Metropolitan Museum who oversaw her facade commission. “I think it was her capacity to respond intelligently to events in the world and to model some different way of existing. She really projects hope.”

Mutu talks about art and creativity as a tool that “can leap over fences,” adding, “I do think there’s something to be said for creating freedom through art, creating free spaces and manifesting a new destiny through imagining it.”

That futuristic imagining has been rooted in the experience of women — the connections between how African women work, dance and adorn themselves (a particular theme in her film and performance work) and the stories they tell. But over the past year or so, it was the stories told by her own mother, Wambura Tabitha Mutu, that seemed particularly urgent. As Wambura’s health failed, her daughter asked her to repeat some of the seemingly innocuous tales told in daily conversation that the artist now recognized as important memories of a crucial, and violent, moment in Kenya’s struggle for independence from its British colonizers.

One was particularly striking: Mutu’s mother was a young girl when her family was moved into concentration camps designed by the British to suppress the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s. One day, while walking to school, she saw beautiful, well-dressed Gikuyu women laid out along the road. They had been executed by the British for passing messages, arms and supplies to the rebels hiding in the forests — crucial but unheralded freedom fighters — and their bodies were displayed as a warning to other Kenyans who might support their cause. Recalling the moment in her late 70s, Mutu’s mother said that what stayed with her most was the beauty of the women’s clothing, the shine of their skin, their elaborately coifed hair.

Mutu’s mother died in November, and her story became the basis for a series of sculptures titled “Buried Brides,” which will be part of the artist’s project at Sharjah. They surround the centerpiece of her installation, called “Mother Mound,” which fills a courtyard — a hill whose shape echoes Makonde and Congolese belly masks and suggests a woman’s pregnant body.

“You listen to that story and it is this sweet, sad story,” Mutu said. “And then it lines up with very objective reportage, history books, everything.”

“It’s a gift, because I’m able to mine all of that and create things that honor the stories that prove that these women existed, and at the same time it reminds me of my mom,” she added. “A memory of her now lives on in the work.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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