Wangechi Mutu in London

Earlier this week I went to see an exhibition of new works by the artist Wangechi Mutu at the Victoria Miro gallery in London. The exhibition is entitled ‘Nguva na Nyoka’ which has been translated from the Kiswahili as ‘Sirens and Serpents.’ Nguva, a kind of dugong that lives off the east coast of Kenya, are conflated with water women in coastal mythologies. Along with manatees dugongs are part of the order Sirenia reflecting the frequency with which these animals are seen as water people or mermaids across the globe. When my colleague Zoe and I went to see Wangechi Mutu speak at Tate Modern on the 9th of October she said that what the Nguva lacked that mermaids from other cultures had was a defining, iconic image and that perhaps she had set out to create one. What she has actually done is much more interesting than to provide a single definitive answer to that question.
The display includes ‘Sleeping Serpent’ a large fabric sculpture and a video piece called ‘Nguva’ but the majority of the works are a densely textured mixture of collage and painting and I found these the most interesting. They depict fantastical creatures; mostly in watery surroundings (the collage entitled Mountain of Prayer being an exception). They feature cut out paper images, printed fabric, lace, Kenyan soil and bits of jewellery. They also include a dizzying array of imagery and pattern. Amongst the cut out pictures are images associated with Kenya such as beaded woman; African stereotypes more broadly such as masks, wild animals, snake skin and leopard print and magazine photos of people from other parts of the world who have also been subjects of the ethnographic gaze. At Tate Modern Mutu talked about the difficulty of creating an image of Africa for an audience who knew nothing of Africa and how this had led to her playing with stereotypical images of women, Kenya and Africa in her work. She noted how Africa and African people are often associated with animals, partially explaining their presence in her collages. Out of many disparate elements she has created something strange and powerful.
During the event at Tate Modern Mutu touched on a number of ideas about identity and culture that seemed pertinent to the work of the Katiba Cultural Rights project. She took ‘cutting’ as the theme of her talk looking right back to the Berlin Conference of 1884 when Africa was divided among European powers in a more or less arbitrary fashion. Countries and peoples had come to be defined by something outside of them and united around the idea of a common enemy, namely the British. One of the legacies of this history is a ‘pathology of colonialism’ where a belief in the centrality of ‘tribalism’ and ‘hierarchies’ imposed from the outside were seen as central to today’s culture which was framed around ethnicity. She talked also of how these colonial hierarchies continued to be played out today across peoples bodies, particularly those of women.
Wangechi Mutu also said that she felt she had to leave Kenya to pursue her artistic ambitions as the space for contemporary art in Kenya remained narrow, particularly for women. She said she didn’t know what a Kenyan audience would make of her work but that perhaps the next stage in her career would involve finding out. I look forward to seeing how she does this but in the meantime the London show is open until the 19th of December and I would strongly recommend you go and see it.

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