abstract painting of woman
Forbidden Fruit Picker — 2015

Wangechi Mutu: Between Palimpsest and Prayer

Contemporary artist Wangechi Mutu on transcending boundaries, reconnecting with the natural world, and reimagining a more humane co-existence.

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Contemporary visual artist Wangechi Mutu’s work dances somewhere between palimpsest and prayer—tracing the history of racism, gender conceptions, and colonialism, while gesturing towards what the future may come to look like. 

Born in Nairobi, Kenya in 1972, Mutu studied art in the U.S., where she received a BFA from Cooper Union and an MFA from Yale University. Some of the world’s most prominent art institutions, including New York’s Guggenheim, the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art have showcased her work, to consistent public and critical enthusiasm. 

Collage, which Mutu is most known for, is perhaps both a medium and a mode of operation for the artist. A commitment to layering and disorder seeps through her oeuvre. Her compositions and sculptural works create fantastical worlds that place female and Black bodies in theatrical conversations with both natural phenomena and unearthly creatures. 

“I think my work is first and foremost my fantasy couch, where I get to lay down the human condition and do therapy for it,” Mutu tells DoubleBlind from her Nairobi studio—a five-year old counterpart to her Brooklyn studio.

In this interview, Mutu discusses her obsession with the female body, her fascination with the present, and her belief in cultivating a relationship with the natural world in the face of present-day challenges.

woman in forest
My Cave Call — 2021

DB: In 2016, you set up a studio in Kenya, and you began splitting your time between Brooklyn and Nairobi. Can you tell me what a typical day for you is like right now?

WM: I get up in the morning because I have two girls. And I say get up in the morning because I used to work all night and then get up in the afternoon, but I haven’t done that in years. I’m a sloth in the morning, so it’s difficult to get right into the studio. Sometimes I take the girls to school first, using that as a way to get myself up. I also have an unwell mom, so I’m usually dealing with her quite a bit in the morning. My best days are when I can get up, have my coffee, and just walk down to the studio and continue where I left off the night before. Even better is the night where I’ve worked late, so the time between when I leave the work and when I come back to it is so nice and short. The dream state is one of my most clear and imaginative states of thought, so I can use it to process ideas and in some cases, come up with solutions. The real fight for me at this point, and I embrace it, because I’ve made these choices consciously, is all of the distractions that come with having a family and having dogs, pets, and all of that. But really, I’m a night owl, so if I’m really good, I just come back to the studio at night and get another five, eight, or even 10 hours in if I can bear it.

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Can you tell me more about the ways the dream state has been generative for you?

When I’m either coming out of sleep, or when I’m going in and out of sleep, in this strange liminal space, all these rational questions pop up about how I’m going to finish a piece I’d started. Then I realize that the work can be resolved in this more poetic, less rigid way. And I think it’s because I’m half-awake, so I’m not as stressed about things that bind us to the real world. But I also do remember dreams quite a bit, and that moment when I can capture them is really essential, because it always somehow informs me. I read dreams pretty well, so they can help me sense what my work is really about—if I don’t know—because sometimes I work quite intuitively, especially at the beginning, and they sometimes help me to resolve formal issues. So if something looks a particular way but isn’t standing, or if a painting is moving along but it’s too fussy, something about being in that moment of awake-asleep, alive and dead all at the same time, just brings somewhat of a calm and a confidence that comes from not worrying about being vertical and having to come up with a solution immediately. Dreams can sometimes also help me come up with emotional solutions. I suddenly become very aware of how to resolve an emotional or a personal relationship crisis. I go ‘ah!’ That’s what’s happening. That’s what we’re really doing to one another, or that’s what that conversation was really about. I think that’s actually what dreams are for. They’re supposed to flush your conscious mind out, and detox your soul.

Shy Side-Eye — 2015

You know, I actually had a dream last week about this dog I was supposed to take care of, and then I lost him, so I couldn’t feed him, and I worried that now he was starving. When I saw him again, his body was completely misshapen and strange. His head was where his tail should’ve been. I was just looking through your work, and I saw a painting that looked so much like my dream. I constantly have these dreams of animals or babies that I should, but forget to feed.

That’s probably more about you than it is about a literal child or a dog. So my opinion would be that you’re concerned and worried about whether you’re able to take care of yourself. Do you worry about that? 

I do…

I think the pandemic has brought up a lot of anxiety about self-care and mental and physical health. Many people have had real fears about how to keep alive, because we are in a time when it’s much easier for us or people we love to lose their lives. Some of that is coming up in dreams.

Definitely. Many of us have been having very vivid and unsettling dreams. I wanted to ask if you’ve been inspired to make work about the coronavirus, especially since you’ve previously engaged with subjects of illness and disease.

Funnily enough, I haven’t been directly inspired by the coronavirus. But in 2016, I did a lot of research on these viruses that are circular, with amazing textures. I was interested in them as little minute objects floating around, and in how they exist completely connected to our live bodies. They’re not alive as such, but they need life in order to continue propagating. And I also love the way they increase their surface area—some of them have bumps, some of them have spikes, others have these funny extensions, almost like pasta pieces, stuck to them. And so I made this series of viruses that looked like big mud balls, out of red soil, paper pulp, and clays that I make here [in Nairobi]. That series was about particular viruses that have a relationship to colonization; for example, viruses that were brought by Europeans to particular lands that they colonized, either the U.S., or countries in Africa where these viruses hadn’t existed. So they were essentially way more dangerous there; they would wipe out entire populations who had never been exposed. And in some cases there was an intentionality behind it; obviously that was a really quick way to eliminate Native Americans, with those infected blankets. So some viruses were directly attached to oppression, control, and ethnic cleansing. 

Chicken Pox — 2016

More recently, I haven’t thought about it that directly. I’m thinking about what the virus really comes from, such as the imbalance in the environment and the lack of compassion and empathy that we have for one another and for our earth. That’s what I’ve been trying to put my finger on. If we know that this imbalance is happening because we’ve set such a bad reputation as a species, and created such a terrible relationship with our fellow organisms, animals, and flora and fauna, how do we go back to balancing that out? 

And I don’t know if I have any solutions as such, but I just finished researching and making this film that is like a very humble prayer to the earth. I was thinking about this idea that the earth has these natural cathedrals and temples within itself. So I asked a friend of mine to find me a place like this. I said I wanted something that looks like the beginning of the earth or the end, where you would feel inspired to go pray or meditate, cry, or ask for compassion. And I ended up filming in these beautiful Suswa caves in the Rift Valley. I felt at that point that I wanted to speak to my connection to the earth, and say ‘can you guide us, because we’re so lost?’ 

This was two years before COVID. When the pandemic arrived in Kenya in March last year, we got into very strict lockdown, and within a month the sky had cleared up, and the birds were joyful, it was an insane reaction to people not driving their cars, and not polluting, and there was not as much noise and traffic at night. And this happened everywhere. So I was vibing with the idea that if we all came to an agreement, and took just a little bit of time to take care of ourselves within this world, we could actually change it. It’s a really resilient planet, and we are a very resilient species. 

The pathology of the virus is one thing, and then what it’s really about is a whole different thing. I think one of the things that have impacted me most when I was in undergrad was studying [Frantz] Fanon, who spoke about colonization as a mental disease, a mental illness. It really makes sense that there’s something about disease and trauma and violence, and this fear of the other, that’s all connected. So if this pandemic was more unpacked as a message, I think we would see how all these social and cultural and political problems we’re dealing with are so related to the virus and what it’s doing to us. So for me, disease and pathology are a metaphor in my work, and a way to cleave open a conversation.

I loved the idea of the earth’s natural cathedrals as places of worship and prayer. Do you feel that a search for solutions (or for transformation you hope to see in the world) underlies your work? 

I think we all want something to happen when we make art, and it always starts from the self. You want something to happen within yourself; feel a particular way, live through the day a particular way. If you really are in touch with what you do and what you make, it becomes part of your survival. You know, when I come back to my studio after taking my mom to the hospital, it allows me to grieve, to hold myself, to pick myself up. So there’s that element. 

Untitled (from Tumors) — 2006

But I’m also very sensitive to how the world seems to be moving along. I’m trying, as I become older and wiser, not to get too sentimental and emotionally reactive, because I think it’s a trap, when we get up and start to sing a song for other people, because they’re having a famine, for example. I think some of these things are traps. There’s a much longer arc, and I suppose if you really look at it from an evolutionary perspective, some of the things we’re experiencing right now are really minor. But the truth is people are getting hurt, and are in terrible situations, for no reason that they deserve at all. I think it’s important to worry about that. So I think somehow, atoms of concern about that world, and those little thoughts of love and connection, also enter the work. But I’m not so naïve—if I ever was then I apologize to myself—to think that if I make a particular kind of work, it will transform the way people see things or how they behave. Still, I do know that we are connected. So if I’m saying something negative and hurtful, it will hurt somebody. And if I’m saying something that is trying to enlighten or add consciousness, or connect the dots and make us figure out why we’re here, why humans are still very afraid of their existence on this earth, then it will have a different reaction. 

I also think that if our thoughts are united in some kind of common good, it will help all of us proceed towards, not necessarily a solution, but a more humane co-existence. I think it’s becoming apparent that all these more primitive—I’m going to call them primitive because I have no other word for them—boundaries, and these delineations, and these racisms that we have developed because we were trying to figure ourselves out as we move from one land mass to another, are not necessary for our existence into the future. So I think my work is first and foremost my fantasy couch, where I get to lay down the human condition and do therapy for it. And you can’t do therapy once, you have to keep going back. So it’s never a one-time solution, and it’s definitely not going to be in one language, or described in one way. 

Lockness — 2006

I do love the fact that art has a generative capacity. It generates and it creates, as opposed to destroying and reducing the potential to connect. I like that it allows us to reach out, and allows us to be aware and self-aware. It pulls us to places together, makes us go to museums and forces us to discuss things. Art insists that it be unpacked; so you can’t just make art and sit back. People want to discuss and talk and argue about things, and hang out and drink and eat together. When you make art, it’s a lubricant for human kindness and thought.

Your work has been described as trying to offer an alternative course of history, and you’re often described as Afrofuturist. Would you say you’re working within the realm of Afrofuturism?

Labels are so difficult. They’re so small and specific. They stick on your clothing and they make you itch. And I feel that way about them even when they’re not on your clothes. I know why I’ve been called an Afrofuturist, but I haven’t called myself that per se. I’m an Afro-present. I’m here, and I’m very alive and very contemporary. And I’m very amazed by this moment. 

I think I look at the past because I’m in awe of it, of how things came to be—I’m stunned by the fact that people actually survived. My grandparents made it through and got my uncles and aunts an education. I mean, you think about what they were experiencing and you think, I don’t know, I would maybe have given up. But I’m not super romantic about the past, I think it’s horrible, some of the things that have happened in my homeland, in relationship to colonization, slavery, to our people, African people being stolen or moved, and the fate of those who have remained on the continent. I think it’s these things that I want to find more about, particularly because we didn’t learn about them very well, even in schools in our home countries. But I’m particularly concerned about what’s happening now. 

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I think one thing that I do, primarily because I’m messy—not just physically but in my mind a little bit—is that I cobble things together. I don’t have any fear or worry about combining things. So I do that with history as well; history for me being the idea of the past, and the potential idea of what the future can be. We’re always thinking up these notions of what the future is going to be like. I like messing with this idea, and drawing on these archaic tropes and iconography that we associate with the past or with specific traditions.

You know, someone wrote something about my work, and I can’t remember verbatim, but it was something like: I’ve been doing all these fantastically hip, colorful edgy collages all these years, and here I am using this mud. How did I go back there? But I thought ‘well, that’s what we associate with the past. Nature and love and respect for the land and the soil.’ It’s considered to be very primitive, very simple, but I think it’s very radical to know how the earth functions, and how soil and plants and creatures are essentially like us, trying desperately to live and survive, while feeding us and feeding each other. So anyway, I’m an Afro-presentist. Is there such a thing?

Mirror — 2016

There should be! 

By the way, I found that painting that reminded me of my dream. It’s called “Pretty Double-Headed.” Let me screen-share it.

Oh boy. This takes me back to a very particular time, when I’m up to my eye-balls in my immigration crisis. I’m trying to get my papers sorted, and you know I had fallen out of status years ago during school, and it just kind of followed me and followed me. When I painted this, 2010, my daughter was one, and I was so sick of not being able to travel, to come back to Kenya, to leave, to go see my shows abroad. That conundrum of being continuously an immigrant was so exhausting, and it was so heavy. And I always felt a little schizophrenic because it was a very difficult situation to explain, because a lot of naturalized Americans just had no clue. Something about my success made it feel like ‘But oh, come on, just sort it out.’ And I was like, ah, you don’t understand how complicated these immigration issues are. So, there’s a lot of work from that period with two heads or multiple identities, fighting each other and sort of having these gnarly grotesque ways that they sat with one another.

What I’m hearing is that in 2010, when you were grappling with being in a liminal space that you couldn’t really control, you chose to respond through art. So, I’d like to ask you about your presence in your own work.

I think in the end, everything comes out from inside of you. Whether or not people can detect the connection is the question. In my case, because of my continued focus on the figure, there’s always the mistaken idea that the figure is me, or only about me. In the end, the work definitely comes from me—it has to do with what I want to talk about, what I’m going through, what I reject, what I’m in love with. But I don’t think I’m ever that vain that I just want to discuss my situation. I think my experiences represent a very shared condition. I do know for a fact that it is important that I’m doing what I do at this point in time. It emphasizes that I’m here, that I’m visible, and I exist. Art is a way of highlighting the human voice. 

Pretty Double-Head — 2010

There were specific words, used to describe foreigners, that I was fixated with for awhile, such as “alien” or “illegal,” or other terms that you run into when you’re trying to do your paperwork in America, especially if you’re trying to stay there and become a citizen. These words get exhausting because they haven’t been unpacked, you know. The system has just been using them for so long without any regard for how painful, heavy or inaccurate they are. And I think some work has been done in the last five, 10 years to address them. It’s much more taboo now to say someone is “illegal”±people use “undocumented,” Humans are not “illegal,” they can’t be illegal. 

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One thing I find interesting is how I don’t feel alien to my materials in Kenya. I don’t feel that my materials don’t know who I am. I look around when I’m trying to make an object, and I find things that I feel connected to or infatuated with. I studied sculpture in graduate school [at Yale] then I immediately painted. When I came back to New York after graduate school, I couldn’t get my hands on matter and material—things you can touch and hold and mold and break and reassemble. I would collect things—fabrics and wigs and clothing, and I’d go to second-hand stores, but it wasn’t the same. I almost get butterflies in my stomach when I’m walking around my compound in Nairobi or when I visit other places in Kenya; I see items and I go like, ‘oh my, you’re coming back with me, you’re part of my tribe of materials.’ And eventually they do end up in the work, and I find that so satisfying. I also love the fact that all these incredible materials and objects get to go and have their time in a museum or in a gallery, and be part of a bigger conversation. I love sneaking bits and pieces of this natural lexicon into my work. I’m drawn to nature. I’m a city girl completely fascinated by nature. I didn’t farm as a kid, I didn’t have to do any gardening, and probably that’s why I exoticize nature the way I do. I have a very luxurious relationship with it, but I really do love and respect and yearn for nature. And I yearned for it for many years when I wasn’t able to travel to this part of the world. There’s a particular way that things impact me here. Of course, there are also things that impacted me in New York, but it wasn’t the soil. I wasn’t trying to pick up that nasty soil, not in the city.

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What are some materials you’ve picked up recently? 

I collect broken shells. We all love shells, but I realized that in the work, similarly to how I would cut up images (sometimes it’s literally the color or the little gem in the image that I was going for) if you pick up broken objects, you get to play around with what their meaning is, because they’re no longer attached to their old, perfect, beautiful selves. So I can kind of mess around with them like how I did with collage. I work very similarly in sculpture as I used to in collage. These three-dimensional collages that I’m making now have a wonderful relationship, I find, to my old collages. I’ve recently also collected cow horns, big horns from these Ugandan and Rwandese cows—they’re really majestic and long. Actually, they’re in the film I mentioned. 

What else have I picked up? I just asked a friend of mine from Lamu to send me some old beautiful lesos, which are these fabrics with little sayings on them, like a proverb, which you give as gifts, or as a message of love. They come in twos, so they’re great wedding gifts, or for birthdays. I don’t know what I’m going to use them for, but I love them because they’re very soft and extremely colorful. And lesos are only for women; men wear different fabrics. But they’re also very contemporary, they’re not super traditional from hundreds of years ago——they came about when the textile industry became so globalized. I think they were originally being made elsewhere, and some of them are probably still made in India, but these are specifically Swahili in a way.

Besides the tenuous lines between the past, present, and future, women and the female body have always been at the center of your work. Can you tell us what keeps drawing you to the subject?

Working with the female body as a representative of everything that I find valuable and important and interesting has been my consistent obsession. You know, if someone sat me down and did a very serious analysis of me, and said “Well, why do you still do this, how is this all that you focus on? I mean, there are a few creatures in the work and all, but why is the female body such a dominant theme?” I would say it’s how I understand my existence in the world. I have come into this world in a female body, an identifiably female body, and I’ve transformed and changed the way a female human does, with all of the baggage, the fun and the qualms that comes with that, and that for me is a big part of being female—all these different things that one goes through that are often very different from what the male body experiences. 

Outstretched — 2019

Then there’s the element of being raised in a place where the taboos and the traditions of being a woman at one time in history are layered on another, and another, so you’re living in your modern body in your modern life, but you’ve got your grandmother and your mom and your auntie approaching the idea of being a girl and being a woman in this very traditional way, and it doesn’t line up with what I’m watching on TV, and the things I’m reading and what we’re talking about in school. And so all of these questions stayed in me, they stuck in me very deeply and very loud, because I never got answers for certain things. In many cases, the questions were difficult for the people I was asking them to, because they hadn’t had the opportunity to unpack how it is that girls and boys have such different experiences; is it because they’re innately different, or is it because we’ve ascribed these standards and these demarcations? 

So I think my work is very much about trying to mess with the binary, mess with the absoluteness, and also to bring some levity, to try to poke at the things that we’re very stiff and conservative about, because I think that’s also ironically not necessarily our baggage. We didn’t necessarily, as Kenyans, as Africans, have shame about our bodies, that shame was introduced for very specific reasons, in a really cunning and dangerous way, and it stuck. Even in this moment of liberation, where you see young girls dressing—and I love it—way more free and open than I did as a kid, there’s still a stigma about our skin color in relationship to our gender, and the shape of our bodies in relationship to our femaleness and our Africanness. These girls are not just growing up today, 30 years after when I was a kid, with no issues. Every image out there is a weapon that somehow seeps into their subconscious, and they have to fight against it even when they’re being exuberant and youthful. I have also been interested in clothing, the sartorial, and fashion because I felt that’s what we use to mitigate and fight our way through, and to try to self-identify, express our existence, and be dignified in a world that dehumanizes or disappears us.

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