Artist Wangechi Mutu and ArtPrize's Kevin Buist discuss feminism in art, Mutu's significant social and environmental advocacy work and the importance of snakes. Mutu is included in the 2015 Venice Biennale in the main exhibition, All The World's Futures.


Kevin Buist (KB): I’ve seen your other work previously, but your work in the Venice Biennale is the most recent work I’ve seen by you, so that’s where I wanted to start. The main exhibition of the Biennale, "All The World’s Futures," had this interesting approach where your work—but also a lot of other work—is ostensibly about the future but also seemed to be looking back to the past. Can you tell me how you arrived there? How did the process of doing these three works begin?

Wangechi Mutu (WM): For me, it’s quite closely connected to my previous work. The trinity of pieces have a deep relationship to my long and ongoing investigation of the complexity of humanity and our place here and my own position as an artist and as a woman. So I simply continued on that path with all 3 works.

The most wonderful thing about having a constant pursuit of a particular question is that if a curator comes into your studio at a given point, you simply act on the very things that you’re making at that moment. I had been planning a film and this film idea that was coming out of my previous animation [The End of Eating Everything], and I knew I was going to make another one, another film with captured motion and a completely man-made expansive landscape. I pretty much took what my best ideas were at the time and just put them on the front burner and put the heat up.

The End of eating Everything, Video.

KB: You’re from Kenya originally. I was looking at the works in "All The World’s Futures" and thinking about origins. There are references to an Eve-type character and a serpent in the collage, and I couldn’t help but think about how there has been a shift in our understanding of where the origins of humanity occurred. There’s the biblical tale that originates in the Middle East but then there’s the fossil record that locates the origins of humanity right around Kenya. Has archeology and the study of human evolution influenced your work?

WM: I think all these experiences influence my work because they’re very… they play such a big role. I have vivid memories of visiting fossil sites that are millions of years old. The layers are so old that you can get right back to the dawn of our time and you question, how did we get here? How did we begin talking to one another? How did we begin making art? And certainly it helps that I know paleontologists who are actively piecing together our ancient DNA through the remains of pre-human ancestors, pre-homo sapiens.

I’m also thinking about the traditional story of creation from my people. So there is the Middle Eastern story that has a tree of life and a serpent, which is actually pre-Christian in origin. In fact there are many ancient pre-Christian cultures, if you want to call them "pagan," that have a snake and a woman as a central theme and a tree of life as a meeting place—as the crossroad. Our myth of creation in Kikuyu culture has that very tree of life. We have a bond and connect with a particular tree, that’s a sacred tree. It’s a fig tree and there are 9 daughters born to the original woman and man under this tree. Anyway that tree and the tree in the Christian Genesis is big in my work and also the snake as a symbol of transformation. I’m fascinated with snakes because I find them beautiful and sinister and mysterious and very interesting to represent. They have great meaning, thank goodness, so I can also attach that meaning.

Wangechi Mutu, Forbidden Fruit Picker (2015)

KB: One thing I was struck by when I spent time in Kenya was that the attitude towards snakes had a very moral dimension to it. At least one individual I met—and of course I shouldn’t generalize—but he felt the need to immediately destroy and kill any snake that he saw. There’s something very pragmatic about that because it could be poisonous. But any sense of conservation that I would bring to the situation was just out the window, which left a big impression on me.

WM: I think most people who are brought up around snakes, and even those who are not, are scared of snakes. They’re quite well evolved to make us afraid of them. They look like something we have very little control over and very little relation to. There are not many cultures, even the ones who are close to snakes or cultures that live close to snakes, that really truly understand how to deal with them. Snakes, I think, are universally feared and respected at the same time. It’s very difficult when they’re in motion to tell the difference between a venomous snake and a benign one. People just, if you see a snake, you kill it—it doesn’t matter what size it is because there are some small snakes that are perfectly capable of harming a human. I don’t have any judgment against people who don’t know what to do with snakes because it’s not easy to understand snakes.

KB: In "The End of Carrying All," the video that’s presented in the Venice Biennale, you star in the video—you’re in the central role. Is that a new position for you? Obviously the subject of a female character in your work has been carried through for a long time, but is that the first time that you’ve put yourself in that position?

WM: No, I’ve worked with the idea of women’s work, women’s labor, as a very underrated but very beautiful part of human movement. And a very significant part of that movement is somewhat erotic. That to me is very contradictory but completely fascinating. Women at work are captivating to watch, in part because its something that you see a lot; you see women in movement, laboring over things, growing crops, digging or cutting wood in many, many parts of the world.

A lot of African dance movement comes out of women’s work movements. I use those movements to imply eroticism and at the same time to highlight the lack of significance that we place on the activity. We don’t realize that women work so hard. I try to highlight that very banal movement through eroticizing it slightly, turning it into a repetitive, sensual movement. So, the woman carrying a basket on her head is probably one of the most ubiquitous and universal images, especially in the warm climates of the poor global south. So, I wanted that to be central, to choreograph that as a central movement for this particular film and then build on that something much larger than just that very simple movement.

The End of Carrying All, 2015, Venice Biennale Installation

KB: In "All The World’s Futures," Okwui Enwezor references Marx quite explicitly in certain works. Other artists are drawing on histories of labor and protest. Having that image of the woman carrying a basket in the midst of that exhibition made me, particularly in that context, see that image in a very different way, in a more networked and global way. I’m not sure how much that was the intent?

WM: It’s nice to be in a show that in many ways embraces the subject matter in your work already. I’ve made a film called "Cleaning Earth" where I performed a movement and scrubbed a patch of land, muddy land, in my back yard. Not even a farm area, not anything particularly parochial. I also did a piece of work called "Cutting" where I’m cutting a log of wood but the silhouette looks somewhat sinister because it looks like I’m cutting an animal. So I’ve done these pieces that have a relationship to the unevenness and cruelty of labor.

The woman’s role in working is so bound to her body and her ability to create value in her environment. In a world where women often don’t have the same value as men, that value is very much attached to her body and her body’s ability to work hard, to be strong, to be resilient. "All The World’s Futures" is a phenomenal title for most artists who think about these kinds of things. Kudos to Okwui. And every artist who did anything related to labor has probably been thinking about it several years before this Biennale was even conceived. And Okwui, too, he’s been thinking about these ideas for a long time.

KB: In your video work, but also your collage work and sculpture work, the female form is a consistently revisited theme. A lot has been written about this: the women in your work are often described as damaged but also very powerful figures. They’re sort of abstracted, they’re assembled from parts. How did you arrive at this ongoing series of collages of female figures? How did the whole thing begin?

WM: It began in ways that were not particularly pre-mediated, through the use of books, magazines, and watercolor in a harmonic fashion to try to make a new drawing that was neither one nor the other, neither collage nor painting, neither painting nor purely watercolor. From there I just experimented more with materials and paper and mylar and came to really enjoy the play of the forms and the way that the mylar allowed for new marks to happen. It forms a different kind of skin, a different kind of geography and a different pattern, because it behaves differently. I just kept experimenting and, in some cases, got much more interested in getting larger in scale. I started to think life-sized and spread the textures and marks over a larger scale.

So it’s many years of working and enjoying the surprising results. I don’t think it came out of my art school thinking. I didn’t think, "I’m going to make many many collages and they’re all going to be about women, and they’re all going to be like this." It just happened. It’s what I was fascinated by and what I knew I would do and never be bored, basically.

KB: There are recurring sources of material in your collage work, like ethnographic photography, medical illustration—pieces of motorcycles seem to come up over and over—pornography. Talk about that. Do you intentionally limit those sources or do you just keep returning to them because they seem fruitful?

WM: I return to them because they fascinate me. I also come back to them because they have women in them and they continue to have women in them in ways that are very predictable and problematic. So I go back to see "Do we still do this?" and we do still do it—we use women in car and motorcycle magazines to draw in the male gaze. If you’re trying to sell a machine you just put a woman in front of it and the man will to want to buy it. I’m fascinated by that kind of psychology, but I’m also fascinated that it’s a sexual machine, especially a customized one, very much built to simulate a kind of sexual motion or feeling for the rider.

Of course, if you look further into these worlds, you don’t see empowered women standing next to these bikes. You see very objectified women. It’s sort of a twisted worship of the female machine body vis-a-vis this dehumanization of the real women who pose in them. In pornography it’s way more obvious.

It’s not necessarily the anti-venom for this poison of objectification of women—the repurposing of the material—but it is a way of making sure it’s seen in a different way. In that way people question, Why are we fascinated by this in this particular picture? Why not pay more for it? Why not eroticize women differently? Why not reconsider a different kind of body for different kinds of reasons? Fashion magazines have one type of body, and it’s not often that a black African body is used as an ideal beauty in fashion.

KB: Sometimes the women in your work seem to be half cyborg when you craft their legs out of motorcycle parts or something like that, which, when I describe it in words it sounds like women as objects, women as machines. But in actuality they seem so active and empowered, in a good way.

Can you tell me about the event you staged recently called "Africa’s OUT!"?

WM: Well, it is a newly formed old idea. There is an idea I’ve had for a while to make a place where I can activate culture and activities of art-making so that they can really bring together people and ignite change and hope that is powerful and tangible. I think art is a very personal thing. When you look at art, you process things on an individual level and, in some cases, it changes people if so many people have found something very powerful about that particular artwork. But I think there are many different ways to change the world’s maladies.

One thing I’ve always wanted to consider is how can we create a bigger base, a common cause. In that place that we’re sitting or standing or dancing or chanting, begin to talk about what do we want the world to be like? How do we want to see ourselves in the next 15, 20, 50, or 100 years? And if that’s what we want, then let’s begin the change by recognizing what we want and make it look like that.

So "Africa’s OUT!" was, one, generated by things I’ve been thinking about for a while; two, ignited by an inspired conversation that happened between myself and the Executive Director of Uhai Eashri ; and then three, the deal was sealed when we decided to use the gesture that Binyavanga Wainaina had already sent out into the universe. His public coming out was a way of courageously embracing his queerness and his queer brethren all over the world, but especially in Africa. So we thought, let’s do something that props him up even further into more safety and more courage and also brings more people in the limelight who might feel like they have to live a life where they can’t be publically happy and can’t be the cool, wonderful individuals that they were born to be. And then let’s raise some money for Uhai, which is an organization that does real activist work related to sexual health and gender and minority rights and human rights, and give them the needed resources that it takes to pay salaries and make films and start up new clinics. They’re granters, so they grant money to groups and organizations that apply for them.

So it was kind of a chain reaction, but I think every single person who attached themselves to the golden chain of "Africa’s OUT!" understood that if we all stood together it would be almost impossible—if not really shameful—to continue talking about gay Africans as if they didn’t exist. Or as if there was something wrong with being gay and African at the same time, or as if it’s not possible to be creative, gay, amazing, and at the same time visible. So it’s really just a way to bond and change things and to make things memorable and visible and real.

KB: That’s great. That’s really great work.

WM: Thank you.

By Kevin Buist on