Wangechi Mutu is her name. She is a prominent contemporary visual artist whose work has been exhibited all over the world. She has made waves for her Afro-futuristic painting, sculpture, film and performance work. She is now taking over the Met.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York City, "the Met", is the largest art museum in the US. With 6,953,927 visitors in all its three locations in 2018, it was the third most visited art museum in the world. Artists all over the world desire to have their work showcased in the Met.
Wangechi just got this prized opportunity. Her sculptures will take position in the building’s exterior niches facing Fifth Avenue that have stood empty for more than 100 years. W Magazine called the sculptures a "redemptive move" for an institution founded on the appropriation of antiquities and a Eurocentric view of culture.
Met curator Kelly Baum proposed Wangeci for the project. "Her expansive vision takes into account multiple strands of the history of art as it emerged out of Africa and Europe. Plus, there’s the little matter of female power in the context of the Met’s male-dominated past. There’s some drama there, which I appreciate.” Kelly Baum said in an interview with W Magazine.
Wangechi was born in 1972 in Nairobi, Kenya. She was the second of four children to a father who was a businessman-turned-academic and a mother who was a nurse. She was raised in Kenya. She always had a passion for drawing as a child, and her father's paper import business kept her supplied with materials. She attended the prestigious Loreto Convent Msongari for both primary and secondary school. At 17, with the encouragement of renowned palaeontologist Richard Leakey who was the father to one of her classmates, she left for the United World College of the Atlantic in Wales where she attended a program for gifted students from around the world.
She briefly returned to Nairobi after graduation in 1991. She worked for an advertising firm in Nairobi for a few months then left for New York a year later. She studied at the Parsons School of Design. In 1996, she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Cooper Union for the Advancement of the Arts and Science. She won a full scholarship to study for a Master's degree at Yale University. In 2000, she graduated with a Master's degree in sculpture from Yale School of Art.
Stepping into the art world
Wangechi experimented with sculptures, photographs, video, and installations while at Yale. Her work impressed many, and by the time she graduated in 2000, some of her objects and collages had been exhibited at various galleries in the US. From 2000, she won and acquired numerous fellowships and residences. Her first residency - a highly competitive residency programme at the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York - was where her work started getting attention in the art market. She got the residency in 2001.
Wangechi gained a reputation for her collages that centre female bodies. She commonly works on paper or Mylar, applying her sampled figures along with ink, acrylic paint, and materials like plastic pearls, packing tape, glitter and imagery gathered from magazines like Vogue and National Geographic and old medical illustrations - she recombines the images into hybrid figures in ethereal landscapes. Her creatures have embellished skin, exaggerated facial features, and limbs replaced gears, wheels, and animal parts.
Wangechi's work often dives into themes of race, sex/gender, sexuality, colonialism, violence, technology, immigration, and consumerism; often through a lens that challenges cultural depictions of women, particularly African women, and the female body.
Her life influences these themes. She grew up in a matriarchal household in Nyeri, Kenya, where she never doubted equality between women and men. She told Refinery29, "I was a feminist before I knew what feminism was." She witnessed the 1992 Mothers of Political Prisoners protests in Kenya - mothers of political prisoners stripped naked at Uhuru Park to protest the government's tyranny. She said the protest has had a profound impact on her art and saw it as "an incredible expression of the power of the naked female body".
She also wanted to make art that was relevant to her as a Kenyan. She told Refinery29, "I always knew that I wanted to talk about things that were relevant to me as a Kenyan, and here I was as far away from Kenya as I could possibly be, in a population that doesn't know that much about the continent, so those hurdles felt impossible at a certain point."
Speaking to W Magazine, she said, "As an immigrant, it moved me to think about what the identity was. So hard to describe. Where are you from? How were you raised?, Why do you speak that way? Responding to very simple questions, I realized that I have to talk about the colonization of my country, and how it was before that, if you really want to understand where I come from.”
These themes are seen throughout her works and exhibitions. In Cancer of the Uterus (2005), Wangeci used a medical pathology diagram, fur, facial features cut from a magazine, and black glitter to create an eerily distorted, mask-like face. In Suspended Playtime (2008), she used bundles of garbage bags wrapped in gold twine suspended in spider web resemblance, all suspended from the ceiling over the viewer. The installation referenced the common use of garbage bags as improvised balls and other playthings by African children.
Despite being a well-known artist, Wangechi had trouble travelling due to issues with her visa and green card (she is now a dual citizen of Kenya and the US). However, those troubles did little to stop her rise. Her work, displayed all over the world, brought her worldwide recognition. She has had solo exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Contemporary Art, Miami Art Museum, and Victoria Miro Gallery in London.
Her work is found in the collections of prestigious art institutions like the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Tate Modern in London, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Montreal.
Her inaugural US introspective organized in 2013 by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, was shown around the country in 2014 and featured her three newly commissioned works. Her 2014 exhibition titled "Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey" which opened in October at the Brooklyn Museum received rave reviews. Holland Cotter, the New York Times art critic, talked of Wangechi's work as having grown “complex, detailed and beautiful” each passing year.
She has received numerous awards and accolades including the Richard Leakey Merit Award in Nairobi in 1994, the inaugural Deutsche Bank Artist of the Year in 2010, an appearance in Jay Z's Picasso Baby, Artist of the Year Award in Berlin in 2010, and even a shoutout from Beyonce in 2014 during Black History Month. She collaborated on fabric designs for clothing made by Miuccia Prada, Carolina Herrera, Stella McCartney, and others to support Born Free, an initiative dedicated to preventing the transmission of HIV from pregnant mothers to their fetuses.
Wangechi currently lives in New York with her two daughters and her husband, Mario Lazzaroni, Italian-born former McKinsey & Company consultant who now works as the sub-Saharan manager for Estée Lauder. She also has a home in Nairobi - the home borders the national park in the city. She has studios in both homes and divides her time between Nairobi and New York.
She moved to Nairobi three years ago after the her immigration case was concluded and her travel restrictions lifted. The result: a renewed Kenyan influence on her work.
"We have warthogs on the property, and tree hyraxes, ibises, crested cranes, a black swan. These are actual creatures I’m seeing, and I’m able to put them right into the work," she told W Magazine.
Kenya also has less paper waste than the US, causing her to reduce her use of paper in her collages. Additionally, Kenya has black cotton soil, red organic soil, tea, and coffee, which she has added to her media.
"The texture is great. It’s giving me these new, three-dimensional volumes and earthy, android-y results," she added.
Ironically, she has never held an exhibition in Kenya or Africa (except in South Africa). Her video art was shown in Nairobi for the first time in 2013 at an exhibition to celebrate 10 years of Kwani Trust. She plans to hold an exhibition in Kenya soon.
Header Image Credit: Foundation Louis Vouitton