Kenyan-born artist and sculptor Wangechi Mutu’s work is poetic, beautiful and disturbing. In her hands those distinctions don’t feel like contradictions but a reality born of a fascination with the grotesque idealisations of women in popular culture. Her paintings and sculptures have appeared at the Tate Modern and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Here she discusses her earliest memories of drawing, her struggles in the early stages of her career and why making art is like a muscle that needs to be flexed.
I think I was born drawing and painting. I have memories of making art when I was super-young to the point that I would draw until I ran out of paper. I ended up drawing and painting on the walls. It was such a stark memory because it was that moment when you get into trouble for vandalizing your home.
I realized I was going to be an artist when I realized that I almost had no choice. It was a very subtle but important understanding because it was so natural to me, like breathing or speaking. At a certain age I had exactly the right teacher with the exact right approach to explaining what making art was about. He gave me and all my classmates this incredibly wide net of freedom. We were so confused because we didn’t really have assignments or specific projects. We were given a sketchbook and a set of deadlines. He pretty much said, ‘Go forth and make.’ We all looked at each other and said, ‘Make what?’ And his response was ‘Whatever.’ He treated us like we understood what we were doing by giving us this vessel and so we filled it. By filling it, we understood what he meant.
By the time that I was a student in New York a lot of the work that I came across was politically inclined. It was very much about critiquing and putting institutions to task for not involving women, artists of colour and gay artists in a serious way. It was dealing with all of those issues in a very didactic fashion.
My introduction to the art world career-wise happened post-9/11. The silicone bubble had burst, and all these things were happening as I was embarking on my career. That changed how I was perceived and accepted. The art world went money-crazy. The issues related to art as something one can buy and own and invest in changed dramatically because there was money being put into the art world, and people were willing to invest in art even if it was from a crass, speculation level.
I studied sculpture at Yale, I didn’t study painting there, so I expected to be making video-art, installations and three-dimensional work. When I finished school reality hit when I arrived back in New York and issues of space, rent, feeding oneself - day-to-day survival issues - fell flat on my lap and I realized I had to really reassess what my art was. And after these two amazing years in this greenhouse, this fictional space called the MFA graduate school, I began to do little drawings and sketches. Some of them were to keep me from losing my mind. I was trying to force this city to re-adopt me, and so I would draw and work out my anxieties, nightmares and dreams. It was very private, all of them in sketchbooks. After a few months in New York hopping from sofa to sofa I finally found a little one-bedroom and was able to create a studio area. I started to make watercolours because I had financial limitations and sculpture was not an option. I wanted to build so many things but I had to ask myself, ‘Where is the money going to come from? Where is the material going to come from?’
For me art is a muscle, it’s a live thing inside of me, so I had to keep that muscle exercised. So I knew I had to do something flexible in order to keep those connections between the imaginary, the conceived and the made. So I drew and that’s when I started to make those watercolours that are my pinup series. I don’t know how I came to create this work where I’m not concerned about boundaries, about how a woman is supposed to be represented. These drawings came out of me because they had to. They were re-representations of the magazines I had around me, these magazines I picked up off the street that I could afford one or two of. I was taking these images of idealized women, fictitious, androgynous little models, and turning them into a version of what I thought reality is: the painful, poetic realness of being a woman.
That seed spun into many, many, new, bigger versions of itself. It’s continued thus far.
WANGECHI MUTU is illustrated by DIRIYE OSMAN.