Kenya-born artist, Wangechi Mutu, is earning accolades from critics for her work now on display at one of New York City’s most prominent museums.
A New York Times review of the exhibition describes it as “visually ravishing.”
Since Ms Mutu began exhibiting in the late 1990s, “the work has grown more complex, detailed and beautiful by the year,” Times art critic Holland Cotter wrote, “and we’re seeing it at what has to be some kind of peak moment.”
In its review, the Wall Street Journal told readers, “You will be pleasantly disturbed by this very accomplished art.”
Ms Mutu, born in Nairobi in 1972, came to the United States in 1992 to study art, eventually earning a master’s degree from Yale University.
In an interview at the site of her show in the Brooklyn Museum, the artist said compatriots may assume that “you leave a country because you think there’s something wrong with it.”
But Ms Mutu explained that she wasn’t running away from Kenya as much as she was running toward what she knew would be her future.
“I needed to have a way to nurture this thing I was obviously born to do,” she said, noting she could find no mentors in Kenya to help her develop as an artist.
“I’ve always been ambitious,” Ms Mutu added. “I do my best to operate at the highest level of my capabilities.”
The artist may have left Kenya, but Kenya has clearly not left the artist.
Many of the more than 50 works in her show, which is entitled Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey, incorporate images derived from her youth in Nairobi, she noted.
The show includes sketchbook drawings, videos and installations, but it’s dominated by the large-scale collages that established Ms Mutu’s reputation as a creator of semi-human forms that are at once beautiful and repulsive.
She uses materials she has purchased or found — along with cuttings from science fiction, fashion and pornographic magazines — to assemble identifiably African female figures whose faces and bodies have been given animal or otherworldly attributes. The effect can be mesmerizing. Ms Mutu’s imaginative work also challenges stereotypes involving race and gender.
Riding Death in My Sleep, for example, shows a crouching, pale-faced female with oversized red lips wearing a multi-coloured leotard that resembles a lizard’s hide. The subject projects a confident, powerful presence that seems to demand viewers’ acceptance of her oddity.
“Kenya has a way of combining symbols of the past and present,” Ms Mutu said, recalling jarring juxtapositions she had encountered during two recent visits to her homeland. “You see things that are beautiful and disgusting, appalling and magnificent, at the same moment in a single place. There might be a poor guy with elephantiasis sitting next to a Mercedes Benz.”
Such contrasts are reflected in much of her work, Ms Mutu noted.
Kenya’s natural world is present too in its “regalness,” she said. It’s the African version of nature that she loves, Ms Mutu remarked, not the “shackled, civilised form you see here, where it’s all controlled.”
For several years after taking up residence in New York, Ms Mutu was unable to travel to Kenya — or anywhere else outside the United States — because she lacked the “green card” certifying an immigration status that would allow her to re-enter the US.
She finally qualified for that document based on special criteria. The US government grants a small number of green cards to immigrants judged to exhibit extraordinary talent in a particular field. Ms Mutu was declared eligible on the basis of her art.
As a married mother of two young children, Ms Mutu said she plans to continue living in New York, a city generally considered the capital of the art world. But “I would love to have a show in my hometown,” she added, referring to Nairobi.
It would have to be presented in accordance with the highest international standards, she cautioned. “I’d want to make sure I’m not compromising my work because I’m showing it at home where they may be less resources than here,” she said.