Wangechi Mutu went to America in 1992 to pursue studies in art at Cooper Union College, a very different path from that taken by most Kenyans who usually specialise in information technology or business management.
“Admitting to yourself and your parents that you want to go to America to study art was not exactly met with applause,” Ms Mutu said during a series of telephone and electronic interviews with Lifestyle.
The 36-year-old artist does collages, sculpture and video, but it is her work in collage, the art of pasting cut paper and odd bits and pieces on surfaces, that has earned her a reputation in the American art world.
When she was living in Lamu in 1992, she sent a few collages with her application to Cooper Union, a prestigious art school in New York City.
“They were very cubist looking. Very multi-perspective Picasso-like little pieces,” she recalled.
That was 16 years ago, and Ms Mutu has since honed her skills to become one of the most eminent Kenyan-born artists abroad.
In September 2005 she could only watch in horror as Hurricane Katrina and attendant floods demolished large parts of the legendary city of New Orleans and has vivid memories of desperate people clinging to rooftops to escape the rising waters.
Three years later she is one of 81 artists taking part in the New Orleans Biennial, which runs through next January and is the largest exhibit of its kind in the United States.
“I was picked to be in the exhibition by Dan Cameron, a renowned curator here in New York who was the head curator at the New Museum for years,” she said. “He invited all the artists to come down to New Orleans to pick a site, and I decided on that plot because of its location and how empty and beautifully kept it was.”
“I wanted to create an outline or an image of the house that Mrs Sarah Lastie was unable to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina and the flood and mostly the corruption of the state agencies took her home away,” said the artist, who together with her crew, has constructed the frame of what is known in New Orleans as a shotgun house, a single story wood dwelling without halls with one room behind the other.
One of the versions of how the architectural style got its name is the belief that if a shotgun were fired through the front door, the pellets would exit the back door without touching the walls.
“It’s a very powerful area…the Mississippi (River) is right there, next to Lower Ninth Ward. The port where slaves were dropped off is as well. The swamplands have been distorted and destroyed by overdevelopment, leaving the land susceptible to this kind of devastation,” she said.
“But all this jazz music and rhythm also comes out of this area. Fat Domino, Louis Armstrong, the African slaves... New Orleans was one of the only places where the drum was not banned, and you can hear that beat in their music.”
Wangechi Mutu is a wide-ranging artist whose work includes sculpture and video. But she is perhaps best known for her collages and is now working on a series made up of pieces of images of women clipped from glossy magazines.
She weaves a variety of themes through her artwork ranging from a critique of colonialism to feminist art. Some of her works bear titles like Cancer of the Uterus, Complete Proplapsus of the Uterus, Etopic Pregnancy, Tumors of the Uterus and Ovarian Cysts.
She also works with themes of cultural heritage, politics and violence.
“I could easily fit into many other things very badly,” said Ms Mutu, who is represented by Sikkema Jenkins and Co., a trendy gallery in New York’s Chelsea neighbourhood, Susanne Vielmetter in Los Angeles and Victoria Miro Gallery in London. “I would probably be a depressed teacher or a drunkard travelling journalist or a really lousy museum administrator.”
“I am here cutting for my collages in case you need a few minutes to pull everything together,” she said during her first telephone conversation with Lifestyle. “Cutting collage pieces is like knitting while talking.”
The artist who creates disturbing images from cut outs of female figures could not hide the fact that she didn’t like her painting classes and as a result decided that collage would be her forte.
“Technically I wasn’t so interested in the qualities and limitations the medium (painting) offered, and as for art history, I felt a little alienated from a language that had developed primarily in a European religious rather than secular space,” said the artist who has shown her work in various galleries and exhibitions around the world.
Listening to her painting instructors, she said, was like being in a religion class with the explanations for the development of techniques being wrapped up in the paint.
“I’m sure if I had stuck with the paint, I would have found more sophisticated answers, but instead I preferred to draw and make three-dimensional work and create art videos,” said Ms Mutu, who also studied anthropology.
Making collages is not how Ms Mutu had originally envisaged her life. She could have used her anthropology skills and perhaps become what she terms “a lousy museum administrator,” but as they say, necessity is the mother of invention, so broke and in need of money to survive, she saw collage as a meal ticket.
She hastily seized the opportunity and began to rummage through trash bags for old magazines, discarded material and bits of paper. She says it was the easiest way to create the whole image.
“I was broke, and in New York you could find piles of magazines sitting around ready for recycling pick-up. Magazines are our collective psyche... it’s like looking through elephant dung and being able to determine where the animal has been wandering,” she said.
The idea born in the trash of New York has germinated and today has earned the artist acclaim and fame in galleries and museums from San Francisco to London and Paris and Dusseldorf, Germany to South Korea.
Ms Mutu, who confesses to being an insomniac, works at any time of day and or night and lives in a classic Brooklyn brownstone where she has her living space and studio under one roof
It’s difficult to imagine her rummaging through trash looking for magazines today. Things have changed, and now she subscribes to the National Geographic magazine and buys others she needs.
“I select my glamour magazines by the quality and size of the images and type of paper,” she said, adding that pornography is usually printed on medium to bad paper, but for her work, it’s invaluable.
A conversation with Ms Mutu reveals just how strong her passion for art is; while she acknowledges that many of her works will not appeal to social conservatives, she indicates that this will in no way deter her. She makes an interesting distinction between the women whose images appear in porn magazines and fashion runway models.
The porn females, she says, are like labourers.
“They use their hands, and their bodies are far more built and accentuated. There are by far the most uncomfortable poses and most demanding acting,” said Ms Mutu who studied sculpture at Yale University.
“Fashion females are very ornamental and are utilised as brilliant pedestals to show off a product. They are often slender and mutable and easy to manipulate into different characters.”
Asked whether she is concerned about what conservatives might say about her using porn material in her work, she replied: “I try not to worry about what conservative people in general think about me and what I do. My subject matter comes out of a real empathy for and an interest in my and other women’s position in society.
“I think there is a relationship between conservative behaviour, religious fundamentalism and abuse and disregard of women and their bodies. You see it all over the world.”
She says she always cut and pasted or remade things as a child, but that did not necessarily make her an artist until she discovered she was good at it.
“I never became an artist. I suppose I realised I was one when I found out it was the thing that I did best and the place where all my strengths converged. It took some getting used to the idea.
"I’m spun from the same thread as most other Kenyans my age,” she said, adding she has kept a lot of work with her, and there are both smaller and larger collages that never make it out of the studio. She calls them her “still births.”
“In every exhibition I have there are a few works I can’t let go of. I also trade art with artists I like,” she said.
Is she nostalgic about Kenya? “I miss Kenya deeply; it is and always will be my home and my cradle. I wouldn’t be who I am if I wasn’t born in Kenya,” she said.