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Supernatural Feminine: Wangechi Mutu

Updated: Jun 12, 2023


Water Woman, 2017

Wangechi Mutu

 

Kenyan Painter and Sculptor

Surreal

Nairobi, Kenya

ArtMatch Value Score*: Promising

 

Wangechi Mutu (b. 1972) is a multidisciplinary artist whose practice centers around femininity and nature.


Mutu left Nairobi, Kenya for New York City in pursuit of artistic freedom. She has now returned to her homeland as one of the world’s leading contemporary artists. The female form is at the center of her work, but not in a typical way. She depicts the female form in ways that are both familiar and otherworldly, sometimes shockingly so. Her extensive training and intense curiosity have led her to create works in a variety of different forms: from two dimensional collages on paper to three-dimensional bronze sculptures. Inspired by her return to Nairobi, Mutu is now exploring the ancient, symbiotic connection between humans and nature.


I have always created art about women … all to show how the female body is a powerful sight onto which culture expresses its feelings of worthiness, desire or distaste, of divinity or decrepitude, of belonging or loss.

Credit: Kathryn Parker Almanas


Wangechi’s Story


Wangechi Mutu was born in Nairobi, Kenya. Her father worked in a paper import business and often brought home sheets of all different types of paper, with which Wangechi and her siblings would play. The children also explored the garden of their home, getting dirty, observing insects, plants and other organisms. Mutu frequently pulls from these memories in her work. Wangechi was surrounded by girls and women at the all-girls Catholic school she attended for much of her childhood. These women served as role models and strong inspiration for her.


In 1982, when Wangechi was 10 years old, there was an attempted coup to overthrow the President of Kenya. The coup failed, but the President responded by becoming oppressive, brutally suppressing all forms of dissent. Vocal opponents and potential disruptors began to vanish, and free-thinking Kenyan people lived in a constant state of fear of the government.


As a naturally curious and free-thinking person, Wangechi immersed herself in art and created her own worlds. When she was old enough, she sought to leave Kenya for a place where she would be free to express herself. She set her sights on New York City, where she applied to some of the world’s top art schools, and was accepted.


Wangechi began her undergraduate studies at Parsons School of Design and finished at Cooper Union. She then attended Yale School of Art where she earned a MFA in sculpture. During her studies, with access to the top tools, technology, and instruction geared toward art-making, Wangechi learned to work with a variety of mediums and techniques including painting, photography, sculpture, video, and print-making. As she left the ivy walls and headed back to New York to launch her career, Mutu was faced with the reality of the need to focus, both as a practical necessity (she no longer had access to the university equipment) and to define herself in the market. She increasingly started working with collage and watercolor, mediums that afforded her the ability to combine multiple techniques, but inexpensive enough for her not to have constraints on her art-making.


In the first two years after graduating from Yale, Mutu showed in 9 group shows, mostly in New York. The following year, 2003, she earned a spot in the Studio Museum in Harlem Artist in Residency program. That same year, she showed in 16 group shows. In 2005, Mutu had her first museum shows at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Miami Art Museum. 2006 saw more international shows in London, Beijing, Cape Town and Seville. In 2007, she had her first solo show with Victoria Miro Gallery in London. She is still represented by Victoria Miro today. Since graduating from Cooper Union in 1996, Mutu has shown in over 300 group exhibitions and 46 solo exhibitions across 25 different countries.


After wrestling with where "home" was for her, Wangechi decided to move back to Nairobi in 2015 where she now lives and works. A self-described “city girl with a nature brain”, Mutu is happy to reconnect with the soil and nature of her childhood. Now, Mutu’s practice brings together her formal training and early career in New York with the land of her birth in a powerful combination that channels the energies of the feminine and of nature.


Wangechi’s Aesthetic


Mutu’s aesthetic often features subjects in the form of the woman bodies, but with a twist. The forms combine realistic imagery with either fantastical or natural elements. The images also have qualities that are both beautiful and disturbing. This reflects a theme that one will find consistently throughout Mutu’s work - the woman form in culture as a source of beauty, desire, and divine energy but also of criticism, repulsion and sacrilege.


Riding Death in My Sleep, 2002

Ink and collage on paper

60 x 40 in


Much of Mutu’s work during her time in New York were works on paper that collaged watercolor inks with photography and paper. Since moving back to Nairobi, Mutu has created more sculptures. Her initial sculptures were made from pulp of the papers and clippings she collected to make her works on paper, signifying a purging and redefinition of materials that she’d become known for. In addition to pulp, she began to incorporate a variety of natural materials into her work (e.g. wood, soil, rocks, shells) but still with the feminine form at the center.


Sentinel I

Red soil, pulp, ash, wood glue, wood, quartz, stone, gourd, jewelry, pine cone, shells

87 x 20 x 22 in



More recently, Mutu has been sculpting in bronze, with stunning effect. Three of Mutu’s bronze sculptures were gifted to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and placed at its entrance in 2020, just before the COVID 19 pandemic hit. She likes to think of these sculptures as guardians who watched over humanity during that confined and tragic time.


The Seated I

Bronze

79 x 33.5 x 44.5 in


Wangechi’s Process


Mutu works from a large studio space surrounded by nature in Nairobi, Kenya's capital city. She typically works on multiple pieces at once, often a mix of two- and three-dimensional works, because she has found that the pieces often influence one another. Photography is and has always been a key part of her practice, being not just visible content for her collaged work but a source of inspiration conceptually for her work.


Credit: Art 21


Market Information


Mutu is represented by Victoria Miro (London) and Gladstone Gallery (New York, Brussels, LA). Her most recent solo exhibition was a retrospective called Wangechi Mutu: Intertwined at the New Museum in New York City. Last year, she showed in the seminal group exhibition, In the Black Fantastic in London. She is currently showing at the National Museum of Australia in a show called Feminine Power: The Divine to the Demonic.


The auction market record for Wangechi Mutu is $334K, set in 2008. In general, her secondary market has been volatile, impacted by questionable auction estimates and market speculation.


Video


Watch Wangechi discuss her inspiration and process:


References


*The ArtMatch Value Score is our assessment of the likelihood of the artist's work to hold or appreciate in value. Numerical scores are calculated based on a combination of variables, including but not limited to type of gallery representation, number of solo shows, quality of collector base, number of pieces sold at auction. Scores are summarized to one of three ranking categories: emerging, promising, and strong. Note this does not constitute official investment advice and is given purely as an input to help assess artists from a value perspective.

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