Why Feminism Still Matters — According To A Badass Artist

What exactly is a feminist sculptor? Wangechi Mutu can tell you. A “homegrown feminist” since childhood (“I considered myself a feminist before I even knew what feminism was.”), her art explores ideas like race, gender, technology, colonialism, and consumption — often through a lens that challenges and deconstructs cultural depictions of women — African women in particular — and the female body. Hoping to achieve a balance of art and activism like her icons before her, from Arundhati Roy to Nina Simone, Mutu reminds us why that message matters, both in art and in life. "Because we assume it’s normal for women to earn less, work harder, be tidier, and demand not as much as a man, to me, it's important to stand behind feminism as an idea."
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At 42, the Kenyan artist is regarded as one of the most significant African artists of her time. Her beautiful, unsettling, mysterious, powerful, erotic, even scary compositions are pieced together from magazine cut-outs, synthetic materials, beads, strips of leather, and fake hair. Adding even greater depth to these awe-inspiring pieces: the fact that her subjects of focus are typically female figures — strange chimeras bearing human, animal, botanical, serpentine, and machine-like traits.
Her recent show at the Brooklyn Museum, “Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey,” presented a sprawling tour through more than 50 of these works. It was an epic, provocative, multi-medium retrospective; and for anyone who was lucky enough to experience it in person, it's easy to see why Mutu earned the museum’s distinguished Artist of the Year award.
For Mutu though, the end result isn't the awards — of which she has many. And, it's not institutional recognition, either — although both MoMA and London's Tate Modern both count her work among their collections. It's the story she's telling, and continually redefining and retelling. "It's a never-ending, infinite lifetime task, and I’m happy to be doing it consistently," she says.
When we sit down at her home studio in Brooklyn's Bed-Stuy neighborhood, what strikes me most is her honesty. While the artist is obviously powerful and firm in her convictions, she is also unafraid to recall and share her past insecurities and speak openly about self-doubt. She recounts how, given her home country's lack of encouragement for artists, her decision to leave Kenya for the United States in the mid-'90s was an unwavering one — but life upon arrival was a bit more difficult.
"I always knew that I wanted to talk about things what 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," she recalls. She also had more practical concerns: "How do you make art when you're trying to figure out how to pay your groceries, or keep the lights on?"
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It's a refreshing dose of realism from someone who received a very public shout-out from Beyoncé this February during her month-long #28DaysBlackHistory initiative. That was a happy moment, Mutu said of the honor, but coming from a cultural background in which praise is hard to come by, her greatest sense of accomplishment actually comes from one of her youngest critics. Up ahead, an intimate look at the artist in her space, as well as Mutu’s personal perspective on creating art with a message, what success means to her, and the responsibilities she feels as an artist and a mother.
Styling by Willow Lindley; Hair and Makeup by Anna Webber; Photography by Tina Tyrell.
Photographed by Tina Tyrell.
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You’ve said that your use of African imagery in your work is a response to your American experience, and the task of trying to evade foolish stereotypes. Have you felt a certain responsibility to present the Kenyan woman's diaspora?
"You know, I think I did, but I think I learned how to turn it into something personal and into my own liberating story. So, I wasn’t trying to be this self-proclaimed leader of a movement per se, but I decided to speak [about] the things that concerned me: how young girls are influenced, how women are positioned, how media influences how we look at each other, and how cruel it can be to those of who are not what the media wants to focus on.
"It really is how I feel about being from a very powerful culture where women are still treated with a lack of regard, even though they do everything. Women do everything in my family. They work. They keep the family together. They feed the family. They buy land. They know how to work the land. They go high. They go low.
"I was interested in how these women operate in their imaginations. How do they feel their world shape around them, and what is that shape? That's how I ended up with these pictures, and that’s how I feel like I ended up carrying their concerns — because they're my concerns — into the work."
Zero + Maria Cornejo top; talent's own pants and jewelry.
Photographed by Tina Tyrell.
It's so incredible to be able to represent and speak about women in that way. Have you always considered yourself a feminist?
"I think I considered myself a feminist before I knew even what feminism was. As a child, I remember defending things like, 'Why did girls have to do that?', 'What does that have to do with being a person?', or 'What do you mean women shouldn’t go there, or be this way?'
"I kind of say I’m a natural-born feminist, but then I also know that I’ve been influenced tremendously by how I was raised. In spite of the fact that it's not always fair, girls are asked to do everything, and so you actually grow up in an environment where it's very matriarchal, realizing you can work, you can read, you can go to school, you can do all these things. Will you be able to do what you dream of? That's up to you.
"So, I think feminism is a very personal thing as well as a shared belief. I think different women ascribe to different feminisms for different reasons. I think more important than worrying about the conservativeness of any thought, for me, it's about women's rights and women eventually not even having to separate themselves in order to fight the fight for one another and themselves. But, up until that point, I think feminism is extremely valid and important."
Photographed by Tina Tyrell.
What are your feelings on being labeled a ‘feminist artist’ and a ‘feminist sculptor?'
"I love it. I don’t even know what there is to worry about it. I don’t think [being a feminist] precludes me from thinking about [myself] as a collage artist or a sculptor or painter or performance artist. I think those things are just as valid as being a feminist."
Who are some other feminist artists that you admire?
"Arundhati Roy is one of my icons. I love her work as a writer and also an activist. I think Kara Walker's done an incredible job, pulling the complicatedness of being a woman from historical narratives into the present day.
"I think people like Marilyn Minter and artists like Carrie Mae Weems have extremely strong positions that have allowed me to be strong in a different way — because I don’t have to necessarily talk about the things that Carrie talked about because she already did that. She opened these avenues for us that were closed.
"And then, [I also admire] people like Nina Simone, who've put their politics deep inside their music, but in extremely personal, eccentric, and memorable ways."
Photographed by Tina Tyrell.
Were you artistic as a child?
"I was an art child, but I can’t say that it was something that was necessarily encouraged [growing up in Kenya]. It took me leaving the country to meet [a teacher] who...opened the doors to this universe. It was my art teacher in Wales. That was the first time I realized how it's done. How art ends up in public spaces after going through this process of being created."
Zero + Maria Cornejo top; Dansko clogs; Holst + Lee mood ring; talent’s own pants and jewelry.
Photographed by Tina Tyrell.
What made you decide to move to New York for college?
"I needed to be outside of my very protective family and very influential, discouraging environment in order to really see what my wingspan was. I had to leave home and go really, really far. I decided on New York because, I thought, 'Oh this is where all the artists go.' And, it also was where quite a number of these schools were: Pratt, Parsons — and I also applied to Rhode Island School of Design, in Providence. The northeast, you know, seemed like a big club of really good art schools.
"I just happened to have an angel mentor who lent me the money for [Parsons] for one year, and that’s how I got here. And, then once here, I realized I needed to pay for two, three, four years…with the price of living. So I ended up leaving Parsons, and for a second, not knowing if I was going to have to return home. But, then I found out about Cooper Union. At the time, Cooper Union was free tuition. It was a merit-based school."
Was staying in Kenya ever an option for your studies?
"The universities in Kenya that I visited as a young girl were just not inspiring, and I could see the limitations. I knew that the kids who failed ended up in the art universities, and the kids who couldn’t do stuff academically ended up there. There’s still this kind of cloud of lack of regard and of lack of respect for artists in general. I never thought of art as this trough that picks up all the forgotten and the wretched. I thought of it as magnificent, how you can transform an environment, or a person’s day, or someone’s life with an image that [they] had never encountered before."
Photographed by Tina Tyrell.
Did you ever doubt your abilities, or feel like you might not succeed, during those early years?
"Yes, but I think that is a constant. There are always these little voices — maybe it's a voice of criticality and reason that says, 'Oh, how is this even possible?' or 'How is that gonna change anybody’s life?' That was always a question for me: How is this important, and where [am I] going to place the emphasis?
"And, the thing about New York is it's extremely expensive and big, as a place to exist. The landscape that I found myself in made me feel extremely alone, but also practical things made it feel like, 'How is this even possible?' How do you make art when you’re trying to figure out how to pay your groceries or keep the lights on? Because, that's really the thing that I feel can make art seem almost like a flimsy cause. If you don’t have shelter, food, and warmth, what are you even doing imagining things, you know?
Photographed by Tina Tyrell.
At what point in your career did you finally feel like worrying about money wasn’t a concern that could limit your creativity anymore?
"I try not to worry about those things too, too much, because I think it affects everything. It affects how you work, and who you think you’re making work for.
"In 2000, 2001, I was just out of graduate school, which is a time when every artist knows the gestation period is over. [The comedian] David Alan Grier bought a work of mine from a show that I did here in Brooklyn, and I remember thinking, 'Wow, this is another artist, and he’s come all the way out to Bed-Stuy. This is going to be something I can do. I can make these statements through the work, and there are people out there who understand that this is important enough to come and support that.'
"And, within that period of time, I was at the Studio Museum in Harlem in an exhibition. The discussions that we were having around that exhibition, around African artists talking about issues that were contemporary African issues — that also made me realize this is now a part of the present-day discussion in the contemporary art world, that this is of relevance. There is a machine behind this. It's going somewhere."
Photographed by Tina Tyrell.
Having your studio at home, how do you find balance between motherhood and work, especially in a creative industry where life and work can be so closely intertwined?
"Yeah, this is my house, and it's also the main studio. This is where a lot of the ideas come out and come from. So, it's very holistic. I have to be careful not to do everything all the time, but I also get a few things done in my domestic and personal life while the ink is drying or the glue is setting.
"For me, it works. It couldn’t work any other way. I’m so invested in that little girl that I used to be, who was told certain things and raised a particular way, that it is kind of a pleasure for me to have my girls witness this as a norm — as a normal way of living. You know, there’s no shame and problem in how I work, and I’m not tucking my art into one little corner of the afternoon. It's on the weekend, it's every day, and they also see how serious it is, and how sometimes I have to be away from them, travel, go to openings, do whatever."
Photographed by Tina Tyrell.
That's incredibly empowering. But, on the flip side, do you see any challenges around raising kids in New York City?
"Of course. I'm not sure how I feel about the education system in New York. It's an expensive city. You walk out the door and the minute you put your foot down, you pay for something. But, it's a very beautiful environment to raise kids in because of how many things there are for them to experience.
"If you really care to take them to different things, to meet different people, there's just so much to do. So, I think that the positives outdo the negatives. But, you know, New York is hard no matter what you do. If you're a stay-at-home mom, if you're juggling everything like I am, if you’re a kept woman — I'm sure it's [all] hard. All of it is difficult because this is a difficult city. It's dense with aspirations and dreams. People don't sit and just chill. They push and insist and work really hard."
Photographed by Tina Tyrell.
At this stage, what is the advice you want to give other working mothers?
"I think my only advice is you're way more capable than you think. I remember in my 20s, or even in my 30s — my god, I couldn’t birth a child. How do you make your art and raise kids and still retain respect in a very male-dominated art world? How do you go, 'I’m still an artist; I'm a mom-artist. I'm an artist and I'm a mother?'
"It's hard, but it's doable, and it's doable in dignified ways. I can't [overstate] how important it is to have a supportive group of friends and an extremely supportive — in my case — husband. My partner, he's into the program. He gets it, he loves it. He's not intimidated or frightened by what I do.
"That is important for women, I think, because when you have kids, your vulnerability is much higher, so if you don’t have a protective group around you, things could get kind of difficult for you and your children."
Photographed by Tina Tyrell.
When Beyoncé called you out in February as one of the honorees of her #28DaysBlackHistory month, how did you react?
"From an American perspective, I think it's weird that there are cultures that don't celebrate people as much as they should, but I come from a culture that is not a 'rah rah' culture, unfortunately. The good thing is that you learn how to do things in silence, without expectation and without hoping for a prize or applause, and it's all about focusing on your thing. So, when this happened, I was thrilled, but I was also like, 'Oh God, now how do I deal with this?' Because, it sets up a different kind of conversation. It creates an association that has nothing to do with — and distracts from — what I’ve been trying to say.
"But, I really do appreciate one aspect of feminism that I think is important, and I think has been said by feminists that I care about: No one is truly free until all of us are. So, by pointing out women who are important and inspiring in the movement, [Beyoncé] was basically saying, 'I have a lot, but, these women are also doing this with me.' It's not singlehanded. So, in that way, I am happy. But, I felt strange, of course, because my national DNA is to recoil when somebody compliments me, which is not good."
So, if it's not Beyoncé's support, what's the praise that counts the most for you?
"I know it sounds really sappy, but I think when my little 5-year-old daughter likes things and asks questions about [my] work that are very sophisticated, I’m like, 'Damn, this is good. She’s set. I’m doing it.' That makes me happy. Everything else, I don’t know."