Wangechi Mutu: Collagist and ‘cultural anomaly’ is returning home after 20 years

Mutu spoke to author and cultural philosopher Greg Tate before her return to her native country this year, after 20 years in New York. This is an extract of their conversation and an expedition into his microscopic reading of her.

I’ll play it first and tell you what it is later. — Miles Davis

I start in the middle of a sentence and move in both directions at once. — John Coltrane

In exile: An exile. A fugitive. An INS [Immigration and Naturalisation Service] case file. A perceived African American, pending.

A Maroon. A Maasai mirror image. A Maasai womannot. A Gikuyu cosmopolite. A Nairobi composite. A Gikuyu speaker like writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, although one maybe not so well understood by many back home.

Wangechi Mutu is one twisted sister. A sister who wilfully, wantonly, wonderfully, gets a whole bushel of things twisted. Twisted things tend to go bump in the night. Like when your spooning hand runs over your furry polysexual lover’s keloid scars. Like when Barack Obama and his seals, Team Six, ran up on Osama bin Laden.

Unlike Obama’s Luo daddy, Mutu’s people in Kenya are Gikuyu. Twenty-two percent of the population of Kenya Gikuyu be. They are also known as the “highlands people”. The ones most aggressively colonised, penally herded even, by the British until they rose up and launched a war of terror against British labour camps and displacement.

These Gikuyu were, yes, the same Kenyans known later as the Mau Mau.

These are the people from which our Mutu issues (although this is not why we believe her to be such a twisted sister). Both of Mutu’s great-grandfathers were Gikuyu chieftains, which, in the Disney version of her life, would make Mutu something of an African princess if the Gikuyu were monarchical.

But even African princesses can get the blues. Or, like the saying goes, show me an unhappy childhood and I’ll show you an artist. Or perhaps just a woman who refused to remain silent from the moment she decided to be an artist.

“I’m not too sure where exactly I came from. Like many an artist I was born with an inner restlessness, a heightened curiosity and an innate weirdo-ness. At an early age I understood that I wanted to do things creatively, engage with people, look at things that were seen as unconventional, travel, experiment. But my first love wasn’t art, it was music,” she says.

“I took classes at school and learned how to read music and play the flute. I loved to sing and make up dance routines in front of my mirror. I would paint my face, dress up, create weird alternate personas for my own personal music class. I knew I was a bit of an oddball — but not so much in school, more in my family.

“I was outspoken and yet pretty shy. I was melancholic — still am — sensitive and a natural-born feminist from a very young age. When I had my last epic fight with my father, at the age of 16, and told him he couldn’t hit me, that I was leaving home and never coming back, I set off this powerful energy that catapulted me into another world, another reality.”

She continues: “That freed me from the noose of an umbilical connection to him that I’d grown to resent. A year later I would be boarding a plane to Wales for high school, never to live in my parents’ home again.

“Painfully, I actualised my second birth as a self-proclaimed, fearless, freakish, uprooted, creative type. In a way I ‘put a spell on me’ that sealed my fate as a maker of ideas and a seeker of self-emancipation through transformation and cultural immersion. It was one of the worst and best things that ever happened. It began my painful understanding of what the difference is between being an artist and a famous person, and I didn’t have the emotional infrastructure to deal with my loved ones’ rejection.

“It wasn’t really a deterrent though. I was a loner and the visual arts were a perfect lab for my kind … and besides, there were tons of similar cold-shoulder experiences from my family that made me more and more comfortable with the idea of creating in solitude and postponing, or completely eliminating, the need for an audience’s reaction,” she says.

“Figuring things out for myself … tinkering around with materials and images to fulfil my own epiphanies first and foremost was something I learned very early.”

The fact that Mutu is an internationally renowned Kenyan artist born of a high muckety-muck Gikuyu bloodline who has lived and worked in a Bedford–Stuyvesant, or Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn brownstone for nearly a decade should be, in itself, enough to qualify her as an “Afro-futurist”.

If only you, or anyone else, actually knew what an Afrofuturist really is. We could hazard to say that Afro-futurism, like Afro-punk, Afro-surrealism and neo-hoodooism, are the default black cultural nationalist imaginaries of this historical moment.

This is to say, they are all broad umbrella terms for black née Gikuyu creatives and black née Kenyan collectivities that privilege black née African identity, black née post-soul self-determination, black weirdness and black sf (alternately and fluidly meaning the genres of science fiction or speculative fiction, to critical theorists of the genre).

Duke Ellington once said that the only music and musicians he was interested in were those who were “beyond category”. He told Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie that the worst thing they ever did was let critics name their (black) art “bebop”, because it boxed them in.

Charlie Parker himself once observed, “They teach you there’s a boundary line to music. But man, there’s no boundary line to art.”

Once upon a time bassist and composer Charles Mingus begged us to consider All the Things You Could Be by Now if Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother.

If your father and mother were the grandson and granddaughter of Gikuyu chieftains, you could conceivably be Wangechi Mutu by now. Even though Mutu will tell you she doesn’t know where the funk she came from. She, who answers positively to the charge of being a “cultural anomaly”.

“I sometimes look at my parents and wonder, ‘Where in the hell did I come from?’”

The Gikuyu primarily dwell in the mountainous and sometimes chilly highlands and the Luo are fishermen who live in the country’s more tropical south, near the Great Lakes, a part of the country the British found too uncomfortable to pillage and despoil.

While the Gikuyu largely converted to Christianity under British-settler rule, the rural Luo maintained their belief system and still proudly pass it on to their descendants.

Mutu recalls her devout grandmother almost never discussing the Gikuyu’s cultural past. On the other hand, she also recalls her Mau Mau generation grandparents as being far more politically “radical” than either of her parents.

She recalls that her father even came back from university studies in 1960s Michigan as something of an irate anti-communist. Kenya was never in any danger of turning Marxist, not even when Obama’s daddy was briefly in Jomo Kenyatta’s government.

Obama’s dad believed the post-revolutionary government should nationalise all the Western industries and corporations then in Kenya. (These notions of ripping off The Man and giving back to The Motherland are ones Obama Sr had the temerity to lay out in a white paper submitted to the state department.

This is what capsized Papa Obama’s career in government and led to the downward spiral that Obama describes in Dreams of My Father).

Mutu has made a series of videos in which she as protagonist emblematises the horrors of the Middle Passage, Rwanda, madness, homelessness. Her installation Exhuming Gluttony can be seen as her riff on How the West Was Won, though there are subtle allusions to her bovine-throat slitting Maasai homeboys in there too if you look hard enough.

We could not begin to tell you what is undeniably Kenyan or Gikuyu about Mutu’s art. Even as sophistry, this would be so much easier if her people were rural southern buck-wild Luo and not the more seminal, northerly, sedate, God-fearing, urbanised, middle-class Gikuyu.

We do know these tidbits, however: all the major deities in the Luo pantheon are thought by some scholars to be goddesses. Early on in their encounters with British colonisers (or the same’s evangelical missionary front men), the Luo found Christianity to be a bore and hostile and quite incompatible with their traditional belief system, complex social structure, polygamous relationships and gregarious natures.

Mutu somewhat resembles Kenya’s famously tall, longnecked, nomadic, cattle blood-drinking, hand-to-hand lion-killing, gorgeously coiffed, pierced, tattooed and adorned Maasai people.

The Maasai share the Luo’s Nilotic language roots and they force their daughters to endure the torment of female circumcision and genital mutilation. Mutu of course was not raised near any Maasai but instead in Kenya’s very urban, very cosmopolitan capital city, Nairobi.

In her parents’ time though, the ethnic distance maintained between Gikuyu and Luo people was so extreme that even in a major modern African metropolis her mother and father didn’t, still don’t, have any Luo friends (Mutu says she and younger generation Gikuyu and Luo peers do maintain friendships).

“There’s still so much to do. Not the least of which is returning home. As much as I feel like I was dropped into my family from some alien spaceship — an aquatic being in the land of hills and rusty soil — my work will not mean enough to me or any one I truly care for until I can make it from back home.

“My work will be most fulfilling when I connect it with my history, my people, my land.”

Greg Tate’s new book, Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader (Duke University Press), from which this essay is extracted, will be launched at Keleketla! Library on September 10.

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