Anderson Ranch National Artist Award honoree Wangechi Mutu discusses her work
If You Go …
Who: Wangechi Mutu
What: Anderson Ranch Summer Series
Where: Schermer Meeting Hall, Anderson Ranch, Snowmass Village
When: Thursday, July 20, 12:30 p.m.
How much: Free (registration required)
More info: Register at www.andersonranch.org; Mutu will also be given Anderson Ranch National Artist Award on Thursday evening at the Anderson Ranch Recognition Dinner at the Hotel Jerome in Aspen.
The Anderson Ranch Arts Center has awarded Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu the 2017 National Artist Award.
Mutu will be honored at the Ranch’s Recognition Dinner on Thursday night and will give a free public talk Thursday afternoon on the Anderson ranch campus.
Mutu, 45, grew up in Nairobi, Kenya, and has been based in New York for the past 24 years, becoming one of the most acclaimed artists working today.
Her collage and sculpture work addresses race and gender issues, blending imagery from ancient history and from a comic book-like future. Her pieces combine painted imagery with magazine cutouts and reference — sometimes all at once — colonial histories, migration, pop culture and fashion and contemporary African politics. A body might become a hybrid of human and machinery and plantlife, or a cross-section of medical diagrams and fashion models.
In recent years, she’s made her way into filmmaking and imagined women in dystopian landscapes. Her first animated film was a 2013 collaboration with the musician Santigold titled “The End of Eating Everything,” where the singer becomes a Medusa-like creature battling a murder of crows. She followed that with “The End of Carrying All,” showing a woman walking a stark landscape, collecting an increasing number of things from the ground until they overwhelm her.
In her talk at the ranch, Mutu plans to show some of her recent three-dimensional work as well as segments of her films.
“I want to be able to give people a chance to see how the materials I’m using with the sculptures also inspire me as symbols of a much bigger emotional and cultural background and history,” Mutu said via Skype recently from her studio in Nairobi. “And certainly a personal one.”
Mutu has been based in New York since her college years. She recently realized a longtime goal of making a second artistic home for herself back in Kenya.
“I always fantasized about the idea of being able to make work in different places, especially in my home of birth and of inspiration,” she said.
In New York, she noted, she’s always fed off the frenetic energy of the city and the rich, readily accessible art world there in museums, galleries, schools and the creative community. She’s fed off the constant stimulation of New York for her whole adult life. Working in Kenya for the first time, she said, has forced her to slow down.
“Once I get there, my brain sort of opens up and is actually a lot more analytical and sensitive, because there is not that much distraction,” she explained. “Here, there is this wonderful space for contemplation.”
She’s begun working with new materials since opening her studio in Nairobi, including some local rocks, roots, fabrics and the native red-ish volcanic soil. Some of the things she used to collage from books and magazines, she said, she can now find in her backyard.
The influences and sources in Mutu’s work come from a wide range — ancient and futuristic, from high culture and low. On the day we spoke, Mutu had on her desk a book of works by Rodin, along with collections of Ugandan and Kenyan painters and a collection of Gikuyu “enigmas” — riddles in her native language. She also had one of her own books on hand and a copy of the band Sigur Ros’ film “Heima,” in which the post-rockers play music and film landscapes across their native Iceland.
“That’s come up because of this issue of land and home,” Mutu said.
Her part-time move back to Kenya is not a direct result of the tumult in the U.S. or the president’s anti-immigrant policies. But this troubled moment in her adopted home has affected Mutu deeply.
She plans to continue to work out of her New York studio, but the freedom of expression she found there when she first arrived in the 1990s, she fears, is ebbing.
“I literally didn’t even know what to do with that freedom, because I was coming from a country that didn’t have as much of a sense of freedom of speech and choice,” she said. “And now it’s a different time. … It’s a different time for truth. And it’s an odd thing to feel that truth can be under siege.”
Her mission as an artist is unchanged. Mutu has never shied away from speaking harsh truths or reflecting our society’s uglier side. But doing so, for her and for all artists, she said, is imperative in the Trump era.
“How important it is now to be able to — and to insist on — saying things that are truthful, complicated, inherently personal and real and not pretty,” she said. “It’s the time for this. It’s the artists who will hold that mantle.”
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