Chasing spirits in a concrete jungle

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Name: Wangechi Mutu
Age: 33
Occupation: Artist
Born in: Nairobi, Kenya
Now living in: Brooklyn, New York

Buddha the cat guards my home. She’s also the resident mousetrap, ghostbuster and muse. But wherever I am in the world, the spirit world finds me. My New York ghosts mingle with the monsters from my Nairobi childhood to inspire the protagonists that populate my canvases.

I moved to the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood of Brooklyn because I wanted to escape the constant scrutiny of Manhattan. It’s been important to the evolution of my art to have a safe space where I can indulge my fantasies and experiment with new ideas whenever I want to. I tend to hole up in my studio for vast tracts of time.

Botanical forms interest me now. It’s not quite a Mother Earth phase because I’m so disconnected from nature. Living in this concrete jungle, I miss bearing witness to the natural cycle of the moon and things that grow in the ground. I view my decision to work with botanical forms as an expression of green thinking; something that concerns many of my contemporaries. It also allows me to continue using The National Geographic, one of my signature sources for collage.

I enjoy challenging different cultures’ perceptions. Being an African, educated in Europe and the US and working in New York, I can put myself in many different peoples’ shoes. This natural affinity facilitates my ability to glimpse “the other” in making art and living life.

I’m learning to be comfortable with the mark I’m making in the international art world. It’s like learning to use watercolours – once you place your brush on the canvas, you’ve left an indelible impression. Oil painting is more forgiving.

Kenya is not part of the traditional art world paradigm. I dream about going back there to establish a place where artists and other creative professionals can mix things up. The approach to teaching art in my convent school in Nairobi was painful; still life drawing was boring. Attending an International Baccalaureate programme in Wales opened my eyes to new ways of seeing art and inspiration everywhere. My teacher advised us to create a “life bible” in which you captured random ideas, impressions and sketches that became the foundation for your art. I left Wales excited about pursuing a career as an artist but I knew it would never happen in Nairobi.

Richard Leakey, a family friend, challenged me to strike out on my own. Most of my peers who studied abroad went to England. I investigated the option of studying at Saint Martins or Slade art schools in London but I couldn’t afford the fees.

On some level, I also wanted to escape from the expectations of my family and friends. When I arrived in New York there was no support network. It was terrifying, invigorating and overwhelming.

I recently visited New Orleans to prepare for Prospect.1 New Orleans, the November 2008 biennial of international contemporary art organised by Dan Cameron. It reinforced for me that there’s no substitute for direct experience of a place. My ideas about what I want to produce for the exhibition changed radically after conversing with residents and witnessing the topography of the city. I’m optimistic that it will enjoy a rebirth.

I see parallels between the frustration of New Orleanians and Kenyans. Poor young people want their voices heard. That’s what drives them to do dramatic things for TV cameras: they can present their case to the world, courtesy of the BBC and CNN.

A big difference between New Orleans and Kenya is that the Kenyan economy is truly broken. Kenya’s reputation as a good place to visit and a profitable place to do business will be hard to repair.

Our destruction was self-inflicted and it will take a long time to heal. One of the country’s dirty secrets is that remittances from overseas Kenyans have been a bigger contributor to the economy than tourism. Those remittances are the only thing keeping many families afloat right now.

I think all Americans should be forced to have a passport and to travel overseas at least once in their lives. It would temper the debate about immigration and the treatment of new arrivals if every American experienced the alienation and isolation of being a foreigner. It will be interesting to see how Barack Obama changes the US. It’s thrilling to contemplate [the possibility of] an American president who has lived in Indonesia and feels a family connection to Kenya.

I’m part of the small expat community of Kenyans in New York City. We have organised forums to debate what’s happening at home. The initial meetings were focused on educating interested Americans about Kenyan history. My country is like most 30-year-olds – trying to get comfortable with its identity.

I’m a restless soul. I’m fortunate to be able to tap into communities of artists around the US that allow me to work and travel while I’m waiting for my US paperwork to be processed. It’s been interesting to hear the different dialects.

I’m blessed with an aptitude for language. I’m learning Italian now so that I can speak to my boyfriend’s grandmother.

A number of Kenyan friends have wound up in New York with their European or Asian partners. It’s not socially acceptable for Kenyan women to move out of the family home while they’re nurturing their careers. Kenyan women are expected to live with their parents until they leave home to marry. It’s an archaic system.

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