- Artist Statement
When asked in an interview “Do you have a central idea or figure out of which you want to generate the overall assembly of the image … Is the process one that starts with a very firm sense of where it will end and then accidents and serendipities begin to happen?” Wangechi Mutu responds, It’s both. Now I have a greater sense of confidence and I can comfortably say I want to head in this direction, I want this to be a powerful leaping figure and I want this color. But it happens in tiers. I start off with an 8.5 by 11 sheet of paper, and then I transpose that image to life-size, a scale I’m using more often now. Then I start to shift what happened in the original drawing. Maybe that life-size looks a little too literal, so I slowly augment things; perhaps something looks too natural, or it’s too elegant. So I disrupt it, I remove a limb or change the elbow. When I’m doing that larger drawing, I temporarily place all the elements that are not going to be inked and I add the mechanical elements, like the beak on the face. Finally, I put on the Mylar and start to ink. I can see the drawing from under because Mylar is translucent but, when I ink, I’m very aware that it does what I want it to do. It will get to a certain point and then the meniscus of the liquid breaks. It trickles away here and there and creates a new form, everything from a drip to a bulge.
[The history of representing women in Western art as attractive is] an issue in my case because black women in the arts are still incredibly exotic. There’s not that many of us and there are often times when I walk into a museum to install an exhibition and it takes a while for people to register that I might be the artist. We’re not used to seeing women of color, especially black women, in powerful positions in the art world. The other element is that beauty is subjective and I have to say that it’s very sensitive ground. I remember when I was at school at Cooper Union, that’s where the grasp I have on contemporary art started. The teachers were rigorous, well-read and brilliant. Their breadth of knowledge was tremendous and the people they brought in to teach and work with us were also incredible. But we would have discussions about art and one of the worst words you could say in class was “beautiful.” I remember thinking, What in heaven’s name is wrong with this word and why do people get a rash every time they hear “beauty” or “beautiful”? I went from questioning to resenting why no one was willing to discuss why we couldn’t utter the word. I believe the reason is because beauty was actually available to them, their culture decides for the whole world what is beautiful, how beauty should evolve, where it begins and ends. So they were rebelling against the very thing that had protected them. They didn’t want to use the term “beauty” because they owned it. Maybe “beauty” is a sensitive and politicized word for people who have a hard time describing their own culture at this particular point because of the hierarchy colonization has set for things. It’s not something they want to reject because they’re still fighting to have it. If your entire history of art and your language and your culture are considered to be primitive, maybe you’ll fight for the idea of something being beautiful. [End Page 921]
Robert Enright asks Wangechi Mutu about her description of her “Pin-up” series as, in her own words, “distorted glamour Frankensteins” … “Do you want it both ways: to have the beauty and its opposite at the same time?” She responds, I think so because things and ideas exist, at least in my mind, in contrast and in relationship to other things. I also believe that how we process...