Wangechi Mutu | I'm interested in how the eye can trick you

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Wangechi Mutu finds it pleasing to hear that her video piece, “The End of Eating Everything”, made viewers’ skin crawl with its haunting and evocative creepiness. It means her optical trickery is working. The Kenyan artist, now based in New York City, constructs rich mythical mash-ups of beauty and the grotesque that tease and taunt the eye.

Mutu is drawn to visual pun-making because she is “interested in how the eye can trick you”, she says. Speaking in an interview with Design Indaba at Stevenson Gallery where her animation is part of the group show King’s County, she explains: “My intention has always been to try to understand the differences between how one person sees something versus another. That sensitivity comes from being a bit of an outsider or a foreigner for so long and at the same time having blended in, even when I wasn’t familiar with my surroundings. Leaving Kenya was difficult but it was also refreshing.”

Born in Nairobi in 1972, Mutu left in her teens to study at the United World College of the Atlantic in Wales before moving to New York in the 1990s. She earned a BFA from Cooper Union for the Advancement of the Arts and Science in 1996, and an MFA from Yale University in 2000. Her potent collages and mixed-media work examining stereotypes of African women have earned her recognition as one of the leading contemporary artists from Africa. She has had solo exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, among others.

Transplanted in a foreign culture, Mutu became attuned to the way people reacted to her and what this said about their perceptions of people from Africa. “As an African woman what I was hearing made me feel like I came from this archaic, tribal, traditional space that had never changed and that came out of some strange Tarzan film,” she says. “I didn’t believe that this was the way it should be or could be, so I thought ‘How do I address that issue without it consuming me?’”

Her art explores a middle ground of dealing with stereotypes and the struggle against these expectations.

“The End of Eating Everything” is her first animation, made in 2013 out of a desire to bring her “Tumour” series of collages to life. “I wanted to have the time dimension be a part of it,” she says. The series references a blistering and ulcerated planet that has erupted into all kinds of problems: “Its pulsing and alive but it’s also sick,” she explains.

This is my way of looking at the earth and what it must feel like to be the earth, Mutu says.

The animation begins with a close-up of a woman with Medusa-like serpent hair, taken by a flock of ominous dark birds flitting around her. But as we zoom out, we see she is connected to a giant cancerous boil that has exploded into dismembered arms and legs, bits of machinery and suppurating disease.

Mutu says she wanted to know “not just a pulsating shape but a character – I wanted to animated it and give it a role to play”.

It’s a frightening metaphor for the state of the earth. “There’s something about the way we exist in the world today that is very much like being cancerous,” she explains. “The way we have developed and what we consider to be civilisation is actually ruining this beautiful orb.”

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