Wangechi Mutu Takes On Transmutation As a New Form of Existentialism

© Wangechi Mutu.  Beneath lies the Power, 2014. Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro, London.

© Wangechi Mutu. Beneath lies the Power, 2014. Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro, London.


Wangechi Mutu draws from stances as varied as East African folklore, Western popular culture, gender, sexuality, race, politics, pornography and religion. As if emanating from various hybridised enzymes, her artworks reveal a phantasmagoric multiverse populated by mythological creatures, cyborgs and chimeras with improbable anatomies that are as strangely alluring and empowering, as they are repugnant and beautifully grotesque.

Mutu’s one of a kind artistry materialises in the form of incredibly elaborate and profoundly arresting works of art. They include collages and paintings – the likes of which you have never seen – to art installations, sculptures and videos yet always with a common thread: exploring the subverted cultural preconception of the female form.

With her new show titled ‘Nguva na Nyoka’ (Sirens and Serpents) opening this October 14 2014 at London’s Victoria Miro, the unorthodox Mutu gives free way to one of her themes of predilection –  metamorphosis. This time inviting us to the inundated and magical realm of mermaids, a place where transmutation rules as a new form of existentialism.

Another Africa talks to the creative maven about cultural inheritance, childhood memories, the global village, the importance of dreaming, and everything in between.

Joyce Bidouzo-Coudray | Your art beautifully depicts the transmutation often occurring between the two worlds of the dead and the living, the dimensions of reality and dreams. How much importance do you give to dreams, and how do they if at all influence your creative process?

Wangechi Mutu | I do remember my dreams quite a lot. I also plan the work quite a bit but then I allow things to happen that are serendipitous and are uncontrollable. I teeter between the two – control and luck. Sometimes things go wrong, and in going wrong they give you some strange new area of knowledge. You learn something when you make a mistake, more than you would if you did it correctly. But I do a lot of sketches, and drawings in my free time. Theses very private drawings are the actual starting point. They are like streams of consciousness, of ideas that are completely absurd and very personal, even sometimes embarrassing to show. In many ways when I look at my drawings, I know what my issues were, where my head was, what my desires and fears were. They are like journal entries in the form of ink drawings – like awakened dreams.


© Wangechi Mutu.  A Tail about Sunset, 2014. Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro, London.

© Wangechi Mutu.  A Tail about Sunset, 2014. Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro, London.


Nguva na Nyoka is inspired by the Mijikenda stories. How did you first become aware of the sea mammal that coastal Kenyans call nguva?

Finally I have been able to travel which is the first amazing part of this whole experience. I went back a couple of times to Kenya before going to the coast in this case Mombasa, and it was there that these stories all came back to me. Every time I would ask people if they knew about Nguva, they would go into these elaborate answers, which made it all the more intriguing. I had sort of started doubting my own imagination, doubting that I had even heard of these stories when I used to live by the coast for almost a year, way back in my late teens.

Your fascination with Nguva brought you to make this the foreground of your current project. How are you able to capture the integrity of the idea and always maintain such powerful visual storytelling?

This mythology resides in a wonderful place in my imagination. I love the ocean, I love the idea of women being able to transform into something powerful, even in some cases frightening and mysterious to humans. These stories actually have everything that I love about stories in general but what is also amazing is that it relates to something real. The Nguva refers to the water nymph, but also to an animal found in the Indian Ocean – the dugong. It’s not quite a hippo, nor a seal, nor a dolphin and it does not look like a fish. It’s very peculiar and hybrid looking with its fish tail, large hippo torso and big chubby mouth.

The characteristics of the Nguva and the fact that it is live mythology [not ancient or dug up] that is so ingrained in the present day culture, is incredibly fascinating to me. It’s a real language, not a ‘once upon a time’ scenario. This gives it such a heightened sensation of fear and imagination. The fact that women have this option to turn into these myths, these powerful, indefinable creatures – especially in a place like the coast of Kenya where the traditionally patriarchal cultures of the African Mijikenda tribes prevail – is such a testament to all the possibilities of what a woman can do in a place where she is not actually permitted to do much. That is completely inspiring to me also as an artist. So that is why I dug into it.


© Wangechi Mutu. The screamer island dreamer, 2014. Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro, London.

© Wangechi Mutu. The screamer island dreamer,  2014. Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro, London.


This work seems to mark a significant departure from your previous obsession with violent incidences.

I think that those are definitely readings that I can’t speak for. The people who are interested in the work are allowed to, and have the ability to read it almost from a psychological perspective, or whatever perspective. It’s my work, I am going through these things. So if they come out looking in a particular way, perhaps that is the reason but it would be apparent to me only in hindsight I think.

There is an air of peace and tranquility to this new body of work. A sort of poetic digression from women objectification to actual female empowerment…

You know there is still some violence in my work. These girls, these women, these sirens, these creatures have the capacity to hurt people who are vain or easily seduced by them. Their moral compass works in a way that they go up to people, especially men who have a yearning, a weakness for a mistress, or a girlfriend or something that they shouldn’t and they lure them into the ocean. It can happen over a series of weeks, months or a longer period but eventually they get them to go out and do things that they wouldn’t do. Perhaps I’m wondering more about that type of power that could be called ‘female’ or ‘feminine’ power; one that is not just used for sinister and evil purposes but in this case used, in a way that is outside of the box of what is considered rational or masculine-oriented understood power – whatever that is. It’s also about creating a new space for myself with new fantasy worlds, and new areas in which to enjoy making art.

Nyoka means serpent in Kiswahili or Kikuyu? Can you give us more insight about how an Nguva and by extension a Nyoka  can be perceived as forms of female empowerment?

Nyoka means snake, in my mother tongue and in Kiswahili. It’s very onomatopoeic. It’s got this slither – the ‘nyo nyo nyo’, which is like the slither of the snake in the word.  The coast I lived on [because of the temperature and the terrain] has extremely dangerous and larger snakes than you find upcountry. I hadn’t done as much research and investigation on snake mythologies, but the more I heard stories the more my fascination with the snake grew.

I’ve done a lot more research looking at pictures that relate to iconography from the Catholic Church. I went to Catholic school. The Virgin Mary and the Snake are part of the most ubiquitous pictures, sculptures and images one sees. In the Garden of Eden, Eve encounters a snake that actually symbolises the transformation that she will have to go through. She is tempted by the snake to do something that will give her ultimate knowledge but would also have her fall from grace and become essentially the cursed woman that we know of in the Bible. In some ways when you think about the notion of what women suffer from, a lot of the stories entrenched in historical and patriarchal religious renderings, are the basis for the maltreatment of women still today. So not only is the snake forever the enemy of woman, from this encounter woman is evil. Eve is a word that has many connotations, it means life but it’s also coined from ‘evil’. How do we contend with that? There is actually a work in the show that is called ‘Even’ and it’s very much about this idea of getting back something which is ours, getting even. It’s also a nod to the old stories of women creators – the fertility goddesses, the original Eves in all creations, myths and in all artworks.


© Wangechi Mutu.  Even, 2014. Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro, London.

© Wangechi Mutu. Even, 2014. Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro, London.


What about the sexual connotation relating to these nymph like creatures?

The Nguva itself is supposedly an animal that sailors, like the mermaid, have ended up wanting to make love to, if not making love to. I don’t know what happens in the ocean after men have been out at sea for months, but things do happen, and the stories that come back from all these people over thousands of years are unbelievable and completely mesmerizing. Apparently if you capture an Nguva in the coastal region you have to go to the imam and swear you haven’t had sex with this animal before ultimately going through a series of cleansing rituals, because chances are that you may have. So yes there is a sexual element. Even considering the hunting of these creatures to eat them – apparently the meat of a Nguva is quite delicious. There’s something very erotic and slippery that transpires through the kind of relationship between food and women, between the ocean and sex, between life and birth, creativity and femaleness. It’s completely all wrapped into this very slippery, moist skin of stories and ideas that I love to explore.

The only Western reference to the name Nyoka that I’ve found refers to a fictional character called Nyoka The Jungle Girl by American writer Edgar Rice Burroughs – who also came up with Tarzan. It’s a very colonial take on African folklore to say the least that couldn’t be any further from the essence of the original mythologies. Were you aware of this distortion and is a part of your work aiming to set the record straight?

[laughs] I honestly didn’t know about this and haven’t even looked it up because I didn’t think there was any such thing. Awful! I do feel that the majority of women’s imagery is still stereotypical or negative. They are being hyper-sexualised and dehumanised, or being used to just sell a product, or made up to facilitate the movement of money from one product, from one company to another, and into someone’s pocket. So I do think that in using the terms nguva and nyoka, number one I am making the words public. I am lifting them off a very static page, and giving them some kind of movement so that they can turn into something that is a little more understood, known and spoken about. Even in our innate culture, a nyoka is a looked down upon animal; it is not one of these creatures that are revered in a positive way. Snakes are very frightening in a lot of African folklore. So I am also using that word to be provocative, and to tease people into looking at things that are so called unpleasant, that give a sense of fear and anxiety trying to understand why does this bother you? Why does this make you feel this way and how can we undo it?

In my homeland of Benin, animists from the Voodoo cult hold to this day a fervent adoration for the water divinity called Mami Wata! Part siren, part fish and part reptile, she is the personification of beauty, power and spiritual enlightenment. How do you explain such strong similarities for example between Kenya’s Nguva and Benin’s Mami Wata and how they interlink to other water divinities and mythical creatures from ancient Greece, Europe, China and the Arab world?

Yes I love that you created that relationship, that’s good. I’ve done a great deal of research and found all these relationships to the same stories. Yet in almost all coastal cultures, mythologies around water women and the animals slightly differ. For example there are a lot more sculptures, pictures and painting of Mami Wata in West Africa. We don’t have that occurrence in East Africa for whatever reason. This gave me the option to make it all up.


© Wangechi Mutu. History Trolling, 2014. Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro, London.

© Wangechi Mutu. History trolling, 2014. Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro, London.


Are you intrigued or maybe inspired by animism, occultism and more directly Voodoo?

A belief system is so deeply embedded in a people’s culture that it affects everything. These stories seem unbelievable to most of us because it’s not part of our belief system. But if you are in that belief system, you are no longer confronted to a scary weird thing. You are merely relating to something that is real.

My point is that I’ve always had big fantasies about what our worlds, our countries, our nations, our cultures were like previous to European colonisation. I also believe that one of the most strangely powerful things about people who were shipped to the Americas for slave labor, is that – because of the urgency and the violence of that removal – they held onto traditions and sometimes preserved them better than in the original countries, because people didn’t have anything else. They lost their land, their families and they lost their language, so they hid them in nuggets of either objects or places in their memories, or rituals, or dances. The drums and the clothing have been thrown out, you’ve been told you can’t speak your language, you are not amongst people who speak your own language, yet you are still able to find a way to remember that goddess, that priest or that entity that you used to worship in your village and bring them back in order to begin a new discussion about what that means in the new land.

This survival of our culture through these extremely ingenious, resourceful manners is just to me mind-blowing. That stuff is amazing, especially for an immigrant. I remember studying syncretic religions in Haiti and Brazil; those are still one of the big two countries we are looking at because they have Candomblé and Voodoo, and they resonate in such a way with African cultures. One of my favourite books and one of my bibles at the time was Flash of the Spirit by Robert Farris Thompson. In general his writing is so inspiring because he is one of these people who really truly breaks down the living cultures of Africa in the West through language, music, food, rhythm… I thought about that quite a bit, because I was also thinking ‘How do I survive in this new place myself?’ [laughs] I had it easier; I just had to fly there to go to school. But I was thinking ‘How do I retain my identity, in this place where there is not too many of me?’


© Wangechi Mutu. Mountain of prayer, 2014. Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro, London.

© Wangechi Mutu. Mountain of prayer, 2014. Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro, London.


It is really bewildering for me, to see that in today’s Africa there are so many conflicting references that are converging towards female empowerment. I am wondering where it’s all coming from?

It’s time [laughs]! I think that there are a lot of things that are happening right now that have to do with the generation that I come from – the kids born in the 70s and 80s and even the younger people saying – ‘You know what, my mum maybe didn’t have a choice. My grandmother certainly didn’t have a choice. They were extremely dignified, powerful women but I have a choice. I don’t have to be this kind of girl; I don’t have to be in this sort of profession. I don’t have to look this particular way to exist in this world and I certainly don’t have to marry this man or work under this human being in order to survive. Those of us who are lucky enough to even say that and to rebel from these traditions have a responsibility, or should at least feel responsible to say what needs to be said about the positive and empowering things of where we come from.

During a recent talk at the Tate London, I was explaining that I come from a place where there is a red light district, prostitutes and a pornography industry – and pornography is illegal. So anyone working in that industry, primarily women are not protected in these situations. Homosexuality is illegal. So you can imagine what that means for all of those creative wonderful queer folks back in my country and in Africa in general. People don’t have to leave home to be liberated, and to be African the way that they want to be and certainly not the women who want to be creative, different, who want to be out of the box. It’s time for us to speak up if we can, if its not going to cause us harm. The issues are still there, they are still apparent. But we know that we can survive or better yet help others by saying something. If we have a role and a position that gives us visibility which is protection. Visibility means that you are actually protected from the wrath of a lot of authority figures in these kinds of conservative enclaves. I can’t sit through this. I can’t let my kids, my daughters grow up thinking that this is the only option they have. So let me do it through my work, and through my words and through my actions.


© Wangechi Mutu. My mothership, 2014. Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro, London.

© Wangechi Mutu. My mothership, 2014 Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro, London.


Nguva na Nyoka, opens this October 14 and will be on exhibit until December 19th 2014 at London’s Victoria Miro. A publication accompanies the exhibition with text by Adrienne Edwards and Binyavanga Wainaina.

For more insight on the work of artist Wangechi Mutu |

Written by Joyce Bidouzo-Coudray.

All images courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro.

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