Wangechi Mutu

Wangechi Mutu talks about her work in “Blackness in Abstraction” at Pace Gallery

Wangechi Mutu, Throw (detail), 2016, paper, ink, dimensions variable.

Wangechi Mutu is a Kenyan-born, New York–based multimedia artist. Her work is currently featured in the group exhibition “Blackness in Abstraction,” which is curated by Adrienne Edwards and will be on view at Pace Gallery in New York through August 19, 2016. Here, Mutu discusses Throw, 2016, the site-specific action painting, made of black ink and pulp from magazine pages, that she produced for the show.

I’VE COLLECTED paper materials for my collage paintings for many years, and I realized recently that I had way too much in my studio. So I began to purge by shredding a lot of it and ended up with bags and bags of shredded magazines and junk mail. And then one day I experimented, turning it into a porridge—a mushed-up pulp—and at that point something new and simple happened. I mixed it with some ink and found I’d opened up something. I knew how I was going to work with this material that was now sculptural. I thought: I need to animate this material; I need to do to it what I often feel about it—which is that it’s vile, it’s alive, it’s dead, and its deadness is meaningful. As I threw it onto the wall at Pace, it was wet and heavy and very organic—it had tea and food dyes as well and since I have it sit around in bins, eventually it ferments and smells. I think disassociating ourselves from live matter or from nature is is one mishap in the development of human knowledge.

I tend to read more news than I read about art. I have the radio on a lot. I’ve always been fascinated with how women protest, especially in my home country, where in many ways, women are seen as secondary to men in terms of their voice and their power publicly. Often it’s dangerous to be a woman protesting, so women have to come up with specific ways of drawing attention to themselves.

From Pussy Riot to the disrobing Kenyan Mothers to the Arab Spring, there have been so many women who have been so creative and at the same time courageous in unexpected ways in order to protest abuse of their rights and mistreatment, especially for the particular places that they come from and the severity of the politics that they’re up against. I certainly wanted to merge this gesture of demonstration with the placement of painting on this wall. A wall that is in many ways inert—quite passive, quiet, and inaccessible. Throw is supposed to embody all of that: the movement and the resulting chaos and beauty of protest and of paint that hasn’t had calculation in where it should be placed or forethought in how it is composed.

In the belly of this show there is a rumble about speaking up inside a space that is silent, and about certain things that blackness has to say. In my case, I wanted to do something that I have only so much control of, going back to the root of painting, the root of art, the root of the ritual of representing our humanity outside of ourselves. Of course, I am aware that my understanding of blackness, as an African, is quite different, coming from a country that has a black majority, rather than perhaps someone who has been raised in a country that has used the word black to demonize and to denigrate its people.

In Throw I’m looking to show the soul in blackness, the heart of blackness—taking and twisting around Joseph Conrad’s title, if you could think of it that way, to be generative and indeed positive. There is something that draws people to blackness. There is something inside of all of us that is mysterious and black—in our relationship to Africa through our DNA, and in the relationship to questions of the mind that have no color.