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Nguva na Nyoka

Wangechi Mutu


I’d like to dedicate the Nguva na Nyoka exhibition to my two water girls Neema and Wathira. Thank you Neema for your wonderful drawings! And a huge Thank You to My Ever Wonderful-Loving-Supportive-Super-Man Mario!


Nguva na Nyoka Adrienne Edwards

The bewitchment of mythology is that it always proposes far

as if she’d just encountered this celebrity sea character. This

more than it contains. Wangechi Mutu’s (b. 1972, Nairobi,

is how it is.”1

Kenya) dynamic and generative new body of work, collectively entitled Nguva na Nyoka comprising thirteen collage works

As anthropologist Eileen Moyer has documented, in Swahili

of varying scales, a video projection and an undulating

culture there are two fantastic folkloric versions of the

floor sculpture of black reptilian vinyl, presents thresholds

origins of nguva. One account of one of the versions refers

in which the sublime powers of objects and beliefs are

to Siri ya mangu (a secret of God), and tells of a fisherman

manifest. These fetish objects are an extension of the artist’s

who had two wives:

many variations of collaged warrior-women, hybrid and symbiotic figures or anthropomorphic beings with severed

The younger wife, who he had just recently married, was

breasts, rotting skin and wild hair culled from images in

pregnant with her first child and endlessly jealous of her

fashion and pornography magazines, and embellished with

co-wife. It seemed to the fisherman that she spent her

a range of vibrant colour, lush ornamentation and exacting,

entire day trying to think of things to demand from him.

imaginative marks of her hand.

The day finally came when he was unable to meet her requests and the two began fighting with one another. She

Along the East African coast of the Indian Ocean, the

was so angry with him that she decided to run to the sea

legendary nguva have two interrelated points of reference;

and jump in to punish him. He ran after her because he

one is the dugong, an endangered herbivorous mammal

knew she could not swim, but by the time he reached the

that lives in warm shallow coastal waters, and the other is

shoreline it was too late to save her.2

the mythological water women or mermaids. At the age of eighteen, Mutu first encountered the tale of the nguva, as

The other story has its beginning with a wealthy trader:

she has explained it, “when I lived on the coast on the island of Lamu [off the coast of Kenya], and the residents would

One time he was traveling by sea in a jahazi, a large

tell me these stories […] ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah I saw one the

fishing boat that carries cargo between the islands and

other day’ a local woman said and she just got into this story,

mainland (of Tanzania). He had his pregnant wife along


with him, as he was taking her to the mainland to see her

people or explain a practice, belief or natural phenomenon,

family. That day, however, she was in a bad temper about

emerged in Mutu’s work more than a dozen years ago as a

something. The husband did not think too much of it: he

means to imagine scenes that coil myriad material, historical

considered this typical behavior for a pregnant woman.

and social meanings. The endeavour is what cultural critic

They continued to argue for some time. She insisted that

Édouard Glissant might describe as a premonition of the

she was too embarrassed to go home to her family. She had

past and memory of the future. For example, around 2002,

married a rich man but he failed to provide her with all

she began creating collage works, “focused on these subjects

the things that a woman requires to maintain her beauty.

that were female, somehow transforming into or from

How could she go home wearing her old clothes and

cyborgs or chimeras of animal, plant, and human mixtures.

the shoes that her own mother had given to her for her

These sort of mythological creatures: in poses, in action, in

wedding? When her husband failed to take her seriously,

dance, caught in motion in their worlds.”6 Mutu’s multivalent

the frustrated wife jumped overboard to punish him. She

process extracts these timeless, authorless and temporally

knew he would have to jump after her to save her, but by

unbound aural cultural expressions and transfers them into

the time he did it was too late.3

two- and three-dimensional, as well as time-based, art forms. In making mythology immanent in her art, she dismantles

It is at this point the stories align. Allah exerts his wrath

complex historical mechanisms and systems of value, and

on the women for their selfish ways and reckless behaviour

zeros in on the disparaged, overlooked and maligned aspects

by making them mermaids, thereby creating nguva. Both

of certain cultural expressions and their sensibilities.

myths have the pregnant women giving birth in the sea to a male child, ostensibly a merman, with whom, after he

Along these lines, the artist has long interrogated the

comes of age, they mate – mother and son – proliferating

manner in which black female bodies are displayed and

an entire species.4

engaged in art and visual culture, especially where they are rendered questionable, suspect and undervalued. The

I foreground these tales because they not only give useful

moral imperatives of the nguva myths obviously are deeply

context to understanding the inspiration for Nguva na

gendered, trafficking in problematic stereotypical attributes

Nyoka, but also because they illumine the artist’s ongoing

of women as being hysterical, demanding, materialistic, ever

ideological concerns. For Mutu has been invested in these

on the verge of disintegration and somehow always too late

flights of fantasy for a long while, if only as a vehicle to create

to be saved from the perspective of patriarchical cultures,

her own. Mutu, who is of a generation of urban Kenyans

yet they also paradoxically adduce a resonant desire for

that is, in general, less informed of African mythology and

women’s freedom, independence and a right to determine

traditions, creates allegories through phantasmal fabrications

their destiny. Thus the myth’s continuing circulation seems

that materially and conceptually draw upon, coalesce and

to suggest a desire in these societies to respond to anxieties

incise illusion and reality, the so-called traditional and the

about shifting gender-based moral codes and power

futuristic, such that we experience them in the work not as

dynamics. As Mutu has said:

polarities of one another but rather as multiple aspects of a seamless whole.5 Myths, culturally derived stories of historical

[…] in our part of the world [Kenya], nguvas live in

events which serve to reveal part of the worldview of a

the ocean, but also come out and pretend not to be sea


creatures. They trick people. They are able to find human

‘people do not make offerings to her [nguva], nor do they

weakness and utilize their power to drown people, to drag

profess to receive guidance from her,’ yet they share many

men into the ocean. They’re frightening and powerful

attributes.10 As scholar Henry John Drewal has noted, Mami

because sometimes you are unable to distinguish them

Wata is compelling because of her trans-ness, her mutability

from real women. In fact, that’s where their power comes

and anthropomorphic qualities: both human and fish, male

from, because a weak character might be convinced by this

and female, androgynous and trans-gendered, originating

woman, by her face, her features. And then, before you

from the sea, lake or river, African and/or ‘foreign,’

know it, you’re walking out into the watery wilderness and

meaning of Hindu Indian or European origin, of this world

into the water with her.7

and beyond and beneath it, of this time and yet trans-time.11 While Mami Wata is said to have the capacity to manifest as

Nyoka, which translates from Swahili as ‘serpent’, brings to

a male, all associated images are of a female water spirit,

mind the Abrahamic religious creation myth in which Eve’s

and what is said to be masculine about her is perhaps to

dalliance with the snake sees her and Adam banished from

be located in her independence and power, meaning in

the Garden of Eden, and thus all of humankind reduced to

the ancient notion of the virgin, which is a woman who is

the status of mere mortals. Mutu, who was raised a Protestant

autonomous, of her own, not owned by or owing to any

and attended Catholic school, may well be pointing to

man – an interesting correlation since Mami Wata is known

this ubiquitous narrative. However, I want to suggest that

to demand celibacy from her devotees. Other archetypical

the influence primarily lies elsewhere. As scholar Robert

(and in some instances stereotypical) female qualities she

Farris Thompson has noted, ‘if you head south through

possesses include being immensely seductive, assisting with

the African continent, you take a left at Kongo to get to

issues involving procreation, conferring power on women

Tanzania and a right to get to Haiti.’8 In bringing together

to become priestesses and healers, mediating sexual desires,

nguva and nyoka, Mutu departs from Kenya, takes that right

as well as demanding exorbitant sacrifices for her favours,

at Kongo, passes straight through to West Africa, then to the

exemplifying immorality, and troubling destructive and

northeast of Brazil and the sea islands of South Carolina,

temperamental tendencies.12

and ultimately in so doing, circumnavigates the entire African Atlantic world.

Beyond these there is another characteristic that is the most significant not only for her followers but also for the history

The profundity of the works comprising Nguva na Nyoka is

of the Atlantic world for over five hundred years, as well

also in part due to their relation to a pantheon of African

as for Mutu’s conceptual proclivities. This power is Mami

water spirits and a singular deity commonly referred to as

Wata’s ability to confer wealth and status, especially that

Mami Wata, which is often shown in mermaid form with a

which is ‘linked with trade, movement, and modernity.’13

snake and has an extraordinarily similar – and yet also locally

While Mami Wata is a potent ancient African icon, her

distinct – set of associated beliefs and practices throughout

evolution as a spirit, her representation in visual culture,

the African Diaspora.9 One of the notable characteristics

and the rituals that inform her worship have changed in

which distinguishes Mami Wata from nguva is that the latter

relation to the presence of Europeans in Africa, beginning

is not considered to be a spirit (as the former is in western

with the earliest Portuguese explorers on the West Coast at

and central Africa and throughout the African Diaspora);

the end of the fifteenth century, and extending through to


the period of colonisation in the eighteenth and nineteenth

spirits, a practice that coalesces heterogeneous elements

centuries.14 Her development as an ‘icon of modernity’,

into a single icon, and also incessantly germinates new ones.

particularly in images and the forms through which she is

It is a move that is foundationally related to the female

expressed and honoured, has been a result of capitalism.

body, as a reproductive gestalt that produces and displays

It is capitalism and its related networks and systems, such

an intense relation to – and power dynamic conceived

as colonisation, threading through Africa, Asia and the

through and imbued in – the art object, a material space

Americas, which have literally rendered her as a composite

illustrating the power of a single fixation and the sublime

of these cartographies. The hybrid and multifarious aspects

possibility of repetition.

of her ‘nature’ and form are a result of these circuits of exchange and a need for a religious and cultural figure able

With this work, Mutu is committed to generating images of

to assuage the angst beset by modernity.

water women that markedly differ from those that typically circulate in popular culture, the locus of which ranges from

Mutu creates fetishes with a knowing understanding of their

Hellenic notions of the siren to Nordic and Anglo-Saxon

‘sinister pedigree’ in constructions of African subjectivities

fishermen’s lore of portentous creatures – particularly of

not only in Western discourses, as justification for the

ill omen. A cursory search of the internet reveals that these

Atlantic slave trade and colonialism, but equally in their very

aquatic beings predominantly circulate as representations

comprehension of all aspects of African societies, cultures

of fair, flowing haired maidens. Mutu, however, pursues

and faiths.15 One need only trace the history of fetish to

another mythical genealogy of the mermaid and thus

comprehend Mutu’s objective, an insistence on a different

conceives of her own, envisioning the creatures as

kind of value as an inversion of that which is typically

apparitions in gothic black form with her indelible material

devalued. The works are a substantiation and reification of

mirages of gorging consumption, disturbing ferocity

that which is deemed primitive, backward and insignificant

and playful cannibalizations. Their power reverberates

in modernity’s project of progression, capital accumulation

from her imaginings of them, reminding us of the

and advancement. As the artist has said:

perplexing and mysterious hold they have on our social conscious, especially as they relate to representations of

For me it [nguva] represents something even more

femininity.

significant, which is a belief system that actually works and is intact, and is held together by the people who understand

To think of Mutu’s works, specifically those in Nguva na

the language, and who live within those parameters and

Nyoka, as fetishes is to acknowledge that they evolved

those worlds. […] We’ve – often for modernity’s sake, as

as the fetish did, which is to say as hybridized material

a race, as humans, as a colonized people, as colonizers,

manifestations that are informed by culturally diverse

however you want to say it – we have disrupted those ways of

spaces and practices. Like Mami Wata, the word ‘fetish’, as

thinking because it doesn’t jive with the new logic, with the

anthropologist William Pietz has noted, emerged along the

Enlightenment, with scientific development.16

coast of West Africa at the height of European capitalismdriven explorations.17 Specifically, the pidgin word fetisso

Mutu imprints the originating event in the work, namely the

derives from the Portuguese word ieticio, denoting ‘magical

use of fetishes by devotees in traditional rituals for the water

practice’, and feitiço is from the Latin adjective facticius,


meaning ‘manufactured’.18 Mutu’s radical proposition is

will to adorn’, is similar to the ornamentation found in

a practice of magical manufacture which takes cultural

African ‘traditional’ fetishes. Of the myriad cosmological and

expressions delimited in a quagmire of authentic realness,

ideological threads, Mutu’s capacious sensibility constructs

isolated purity and self-contained genesis, and unleashes

scenes that are fetishistic intensifications of synecdochic

them in an entirely new direction, in an entirely different

remnants that trace unexpected and strange quarters

mode, though strikingly the works’ irreducible materiality,

of history, which are ingeniously reimagined, materially

what anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston describes as ‘the

embodied and alluringly unified in Nguva na Nyoka.

Mami Wata, Mammy Water, Mamiwata, Mama Wota, Maame Water, Mère d’eau, Watramama, Mummy Water (Benin, Togo, Ghana, Guinea, Ibibio/Nigeria, Baule-Guro-Yaure/Côte d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, United States) · Ogbuide/Uhammiri (Igbo/Nigeria) · Miengu (Cameroon) Itapo/chitapo (Lamba/Togo, Democratic Republic of Congo) · uMamlambo (Xhosan/South Africa) Watramamma (Suriname) · La Sirène (Haiti) · Erzuli Freda (Haiti) · Erzuli Danto (Haiti) Santa Marta la Dominadora (Dominican Republic) · Yemaya (Cuba) · Iemanjá (Brazil) Oxum (Brazil) · An-yaron (Temne/Sierra Leone) · Ngowuka (Okrika-Ijo/Nigeria) Achikobo (Okpella/Nigeria) · Mamba Muntu (Congo) · Dona Fish (Zambia) Nguva (Kiswahili/Kenya, Tanzania, Zanzibar)

1

Wangechi Mutu in conversation with Deborah Willis, BOMB Oral History Project:

9

bombmagazine.org/article/1000052/wangechi-mutu. 2

For extensive and useful literature on the Mami Wata pantheon, see Drewal, Sacred Waters and also Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas (Los Angeles: Fowler

Eileen Moyer, ‘Death of the Mermaid and Political Intrigue in the Indian Ocean,’

Museum of Art, University of California, Los Angeles, 2008).

in Sacred Waters, ed. Henry John Drewal (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,

10

Moyer, 452.

2008), 457.

11

Drewal, 2.

3

Ibid, 457-458.

12

Drewal, 1-2.

4

Ibid, 458.

13

Ibid, 6.

5

Op.cit. Wangechi Mutu in conversation with Deborah Willis, BOMB Oral History Project.

14

See Drewal

6

Ibid.

15

William Pietz, ‘The problem of the fetish, I,’ RES 9, Spring 1985, 7.

7

Ibid.

16

Op.cit. Wangechi Mutu in conversation with Deborah Willis, BOMB Oral History Project.

8

Moyer, 451.

17

Pietz, 5.

18

Ibid, 5.


1. A Short Biography of Wa n g e c h i M u t u . Binyavanga Wainaina

2.

1971. Idi Amin takes over Uganda. Wangechi’s father

and spits her chew into your mouth, herbs and hot

buys a Peugeot 504. He and her uncle love to smoke

mush, pastes of beans, blood and milk, in small bits.

Rex Cigarettes. All Kenyan beer bottles are stumpy

Then your mum croons and goes out to stick her

and green. Over beer they discuss where they were

beak in the belly of a motorcycle trapped in a fashion

when Jim Reeves died in a plane crash.

shoot. Even now you can smell burning meat. Your fingers dream-bling!

3.

You are Wangechi Mutu. Born in Kenya. 9.

4.

You are Wangechi. Born. 1972. Born with a strange,

caterpillars are grazing and chewing mildly, stinging

bewildering left eyebrow. In a hospital run by

and tingling. Your mother’s arms are soft, but hurt.

Catholic order called Saint Discipline of The Blood.

5.

6.

8.

10. You are Wangechi. With Human Bovine petechial

They are nice to babies.

fever (Ondiri disease). Cattle diagnosed only in

1972. All Kenyan beer bottles were green. Franklin

Kenya. Symptoms: widespread petechial ecchymotic

Boukaka’s song, Aye Afrika, (Le Boucheron) will play

haemorrhages on the mucosal surfaces, and

every night late in shortwave all over East Africa, a

throughout the serosal and subserosal surfaces of

sad, sweet feeling. Inside our bloodstream of feeling

body organs, cavities. Fatal in up to 50% of untreated

independent.

cases. Transmitted by an arthropod vector, yet to be

You are a supermodel Kenya nomad four-year-old

identified.

cowherd Afro-girl with tulle claws and steel killing

7.

No, Wangechi, inside your head a thousand hairy

11. You are Wangechi. Your fever-dream is crumpling in

teeth.

fits and starts, the clarity shifts, and you are pulling

And you know that you have not been cow-herding.

an udder, biting it hard, it breaks, blood and milk

You just dreamt you were.

spill over you and you drink and your head is a soft

That it is not day. It is night. That your eyes are sticky.

pumice stone.

That you are sick. You know that kiss, your mother’s fever kiss? It comes to you every year. She sings softly

12. This is a story taught the first few weeks of Kenyan primary school. Wangu wa Makeri, a woman and


Gikuyu chief. Her dictatorship of women is toppled

considered calling her Susan. Anne. Ruth. An Aunt

when the men decide to get the women of the

from Nyeri strongly suggested the name Purity

village pregnant.

Scholastica to sit next to Wangechi on the birth

13. You woke up days later. Fine after eating Apro-junior. Which is fuzzy sweet.

certificate. A family friend was sure Jackie Onassis Mutu would have worked much better. 19. Wangechi Mutu.

14. For the first six months of her life Wangechi lived with a dramatically mobile left eyebrow. Every time her mum took her to the doctor the feral eyebrow

20. Mutu. Mud. Utu. Muntu. Person. Human. 21. Ubuntu In Nguni. Ubuntu means Personhood. Utu in Kiswahili means Personhood.

was calm. It seemed to move unhindered up and

22. Bantu. Is. A. Language Group.

down her forehead, left and right of her forehead,

23. Anthropo-logical.

and then return to position whenever the emotional

24. uBuntu Linux operating system free software

viewer sought a witness. One night her father saw it

named after the Southern African philosophy of

sitting right above her right eyebrow. He screamed.

ubuntu (literally, “human-ness”), which often is

15. This magical effect never lasted long enough to be

translated as “humanity towards others” or “the

medically diagnosed. Their home village, once named

belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all

Kwa Wangu wa Makeri, was agitated to near violence

humanity”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ubuntu_

by the idea of this eyebrow. They soon forgot for they

(operating_system)

were riveted by Little House on the Prairie on television. 16. Ayee Afrika, ohh Africa, Ohh Liberte. Le Boucheron. 17. In the early seventies, Franklin Boukaka began to

25. Your name is Wangechi. You are six years old. It is blurry and feels late, and you are sure you have herded

transfer his moral outrage from song to action. He

the whole day and sit under a tree in the last heat of

joined a group of disaffected Congolese with socialist

dry near Lake Naivasha. You know you are wrong. Cows

leanings in a plot to overthrow the government of

mumble and groan with gas and grass in their bellies.

Congo-Brazzaville. The attempted revolt of February

An Anthro-Geographic Lion looms. You scratch your

22, 1972 ended in failure. Although Boukaka’s name

vagina idly and think of your claws tearing his belly.

appeared on lists of arrested participants, his death was

26. You are Wangechi. Soon, evening is coming, the first

announced a few days later. Many Congolese suspected

small coolings are present, the cattle are still, your

he had been summarily executed.
In his brief but active

friend’s play-fights have become murmurs and warm

career, Boukaka grew from teenaged pop singer to

whispers, flesh-slapping games and giggles. You blink

principled social critic. Combining lovely melodies with

one eye open, and the softening sun burns your sight

trenchant lyrics, he critiqued his people’s changing

neon-blind. From your eye-shut shiny black tunnel

lifestyles and goaded the ruling elite in a manner

you are carrying tumbling limbs on night-raid runs,

similar to that of Bob Marley and Fela Kuti.
(Gary

and now, in transition, you see a thousand twisted

Stewart, Rumba on the River, Verso, London, 2011.)

acacia-men walking toward you, the fading sun behind them.

18. She is Wangechi. The first few days her parents

27. She is D.I.S.C.O! She is D.I.S.C.O!


28. You Are Wangechi. You can see their desire, it is

40. You are Wangechi. One racing-car ostrich crouches

star-bursts of heart stopping thrill-power in your sun-

near, and you look at him, and he is carrying his

blown pupils, coils and patterns of neon greens, reds,

fluffy bleeding entrails, clouds above are full of open

yellows, sun-shaped and pupil-shaped explosions

nerve endings and painfully pink biolight.

of distorted light. You shut your eyes fast, in that

41. Zebra-coloured tourist vans are part of Kenya’s

moment your eyelids are a sky of shining blood-

national archive of images.

coloured flesh, with a fine glowing network of

42. Your mum’s New Imported magazines Smell Good.

branches: of fear and coming death or glory.

43. You are Wangechi. You are swimming through the

29. A bull back jerks upwards in your ears, and coughs

dreaming hot porridge in your head when they come

out a deep painful moo, a long painful jet of hot

for you. Your grandmother’s screams are stranded in

piss on the ground, and the cows are excited and

between three soft hot thuds.

gather together. 30. She is D, Delirious. She is I, Irresistible. She is S, Super Sexy. She is C, Such a Cutie. She is O-O ooo. 31. They would have considered, the New Christians, cutting your clitoris for Anti-Colonial reasons in the 1920s.

44. Cowherd! Your ears rule every feeling. They silence the soft pad of flesh just below your kneebones which are cutting in the stones and dried sticks. Goat-legs are backwards. 45. Cow-herd! You can hear your kneebones scream, and you move more efficiently through the cooling breeze,

32. She is D.I.S.C.O!

your body becomes wind, and in the ripe attacking

33. They go to Mission School Not Knowing what they

dirt, your heart glows because you will be the first to

are releasing in their grandchild.

feel your hands grope at your nearest sleeping friend’s

34. But knowing it is a kind of release.

body. She snorts, you cover her mouth, put your

35. 1970s. Kenya is in every fashion magazine, every

mouth at her ear, and say the secret word.

animal print magazine. It is a big Safari Animal park fashion shoot. On Kenya Television too.

46. Girls go hunting dressed in vinyl, for fur.

36. Power in a new world. 47. She starts awake. Her warm body and heartbeat 37. Archives contain primary source documents that

follows the shape of your movements, as the next

have accumulated over the course of an individual

shape wakes, and the next, and guns are collected,

or organization’s lifetime, and are kept to show the

and you shall attack first. Your personal glory,

function of that person or organization. They have

chest-glowing like a crown of vinyl sunthorns stinging

been metaphorically defined as “the secretions of an

in your ears and neck as you arrive home at sunset

organism.” Wikipedia.

with a crowd of cattle and your troops cheering

38. Kenya is where old Fashional Geographic magazines

behind you.

come to die. And Vogue. Playboy. Right On. Ebony. GQ. 39. There was a short frenzied season of drawing lollipops on walls.

48. “The chief difficulty Alice found at first was in managing her flamingo: she succeeded in getting its body tucked away, comfortably enough, under her


arm, with its legs hanging down, but generally, just as she had got its neck nicely straightened out, and

55. We watched, in the 80s, with only one television station, one radio station, as teenagers…

was going to give the hedgehog a blow with its head, it WOULD twist itself round and look up in her face,

56. Michael Jackson’s face melt slowly.

with such a puzzled expression that she could not help bursting out laughing: and when she had got its head down, and was going to begin again, it was very

57. There was so little to watch. We had to wait months for the next development.

provoking to find that the hedgehog had unrolled itself, and was in the act of crawling away: besides all this, there was generally a ridge or furrow in the way

58. Kama Kama Kama Kama Kameleon, you come and go, you come and go-o –oh-oh.

wherever she wanted to send the hedgehog to, and, as the doubled-up soldiers were always getting up and walking off to other parts of the ground, Alice soon

59. President Daniel Toroitich Arap Moi banned toy guns and other foreign inFluenzas.

came to the conclusion that it was a very difficult game indeed.” (Alice in Wonderland)

60. Wangechi goes to The Carnivore for the first time in a friend’s stolen car wearing shoulder pads

49. The tractor spareparts make really nice earrings.

and bopping to Milli Vanilli. Early morning, sun

Wangechi wonders why butterfly wings leave powder

is up, they crawl out scared and full of alcohol

on the fingers.

and Wangechi notices a crushed chameleon next to the ladies toilet. She leans to pick it

50. “The Kikuyu were Matriarchal – power in the hands of women – before men finally overthrew them.”

up and thinks about cannibal butterflies, and giggles. It is leathery like silk. Driving past the Military hospital on Mbagathi Road, where,

51. 1978. In a glorious three days of measles, Tree-Top

every few months, drunk teenagers in their

Orange Squash, Ribena and House of Manji biscuits,

parents’ borrowed cars, crashed, died, or were

Wangechi read Alice in Wonderland.

dismembered. They kissed. “Nyeri chics are really brown,” he said, “and when they grow up they

52. Rich ripe jewels, like screaming ovaries, and crushed

beat their husbands.”

iridescent insects in the sand on your verandah. She has a famished African Baby, like Madonna.

61. Girl! Behind your crawling back, the lowering sun is heating up, not above the head where it is just

53. Barbie dolls are imported at great expense for a world starved Moi Kenya.

everybody’s. It is yours now. It burns the skin of your neck. In the distant world outside this tunnel, the cattle have gathered together waiting to go back to

54. “I know not to go too far and over-complete it

the boma and they shuffle restless, complaining in

because at that point it’s quivering and almost has a

your earlobes as you creep forward, in your private

vibration.” (Wangechi Mutu)

tunnel, with your private last sun.


62. A hot golden sunset magma of humiliation surges

Ricord is an early, and substantial, original source

up your teenage throat, and you let it gurgle, not

about gynecological disorders. Part of our casual

into tears or rage. No. You are Wangechi. Cowherd

knowledge about this has filtered down from him.

Supermodel. You push it down back to the top of

Our young man has magazine lips too: cutout pink

your stomach, and stretch your mobile loose mouth

lipstick lips, large and lush: the sort of lips some pay

to its limits. Whenever you do this, you find that

for collagen to get. How lucky, Wangechi seems to

a crowd bubble of gentle laughter makes you the

suggest somewhat wickedly? That lips are the one

centre of friends. But they are hostile now with your

territory we have that are wanted by the magazine

weakness in front of them.

perceptions of How You Must Look. A bit of the lip is red, lipstick again. The lips are pasted on, and

63. Iman was discovered herding goats in Somaliland riding a zebra. We like her coz she left Kenya.

slightly out of place – and it starts to arrive that what seems grotesque here is not. 71. The young man is in good health – and the shapes

64. We waited in the 80s, for friends to come from

imposed upon him leave his face with integrity.

America with pirated tapes of the latest music. Or

The questions being asked here seem to be about

Top of the Pops from England which we tuned into

membership: this black man is, too, an heir of

carefully on short wave radio, with crackles, bells

medical and other histories that have come before

and whistles.

him – but his choice and participation will be original – his colour, and its history, will bring

65. Kenya is flat. Moi season is tired. No money. No

their own contexts and insights. His third eye. His

Dreams. No Hope. In Kenya. Get a Visa and Run if

membership of this world has its inflammations; but

you can. Anywhere. Or Drink. Or Become a Born

has also wisdom. His third eye – digging deep into

Again Christian.

his brain, has received yellowed ideas, will provide

66. Eddie Murphy is Coming to America.

eurekas and will give birth to things. It is not for nothing that his brain is a womb.

67. They all follow you to Americanah. 72. “Wangechi came to the States in 1992 to study at 68. Wangechi Mutu is going to America to study Fashion

Parson’s, but transferred to Cooper Union, where

Merchandising for Safari-chic Cyborgettes with

she received her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in

longish goat-legs and crippled bleeding gold boots.

1996. She then went on to pursue her Master of Fine

69. Like This:

Arts degree in sculpture from Yale University School

70. uterine catarrh by Wangechi Mutu: This yellowing

of Art in 2000. After receiving her MFA, Wangechi

paper is an important piece of medical history. This

did not return to Kenya until 2012.”

young man has a third eye – a wisdom to offer? A possible insight? He too is a recipient (knowing

73. Your private day-dreams have stolen you from them.

or unknowing) of this knowledge – if only from a

Your smile makes other people smile. Now, they

straight-laced high school lecture about syphilis.

jeer at you, and when the now soft blue bubbles of


laughter magma surge up and turn the red sunset

84. “Heee heee heee, heh heh heh.” […]

gold, your limbs leap up with them, and you throw

85. Sweat trickled down my spine. I think it was the heat

yourself into the herd of friends, elbows and crowdnoise, and race forward, faster than all of them, limbs freer, cows chasing behind. 74. Wangechi was unable to return home for seventeen

in the café. 86. “What is your country of origin?” I ask him. Actually, I snarl the question at him and I am surprised by the rage in my voice. He mumbles, his face staring

years. A simple mistake left her battling to legalise

at the floor. He lowers his bag, unzips it and pulls

her stay in America.

out ladies intimate apparel designed and colored

75. “It was like a long sentence... (pun intended)” Wangechi Mutu.

in the manner of various African animals. Zebra, leopard, giraffe and colobus. There is a crocodile

76. You make And You. Do.

skin belt designed for the pleasure of particular

77. Exile.

sadomasochists. At the bottom of the bag a stack of

78. Below (79-104) is an excerpt from Yvonne Owuor’s

posters and sealed magazines. Nature magazines?

short story Weight of Whispers:

I think I see a mountain on one. I put out my free

79. What is my name? I frown. What is my name?

hand for one. It is not a mountain, it is an impressive

80. I was once drinking a good espresso in a café in

arrangement of an equally impressive array of Black

Breda, in the Netherlands with three European

male genitalia. I let the magazine slide from my hand

business contacts. Gem dealers. We were sipping

and he stoops to pick it up, wiping it against the

coffee at the end of a well-concluded deal. A squat

sleeve of his black coat.

African man wearing spectacles danced into the

87. “Where are you from?” I ask in Dutch.

café. He wore a black suit, around his neck a grey

88. “Rotterdam.”

scarf, in his hand a colorful and large bag, like a

89. “No, man...your origin?”

carpet bag. Outside it was cold. So easy to recall the

90. “Sierra Leone.”

feeling of well being a hot espresso evokes in a small

91. “Have you no shame?”

café where the light is muted and the music a gentle

92. His head jerks up, his mouth opens and closes, his

jazz and there is a knowing that outside it is cold and

eyes meet mine for the first time. His eyes are wet. It

grey and windy.

is grating that a man should cry.

81. The squat African man grinned like an ingratiating hound, twisting and distorting his face, raising his lips and from his throat a thin high sound would emerge:

93. “Broda.” he savors the word. “Broda... its fine to see de eyes of anoda man...it is fine to see de eyes.” 94. Though his Dutch is crude, he read sociology in Leeds and mastered it. He is quick to tell me this.

82. “Heee heee heee, heh heh heh.”

He has six children. His wife, Gemma is a beautiful

83. Most of the café turned back to their coffees and

woman. On a good day he makes 200 guilders, it is

conversations. One man in a group of three put

enough to supplement the Dutch state income and it

out his foot. The squat African man stumbled,

helps sustain the illusions of good living for remnants

grabbed his back to him. Rearranged himself and

of his family back home. He refuses to be a janitor,

said to the man:

he tells me. To wear a uniform to clean a European


toilet? No way. This is why he is running his own

us as one-dimensional agents of their glossy

enterprise.

spectacle.

95. “I be a Business Mon.” 96. “Have you no shame?” 97. “Wha do ma childs go?” 98. “You have a master’s degree from a good University. Use it!” 99. Business man picks up his bags. He is laughing, so

114. Just consume, brown world, just eat what we throw at you. Beg, African, Beg for AID. 115. The hegemony fills all our senses with its spectacle. And then you realize that you can remix in exile. 116. Remix: religious ritual that removes demons. 117. 
 “Pleased to present a solo exhibition of new

deeply, so low, a different voice. He laughs until he

work by Wangechi Mutu titled Nitarudi Ninarudi,

cries. He wipes his eyes.

Kiswahili for I plan to return I am returning. Nitarudi

100. “Oh mah broda...tank you for de laughing...tank

Ninarudi. The tone of the work has shifted

you...you know... Africans we be overeducated fools.

towards a deeper exploration and disclosure of

Dem papers are for to wipe our bottom. No one sees

the artist’s own experience in the Diaspora. Ideas

your knowing when you has no feets to stand in.”

around longing, memory, and exile resonate

101. He laughs again, patting his bag, smiling in reminiscence. 102. “My broda for real him also in Italy. Bone doctor.

and subvert traditional notions of a singular place of origin. Fusing her Kenyan experience with inflections of other cultural influences, the

Specialist. Best in class. Wha he do now? Him bring

work calls into question any notion of a static

Nigeria woman for de prostitute.”

identity and firmly rejects the centralization and

103. Business man chortles.

dominance of Eurocentric constructs within

104. “Maybe he fix de bone when dem break.” I gave him

and outside of her homeland. Nitarudi Ninarudi

20 guilders. 105. End of excerpt from Yvonne Owuor’s Weight of Whispers. 106. Your archives do not leave you. But you like remixing. See 1-105 above.

expresses the complexity of longing for a place that is alive in the memory in a very different way than in the physical reality – a place as evasive and fleeting as the identities one negotiates when they are relocated, bringing into play issues of

107. Hindsight. Hind-Quarters. Thighs.

transformation, translation, and even personal

108. Your work makes new things, and remixes.

survival.”

109. Her work became a middle-passage, never real in America, never real at home. 110. She built a world to live in that Africans can inhabit. 111. An African global citizen is the inheritor of all archives. 112. In the season of Afro-futures. 113. Once distressed, distorted, re-made, this global

118. We forgot to mention the armless, loving, legless, floating, gorgeous foetal season before the baby. 119. Remix: Only a small bodypart now in the making of something utterly new. 120. The house is too full of stuff. Rivers and Banks are Bursting. Everywhere. 121. “Wangechi Mutu’s interest in the subtle distinction

citizen releases us from ugga booga fears of the

between Nitarudi and Ninarudi is embedded in

hegemony that makes these magazines, and freezes

the ever-so-slight difference between the desire


and promise to return, versus the absolute insistence and the capability to come back to a place.” 122. I plan to return I am returning 123. The Goodyear Blimp decides to fly back to Kenya

125. In The End of Eating Everything, a new body must be found, that one burst and fell to the sea. 126. The Nguva, accompanied by pythons in vinyl land, feral in a weave, and starving after sinking and

slowly swelling up in studio over the last twenty years,

bursting over the Atlantic, meets Mami Wata posters

the whole world digested by capital and your archive,

as she walks through West Africa and Congo and

or remaking. She can leave America legally now. We

swims across the lagoon in Mpeketoni, to Lamu

are carrying fake hair, magazine parts, machinery,

where Nguva looks to eat again.

cut-outs, Beads, Porn Kings, viable monster babes who hunt, jewels, gynecological drawings, Brooklyn, blood, flowers, petals, blood, knives are high heels, we carry worlds of dead mushrooms. 124. The Blimp blings with Santigold, it flies out of Wangechi’s studio window, burping birds, it recrosses the Atlantic on video Eating Everything.

127. The flat wall hangings, swollen into giant helium video. 128. And Nguva is Wangechi in grit, flesh and blood performing. 129. Back for a season of home-making. It’s hard for a mermaid to find her feet. There is work to do. 130. She is starving.


Long John flapper, 2014 Collage painting on vinyl 184.2 x 154.9 cm 路 72 1/2 x 61 in

detail overleaf


Even, 2014 Collage painting on vinyl 184.8 x 154.9 cm 路 72 3/4 x 61 in

detail overleaf


Beneath lies the Power, 2014 Collage painting on vinyl 212.1 x 156.2 cm 路 83 1/2 x 61 1/2 in

detail overleaf


Killing you softly, 2014 Collage painting on vinyl 201.3 x 147.3 cm 路 79 1/4 x 58 in

detail overleaf


My mothership, 2014 Collage painting on linoleum 63.5 x 100.3 cm 路 25 x 39 1/2 in


Mountain of prayer, 2014 Collage painting on vinyl 77.5 x 90.2 cm 路 30 1/2 x 35 1/2 in Private collection


History Trolling, 2014 Collage painting on vinyl 92.1 x 154.9 cm 路 36 1/4 x 61 in


A Tail about Sunset, 2014 Collage painting on linoleum 148.6 x 101 cm 路 58 1/2 x 39 3/4 in

detail overleaf


All you Sea, came from me, 2014 Collage painting on vinyl 184.2 x 154.9 cm 路 72 1/2 x 61 in

detail overleaf


The screamer island dreamer, 2014 Collage painting on vinyl 184.8 x 154.9 cm 路 72 3/4 x 61 in


If we live through it, She'll carry us back, 2014 Collage painting on vinyl 182.9 x 152.4 cm 路 72 x 60 in

detail overleaf


Nyanya Nyoka, 2014 Mixed media fabric and ceramic 91 x 91 x 945 cm 路 35 7/8 x 35 7/8 x 372 1/8 in


Nguva, 2013 Video (colour, sound), 17:53 min


Published on the occasion of the exhibition Wangechi Mutu | Nguva na Nyoka 14 October – 19 December 2014 Victoria Miro · 16 Wharf Road · London N1 7RW

Essay by Adrienne Edwards Text by Binyavanga Wainaina Design by Martin Lovelock Edited by Erin Manns and Matt Price

All works © Wangechi Mutu

Acknowledgements

All images courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London

This show has been made possible by the collective work of many; my terrific studio team: Ali Giniger,

Please note that the artist has modified some of the works

Hiroko Ishikawa, Yarminiah Rosa and Tuesday Smillie.

included in this catalogue since they were photographed.

Also, a big shout out to Daapo Reo, Virginia Wagner, Nadeige Choplet, Aisha Bell, Barron Claiborne,

Artwork photography by Bill Orcutt

Edward Nahem, Jerome Stern and The Rubells.

Mountain of Prayer (p.39) photographed by Adam Reich

Thank you to the Victoria Miro family and gallery

Portrait photography (pp.18-19) © Kathryn Parker Almanas, 2014

and, again, Wathira, Neema and Mario.

Drawings by Wangechi’s daughter, Neema (pp. 1,2,8,17)

Extract from Weight of Whispers by Yvonne Adhiambo

© Neema Lazzaroni

Owuor (referenced within Binyavanga Wainaina’s essay) © Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, used by permission of

Printed and bound by PUSH

The Wylie Agency (UK) Limited. Owuor is a Kenyan writer whose novel Dust is published in the United States

Published by Victoria Miro 2014

by Alfred A Knopf, by Kwani? in Kenya and Granta

ISBN 978 0 9927092 6 6

Books in the United Kingdom. Her short story Weight of Whispers won the Caine Prize for African writing.

© Victoria Miro All rights reserved. No part of this book should be reproduced

Extracts referenced within Binyavanga Wainaina’s

in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including

essay from the press release for the exhibition

photocopying, recording or information storage or retrieval)

Nitarudi Ninarudi at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles

without permission in writing from the publisher.

Projects, 2012.


Victoria Miro

Wangechi Mutu | Nguva na Nyoka  

Published on the occasion of the exhibition Wangechi Mutu Nguva na Nyoka, 14 October - 19 December 2014, at Victoria Miro, 16 Wharf Road, Lo...

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