Interview & Portrait by Jan-Willem Dikkers
“In this time of rapid information exchange via the Internet
we may assume that people have access to and therefore receive the truth.
Of course this is far from true.”
Visual artist Wangari Mathenge (b. 1973) was born in Nairobi, Kenya and currently resides in Chicago, Illinois where she is attending the School of the Art Institute’s Painting and Drawing MFA program. Her work confronts issues regarding the visibility of the black female in the context of both the traditional African patriarchal society and the Diaspora. Her paintings are held in private collections in Europe, Africa and North America.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (b. 1977) is a Nigerian writer whose works include the novels Purple Hibiscus (2003), Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), and Americanah (2013), the short story collection The Thing Around Your Neck (2009), and the book-length essay “We Should All Be Feminists.” (2014). Her most recent book, Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, was published in March 2017. In 2008, she was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant.
Kenyan-born artist Wangari Mathenge’s new body of work draws inspiration from “The Danger of a Single Story,” a 2009 Ted Talk delivered by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about the ways the West homogenizes Africa. In response, Mathenge created paintings of complex human beings and situations in the liminal yet rarely-registered moments essential to us all, inspiring an authentic connection between the subject and the viewer. Her portraits evoke a sense of leisure and yet also defiance – women captured in ordinary moments, often gazing at the viewer with great self-possession.
The artist discusses her journey of re-discovery, the possibility of empathy towards others’ ignorance, and her own experiences with ‘single stories’.
Where are you from?
I was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya but now reside in the United States.
When did you start making art?
I started making art as a child. I was probably first introduced to it in kindergarten. My first recollection comprises plasticine, paper collage, watercolor and the varied possibilities of Lego blocks.
What artists inspired you growing up?
I grew up watching Rolf Harris shows. I found it fascinating seeing him transform a plain white canvas into a fantastic landscape or portrait. It always seemed so magical how recognizable forms would appear, how he let you in on how his process yet it still seemed so impossible. He made this two dimensional plane come alive in a way that fascinated me to no end. This has been my lasting memory.
How and when did you decide that this is what you were going to do?
About twelve years ago I embarked on this journey of re-discovery. I can’t quite say that this is when I knew that art would take center stage but I certainly decided that it was very important and that I needed to make time for it. I’d say that the shift to making art full time happened more organically than in a planned manner.
“In this time of rapid information exchange via the Internet we may assume that people have access to and therefore receive the truth. Of course this is far from true.”
What inspired you in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story”?
I found it profound and insightful when she talked about her American roommate having a single story of Africa and acknowledging that had she (Chimamanda) not grown up in Africa and had she (like her roommate) received her education of the continent via popular culture then she too would have imagined Africa to be this “place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner.” I was awakened to the possibility of having this empathetic view to the circumstance surrounding others’ ignorance. In this time of rapid information exchange via the Internet we may assume that people have access to and therefore receive the truth. Of course this is far from true, and recognizing this and understanding that we too are guilty of our own single stories that we live with and propagate is the first step to finding solutions to address them.
What “Single Stories” have you been confronted by in your personal life?
I’ve encountered several but the most stark and depressing was when I was working as in-house counsel for a corporation in Massachusetts. During a hearing that was based on discrimination on the basis of race, in a Federal court, the judge mistook me for the plaintiff under extraordinary circumstances given that I was seated on the defendant’s side implying I was representing the corporation. So here I was in court, defending the company against a discrimination lawsuit, yet even the supposed objective finder of truth was unable to extricate himself from his experiential biases. His reaction was informed by his single story of the role assigned a black person in a courtroom in Massachusetts.
“During a hearing that was based on discrimination on the basis of race, the judge mistook me for the plaintiff…His reaction was informed by his single story of the role assigned a black person in a courtroom in Massachusetts.”
How do you build this inspiration into your work?
My work already was geared towards the telling of “another story” and so watching Chimamanda’s talk merely reinforced this conviction to continue approaching my narrative arch. I was always intrigued by the fact that there was so much ignorance in the West as to the totality of conditions in Kenya. Questions regarding the building structures, the cities, transportation systems all stumped me because these are things that I took for granted – that the West was aware that nations in Africa were organized and developing. That while there was poverty there was also wealth and the in-between. But I quickly learned that the single-story media of the West was not interested in the telling of the other stories – there’s no shock factor, no “news” in them.
“I was always intrigued by the fact that there was so much ignorance in the West as to the totality of conditions in Kenya. But I quickly learned that the single-story media of the West was not interested in the telling of the other stories.”
What are some things that are important to you that you like to address through your art?
It all revolves around demystifying aspects of a lived experience from the viewpoint of a Kenyan-born woman who as a child lived for a time in London and grew up in Kenya and then for most of her adulthood in the United States. At times it is the rejoinder of what it looks like in these liminal spaces, other times simply a reaching back into the past, into other spaces as a way of recalling and recording.
“At times my work is the rejoinder of what it looks like in these liminal spaces, other times simply a reaching back into the past, into other spaces as a way of recalling and recording.”
What are your interests and passions outside of making art?
Reading and writing are up there for me. I have written two unpublished books, which are quite lengthy and need much work to see the light of day. One is about a girl who grows up in a tea plantation in Kenya. A tragedy ensues that informs the climax of the narrative. I love delving into these imagined worlds where people can do whatever you tell them to do and think however you direct. I used to love running until my knees urged me to reconsider. So for now swimming and cycling it is.
What’s your favorite book, film, and music right now?
I’m re-reading one of my favorite books currently because I can’t get enough of the prose – The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. I haven’t watched films in ages due to the demands of my MFA program. The most recent film that I watched that I absolutely loved was Gravity and I think that came out six years ago. Not to say that I haven’t watched any after, but none that I can recall made such an impression. As for music, I’m currently listening to Foal and I’m glad that my favorite band Keane got back together after a hiatus. I am also currently enjoying Hembree’s debut album and some of my always-favorites – The National, Depeche Mode, Dave Matthews Band, 21 Pilots, Local Natives and Mumford & Sons.
I am currently in my first year of my MFA Drawing and Painting program at School of The Art Institute of Chicago. I imagine this will keep me very busy for the next year and a half. I have a couple of group shows planned in the coming months as well.