Wangechi Mutu on LGBTI Africa and Radical Creativity

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Wangechi Mutu x Bottletop
Wangechi Mutu x Bottletop

The Kenya-born artist discusses racial, gender and personal identity in honour of her new collaboration with ethical fashion initiative, Bottletop

There is an alternative African story to the one which pervades the mainstream media agenda. It is one of a forward-gazing culture replete with bold ideas, and a determination that a new identity for the continent is there for the crafting. One of the figures at the vanguard of this inspiring movement is Wangechi Mutu.

The Kenya-born contemporary artist has long used her craft to explore racial, gender and personal identity. Through media including collage, painting and performance, Mutu’s work is infused with activism and raw beauty, provoking debate around the violence and discrimination that her empowering work rallies against. 

In conjunction with her art, Mutu has formed Africa’s Out!: an initiative which aims to employ “radical creativity” to change the way that the world views Africa, as well as the way Africans perceive themselves, with particular focus on the LGBTI community. In celebration of Africa’s Out! Mutu has collaborated with Bottletop – the luxurious ethical design enterprise – on an “Art on Canvas” collection, consisting of sublime bags and pouches designed to spark further conversation. Here, Wangechi Mutu discusses the collaboration and the work which led to it…

On founding Africa’s Out!...
"I left Nairobi for the US twenty years ago because I needed a new space to express myself. There wasn’t that space back home. Even among my friends and family, I still felt this sense of not belonging. I now have the ability to step up and show a different notion of what African can be, pulling on my support system of artists whose work is centred on self-description and self-awareness. A post-independence generation is emerging. Our interest is in showing that homophobia is not part of the agenda for a new Africa. Using our creativity and resource, we can give a courageous shout out to artists asking them to imagine a new space. A space to feel dignified. I really believe in dreaming and making things from nothing."

"Homophobia is not part of the agenda for a new Africa." – Wangechi Mutu

On her feelings towards Nairobi now...
"I go there now a lot more than I used to. There were years when I yearned for it but couldn’t go. Very soon, I hope to be going between Nairobi and New York so that I can create a new sense of home. Before, home felt hostile because I had ideas which didn’t fit into the box. I would like to make work for my country, art which is innately Kenyan by being made in Kenya."

On becoming involved with Bottletop...
"I met Cameron [Saul, Bottletop’s founder] through the Victoria Miro gallery which represents me in London. I was interested to discover how they were capable of achieving their work without being exploitative. I wanted to know that people could work for them and raise their kids, live well. I’m obviously a visual person and I found something powerful in their aesthetic. Recycling in ingenious ways is a big part of Kenyan culture.

"What Bottletop does is not emulating the West or importing that culture. It’s what Africa should be about." – Wangechi Mutu

I have two Bottletop bags which are seven or eight years old. They are resilient, strong and awesome products. What Bottletop does is not emulating the West or importing that culture. It’s what Africa should be about. Thinking about how we can use our own excess and detritus to create things which we love to have around us. Bottletop also support young people with HIV which is very important to us at Africa’s Out! so that was another reason I was keen for us to work together."

On the bags she has created for Bottletop...
"The gold butterfly represents freedom, power and beauty. The product becomes a platform to unite our two initiatives. I believe art is a connection, like passing on a flame. The product becomes a narrative and what is essentially repurposed garbage will open conversations."

"The product becomes a narrative and what is essentially repurposed garbage will open conversations." – Wangechi Mutu

On her current work...
"I have begun to link the collages, cut-outs and media with my original training in sculpture. I have found a way to make mud from all the junk mail I receive! I am making it into a kind of porridge and using that as a canvas. I’m not worried about legibility or visibility any longer. I have shows coming up in San Antonio next fall as well as a collaborative installation at SITE Santa Fe, as part of their 20th anniversary programme."

Wangechi Mutu's collaboration with Bottletop is available to buy online. Proceeds from the designs will go to Africa's Out!