Kenyan Artist Wangechi Mutu, named the 2023 Apollo Magazine Artist of the Year

Wangechi Mutu. Photo: Khadija Farah

Kenyan-born artist Wangechi Mutu has been named the 2023 Apollo Magazine Artist of the Year, marking a significant milestone in her illustrious career. Mutu’s innovative and boundary-pushing work, spanning a quarter-century, has captivated audiences around the world, prompting widespread acclaim.

Her artistic journey was recently showcased in the exhibition ‘Wangechi Mutu: Intertwined’ at the New Museum in New York, which ran from March 2 to June 4. This comprehensive retrospective not only celebrated Mutu’s evolution as an artist but also garnered widespread public recognition for her contributions to contemporary art.

Mutu’s oeuvre encompasses a diverse range of mediums, including collage, sculpture, performance art, videos, paintings, and drawings. The New Museum exhibition traced her artistic trajectory, from early collage works born out of economic necessity to monumental bronze sculptures that defy traditional artistic boundaries.

One of Mutu’s most striking projects involved adorning the facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York with large bronze sculptures. These imposing figures, each weighing 840 pounds, filled niches that had remained empty since 1902. Drawing inspiration from African traditions and Western statuary, Mutu seamlessly blended ancient and contemporary influences in these monumental works.

Mutu’s exploration of cultural identity and her personal journey as a Kenyan-American immigrant resonates throughout her art. “I was very conscious of my otherness,” she shared about her early years in the United States. Her art serves as a means to create an integrated whole out of various cultural and personal fragments, reflecting her commitment to interconnectedness.

A common thread in Mutu’s work is the theme of mixing—whether in the literal sense through the combination of visual sources or as a guiding principle in her exploration of cultural hybridity. Her creations feature fantastical hybrids, such as women with tree roots for feet and leaves for heads, and figures with animal-human-plant attributes that challenge conventional notions of identity.

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Yo Mama (2003), Wangechi Mutu. Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Robert Edemeyer; courtesy the artist and Vielmetter Los Angeles; © Wangechi Mutu

Mutu’s art also aligns with the principles of Afrofuturism, a movement envisioning possible futures through a Black cultural lens. Despite the fantastical nature of her creations, Mutu’s figures are consistently recognizable as both Black and female. In pieces like the diptych ‘Yo Mama’ (2023), she combines elements of fantasy and reality, addressing complex themes with a touch of humor and irreverence.

Returning to Nairobi from New York in 2015, Mutu began working with natural materials sourced from her surroundings, including shell, bone, horn, soil, and wood. These elements, deeply rooted in the Kenyan landscape, became integral to her creations, transforming into eyes, legs, and sculptural forms in her futuristic works.

Wangechi Mutu’s ability to seamlessly merge diverse influences, challenge traditional artistic boundaries, and address profound themes of identity and interconnectedness has rightfully earned her the title of the 2023 Apollo Magazine Artist of the Year. As she continues to leave an indelible mark on the art world, Mutu’s work serves as a powerful testament to the enduring impact of creativity in shaping our understanding of the past, present, and future.

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