Wangechi Mutu’s Mythical Mothers
The Kenyan artist created her fantastical Water Women series in response to some all-too-real maternal pains
Wangechi Mutu is an artist at ease with motherhood. This Kenyan-born, US-based sculptor, painter, collagist, videographer, performer and installation artist, has enjoyed a hugely successful career while also leading a fulfilled family life.
Her art is shown regularly at important gallery exhibitions on both sides of the Atlantic; it also forms part of some of the most important public collections, including the Tate’s in London, MOCA’s in Los Angeles and MoMA’s in New York; and she’s the latest artist to be honoured with a monograph in Phaidon’s prestigious Contemporary Artist Series of books.
Nevertheless, the pleasures, rigours of childbirth and child rearing have informed her varied and compelling work. In our new book she describes her regal figures, The Seated I-IV, which were on display in the exterior niches of the Metropolitan Museum in 2019 and 2020, as her children; she has likened the terrifying female figure in her video work The end of Eating Everything to a kind of earth mother; and in our new book, the art historian Kellie Jones draws comparisons with the figures in Mutu’s early drawings to less sympathetic descriptions of “monstrous mothers were beasts who were only civilised by the colonial encounter.”
Wangechi Mutu, Water Woman, 2017
Yet Mutu’s most direct response to motherhood came with one of her most mythological series of works: her Water Women. This set of sculptures, which date from the mid-to-late 2010s, arose from earlier preoccupations with ecology, femininity, colonialism and Kenya’s maritime history. Nevertheless, as the artist tells the curator Courtney J. Martin in our new book, giving birth also shaped these forms.
“I think there’s something about having babies that makes you feel quite heroic, and quite distended,” she tells Martin, with a laugh, “but another part of it makes you feel, unfortunately, somewhat repulsed by your body. There are just so many things that you’re not in control of, that are not inherently your choice or your desire, or in your interest to have as part of your body.
“So there's a bit of a resentment towards the inevitable changes that come with the sacrifice of your time and your body in carrying a child,” she goes on. “I think some of that unease comes through in the work, that ambivalence and the complicatedness. The feelings that I was harbouring at the time were, ‘This is the best thing that could happen to me, but it’s also unfortunate how much it takes me from my work, how different I look and how much of my mind is shaped by the enormity of the task.’”
Mutu sometimes also refers to these works as Nguva na Nyoka, which in the Kenyan national language of Kiswahili means "Sirens and Serpents". This highlights the repulsive, yet attractive aspects of these feminine, chimeric, mermaid-like figures, and how they key into the double-edge experience of motherhood.
Wangechi Mutu with one of her Water Women, at the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, 2021
“Mothering a child was one of the rites of passage that I was so longing for, and which I still underestimated even when I was finally ready,” says the artist.
Mutu’s paternal experiences were made more difficult, as she was unable to leave her adoptive home of New York. From the mid-1990s up until 2012, Wangechi could not travel internationally, which included home to Nairobi, because of an immigration issue that took years to resolve. This partly explains why, as the artist puts it, “I also felt quite restless.”
“These places, these regions, these spaces, these cities that had the capacity to nurture an artist and a studio without such insurmountable hardship were in my thoughts a lot,” she goes on. “I was yearning to get out of New York, but I didn’t want to let go or lose what I’d built there: my friendships and my networks, my studio and my house. I wanted to figure out another site. That migratory restlessness, that feeling, I think, has a lot to do with how I came up with the ‘Water Woman’.”
These strange, mythical creations, which Mutu casts in bronze, aren’t like anything seen in nature, but they still express quite natural responses to motherhood experienced by women all over the world. To see further inmates, and to better understand these mythical maternal figures, order a copy of our Wangechi Mutu book here.