Ingrid Mwangi is a relatively young artist. Her career, which started only a few years ago, has seen a remarkable rise in the past two years: from exhibitions to performances, she is polishing a language-her own language-that is progressively distancing her from the inherited techniques of her studies. Where the African artists who emerged in the 1980s and '90s were primarily self-taught, Mwangi is part of the new generation that has gone through art school, but she has reached the crucial point where one is no longer a prisoner of one's training but where, on the contrary, everything that one has learned contributes to constructing one's own identity, a language that corresponds perfectly to one's own expression. The question of identity, inevitable in a project like "Looking Both Ways," is the platform that unites all the artists in this exhibition. Each is African and each explores his or her Africanness from a particular vantage point, for there can be no shareable identity. Identity here is linked not to a notion of territory but to the intimacy of personal experience.

If the question that is asked of most artists today has to do with their position in an increasingly globalized world, it is no doubt asked with greater pointedness when the artists are African in origin. Most have had to make the trip to the West, through the happenstance of their parents' lives or by deliberate choice, in order to express themselves under better conditions, those offered by the international circuit. But here again there is a difference between Mwangi and the others: she is certainly African, her family name attests to that, but her German mother helped her avoid a trap: the comfort of the established image that can be identified and described. It was never an issue for her to acquire the language of the other, since she was at once the same and other. She spent the first fifteen years of her life in Kenya, where she was born, before leaving for Germany, where she lives and works today. Her dual belonging is not only symbolic, it is physical. It runs through her veins and is read on her body. And that richness, which makes her both from here and from there, creates a fragility in her, a prism through which she tries to see herself and see the world.

The essential question in philosophy is found engraved on the frontispiece of the Temple of Delphi: "Know thyself." Starting in childhood, Mwangi no doubt confronted the reality of not really being from anywhere. I imagine her in Nairobi beside her friends with her too-light skin. I imagine her a few years later with her friends in Saarbrücken, her skin too dark. This skin became a screen, a metaphor. The materialization of her quest for the self required this passage, a sort of personal psychoanalysis, an exorcism for the world. This is no doubt why Mwangi's first subject had to be herself. She had to go through a meticulous deconstruction of the image she projected to others and confront it in the interior image she bore within herself, had to find, in time, a balance and a harmony between these two extremes. No doubt the process contained a certain violence-like a cry, at once desperate and calm-as well as an invitation to look beyond obvious facts and hackneyed truths.

In the evolution of Mwangi's work up to today, I can make out three fundamental stages corresponding to the three modalities of a single body image defined by the French psychoanalyst Françoise Dolto: "base image, functional image, and erogenous image, which together constitute and assure the image of the living body and the narcissism of the subject at each stage of his evolution."1 The first was at once physical and intellectual, like a revelation. It was the translation of a sensation, an unconscious, that invited her to defy the inconsistency of the world and the gaze brought to bear on her. The second was a reaction, the will no longer to be the inert and passive object upon which judgments were passed, but instead to dictate the conditions of her belonging to the world. In the same spirit as the intellectuals of the Negritude movement, she held fast to being the narrator of her own story.

This second phase, illustrated by works like coloured 2001, neger dont call me 2000 and static drift 2001 , is extremely personal and necessarily flirts with a certain form of narcissism. Being her own experimental subject, Mwangi made her body the open book on which her story had to be written and read. Her choices of medium were naturally linked to this intention: performance, video, and photography, unlike installations or painting, offer us "real" images. In performance the artist presents herself. Her movements, her voice, support the entire mise-en-scène and the dramaturgy of the scenes she offers us. In video and photography she is her own model. In consequence the images have a meaning that goes beyond their simple contextualization: the personality of the artist necessarily imprints them with a direction that it is up to us to decipher, and that takes us by the hand to reveal a sort of trompe l'oeil autobiography in which the illusion of reality leads us to confuse the fiction of the work with the being of their author, as if both represented a single entity.

This autobiography is pure fiction, of course. It leads us into a world that is dreamed, sublimated, in the sense that it is only signified. The signifier, the body, erases itself to make room for the narrative, which may assume historical, personal, or political emphases or even these three elements at once. Instead of creating an awkward similarity, the obvious resemblance between the subject and the artist creates a distance, a crack, within which the artist can mock our preconceived ideas and presupposed knowledge. We think we know about her but in fact she is making fun of us. Lead actor in and director of her scenarios, she uses images as a succession of signs and symbols, an enigma that she invites us to decode by constantly leading us down the wrong path. She is both protagonist and memoirist of her uncertainties, using her own body, a woman's body, like a field of exploration, to connote all the parallel readings that that reality necessarily implies. It is as if she were questioning herself about a history that she intends to appropriate completely, to correct a distorted image that she no longer wants to bear.

With the third phase one could say that Mwangi approaches maturity. The danger in which she places herself is no longer the simple affirmation of the self, the exhibition of her wounds and her anxieties, but dissolution in the other. She decides to express the fundamental ambiguity that she inherited at birth. Moreover she is absolutely conscious of this, since she declares, "My artistic strategy became increasingly one of identification; taking the place of the other, in order to feel, to understand." This new approach appears in all its fullness in works like to be in the world 2002. Here Mwangi places characters in front of a screen showing images of violence and records them on video. The title itself is already evocative of her intention: through these anonymous faces she is watching her own reactions. The others in this case are her own dismantled image: she is inviting herself into the chaos of the world, forgetting her personal injuries for a while, as in a rebirth. Her feelings are translated in the upset and dejection of the viewer. The images onscreen don't even matter so much; we can imagine them, which is surely worse than having them before our eyes. This is the third modality described by Dolto: "It is thanks to the functional image that the life drives, after being subjectified in desire, can attempt to manifest themselves in order to obtain pleasure, to objectify themselves in the relationship to the world and to others."2

This process is clearly illustrated in Mwangi's most recent work, if 2003. Formally the game at hand is to play hide-and-seek with reality. The image we are offered is simple enough: a photograph taken from Der Spiegel that shows Hitler surrounded by women no doubt chosen to represent the perfection of the Aryan race. The propagandist goals of the photograph escape no one. The manipulation in which Mwangi engages may seem anodyne: she replaces all the women's faces with her own. But contrary to what Yinka Shonibare did in Diary of a Victorian Dandy, she has not created a fictional scene-the scene is real. She has suddenly invited herself into a story that scarred the twentieth century.

Mwangi, dark one, substitutes herself for the Aryan ideal. The game might seem trivial if this transformation did not highlight the German part of herself. Having been an icon of peoples long in the camp of the oppressed (the black race), she slides into the skin of the oppressors, embracing by that gesture a collective unconscious and a misdeed that, like original sin, flows in her veins. It is hardly necessary to go further in the analysis of a work whose force and multiplicity of meaning are self-evident. Mwangi has decided to attack the whole of her personal history by taking the most radical path. This ever present, obvious fact reminds me of a Robert Ludlum novel I read many years ago: Memory in the Skin.3 The title seems to me a perfect metaphor for Mwangi's journey.


1 Françoise Dolto, L'Image inconsciente du corps (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1984).

2 Ibid.

3 "Memory in the skin" - La Mémoire dans la peau - is the French title of Robert Ludlum's thrillerThe Bourne Identity.

© Simon Njami, 2003

Written for Looking Both Ways. Art of the Contemporary African Diaspora catalogue, New York /Gent 2003

Translated from French by Jeanine Herman


Memory in the Skin: The Work of Ingrid Mwangi

by Simon Njami