In an almost unknown piece of writing, the poet, draftsman, and Fluxus artist Dieter Rot asks, ”Why must Wittgenstein be an ascetic and why can’t the artist Dieter Rot be a philosopher?” He answers his question very decisively with the sentence, ”The river of thought takes the form of skin”, and extends this to the practical recognition and insight that ”Rot’s thought flows around the things that have gone into his skin”.1 This sentence marks the difference between the subjective positions of artists and philosophers, who represent rationality. The subjective artistic individual can always present himself and make himself noticeable where he steps forward as an ”other subjective individual” and uses his own logic, which is rooted in aesthetic displaying, to place himself in difference.

When Ingrid Mwangi received the 9th Video Art Prize in Marl for her video Neger in 2000 and, the next year, presented her performance Coloured, she described the political experience of the racist glance: ”Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m coloured – it burns on my skin.”2 The video installation Coloured, which meanwhile exists separately from the performance, builds a symbolic mirroring function with endless video loops on four monitors. In it, the artist, born in 1975 in Kenya, repeatedly strokes the surfaces of her hands over her forehead and cheeks. Her hands rub her face, and the movement slows down. Her rubbing hands come to an exploratory stop underneath her eyes until they wander sideways to her cheeks. Just before reaching the image’s boundary, which since the Renaissance has described the metaphorical boundary of a ”window onto the world”, she takes her hands aside and opens her eyes with a sharp blink of her lashes. Her facial expression becomes serious and concentrated. Only then do we find ourselves disturbingly eye to eye with her glance. The artist’s act, unceasingly continued in the video loop – her feeling her way to delimit her face – is an act of self-confirmation, of consolation, and of protection. She explores the boundaries from the inside and the outside. She confirms the interior space that distinguishes itself from the exterior space at the boundary of the skin and that yet cannot exist without that exterior space and its specificity. The artist’s particular ritual of movement thus feels out the skin as a simultaneously general and subjective, physical object boundary, as an irrepressible anthropological order of things, into which Ingrid Mwangi artistically lets her societal experiences flow. She feels out the ”dark skin” that, throughout the history of racism, has provided only the external basis and excuse for the ”biological threat”, for elimination, and for ”maintaining purity”.

On the floor of the center of the installation Coloured stands a broad, flat, square stone resembling a minimalistic sculpture. Its raised, crate-like form symbolizes Western civilization and with it the hegemonial ambition of a normed global presence. As if on a pushed-over, black topography, the surface displays, in the agitated scriptural form of Action Painting, handwriting-like/painterly traces of red Kenyan soil reminiscent of blood. Here something could have happened like a massacre, a crime, or a murderous struggle, now represented only by the energetic traces and reminiscences of the symbolism of a dead, artificial arena. A gestural/theatrical exposition in the style of old paintings of battles or historical events. Again and again, the artist’s hands circle over her cheeks and forehead; in an adjacent video, they continually clap on her thighs, seen in fragmentary segments. Her hands rest on her upper thighs before slapping. This site is marked and given significance. Then a red spot is caressed. Her body turns, displaying itself from the front and the back: Look, this is me. I am a dark-skinned woman; my skin is composed of white and black pigments. Like claws, her fingertips leave behind ever more traces and stripes of white skin creme on her body. These are smeared and change, simultaneously growing smaller and larger. They show traces of injuries and take on a simulated, pseudo-organic appearance. The ritual act to which the artist continually submits her face refers to an autobiographical background of historical experience. The media artist refers to it as well as to found anthropological material that was already in the world before Ingrid Mwangi began to deal with it critically: In some parts of Africa, an internalized norm and practice of racism has shifted the ideal of beauty to an ideology of the desirable to such a degree that white skin is preferred to black skin. There are dark-skinned women who use chemical cremes to lighten their skin color, even though repeated use causes burns, scarring, and dangerous skin diseases like neurodermatitis.  In one of the video loops, Ingrid Mwangi buries her dark legs over her ankles in earth. The colors of skin and earth mix. Her hands come from above, feel out the earth and her ankles, and – by means of a photo-technical exchange of image fragments – turn the two-legged image of a standing person into the image of a hanging quadruped. The image changes and becomes poetic: The feet suddenly seem as if floating or flying away over a mountain ridge. And then the image suddenly comes alive. The feet bury themselves ever deeper in the earth until they find a hold there. Man is not alone. Not that. He is part of the living cosmos, which also means: part of the system of nature that he has imperiously structured, that he subjugates, and that he oversees in an act of arrogated sovereignty. In her performance Coloured, Ingrid Mwangi changes the form and direction of the gaze and of the symbolic representation. She makes the Western, anthropological view of the body of the dark-skinned woman into a case of the discussible, the contingent, the open, and the possible. When she touches her head, when she slowly feels out the skin of her face, she shows the others’ ”gaze” at her and the tensions and problems she has, has had, and could have with it: The black skin is ”her” skin and at the same time the objective boundary of an unending conflict.

The racism of the last centuries has invented and produced a number of practices and technologies to assist in murdering, persecuting, ostracizing, and excluding ”the other”, ”the Negroes, the wild Africans, the blacks” as the ”lower and inferior race”, as ”primitive” and ”animalistic”. This includes those forms and effects of ignoring and not speaking about racism that do not literally kill. Particular disciplining practices of racism constitute the general sovereignty of the white world over the blacks and coloreds. Michel Foucault spoke to his listeners at Paris’ Collège de France about this in his lecture ”Il faut défendre la société” (In Defense of Society, January to March 1976). These practices make an obvious ”cut” through the body of the blacks; the cut simultaneously aims at blacks as the desired and as the contemptible. The body marked in this way consists of one part that lives and one part that is supposed to die.3 Foucault’s observations on racism are not aimed at a particular state; rather, he generalizes about racism in Western societies. As a smoothly functioning ”bio-force” (Foucault), racism has created these conditions in order to seize the right to send others to their deaths.

The psychoanalytically trained historian and philosopher Michel Foucault researches the systems of the subjective individual, truth, and the constitution of experience and its mode of functioning. In his analysis of discourse, death produced by racism is not exclusively brutal and literal death, but rather its many forms and effects of ignoring and remaining silent about racism. Racism has slyly provided this system of law with knowledge for power and control; for it has also settled it on the entire visible surface and bound it to its system of technologies. Since the skin and the surfaces of visibility hardly change, while the technologies continue developing, racism – as a specific, modern type of power – has been able to infiltrate into dispositives and their effects, which have a good chance of surviving. A type of power that expresses itself as the greedy Western ”power of life” primarily because it categorizes, subjugates, and attacks as hostile ”the corporeal” and with it ”the biological” and what, in a deep-seated anachronism, it still views essentialistically as ”the female”.

Ingrid Mwangi’s installation coloured, which consists of a sculpture on the floor and a large central wall projection as well as four monitors with video loops lasting 13 minutes each, is arranged like a large electronic sketch of the space that constantly reorganizes and disorganizes itself in relationship to the moving processes of images and spatial perspectives. Here, the boundaries of the female body are shifted, and this body itself shifts its boundaries. Ingrid Mwangi’s aesthetic intention thereby emerges: not to use the visual technologies as a new form of domination. She repeatedly undermines and counters the objectification of the subjective individual as technologically measurable image spectacles. The emancipated model of an exterior world represented for the viewer cannot be completely integrated in the new dominating model of the ”technology of the individual”.4 So it is hardly possible to pin down the subversive and simultaneous complexity of the many levels of media images and texts of Coloured. Identity dissolves into non-identical flowing and also into the changeable.5

It would be interesting to discuss the question of the identity of femaleness in distinction to this. Various models and cultural-historical and media-historical images could be suitable here. One picture by the photo reporter Inge Morath, who worked documentarily, is titled ”The Perfect Eyebrow”. It is one of the pictures created in the context of the series ”Beauty Class Helena Rubinstein Salon Fifth Avenue” at the end of the 1950s, when the reporter, who declared her adherence to a model of humanism, came along with Henri Cartier-Bresson to New York, commissioned by the rising Paris photo agency Magnum.6 Nonchalantly, the extended fingers of a man’s left hand spread the made-up eyebrow of a young, definitely white photo model. Viewed precisely, he merely pulls the eyebrow upward with one finger in order to frame it between two fingers and, by means of this act, to present even better and to make visible an already measurable ”perfection” as a detail of a white, female body. This spectacular gesture of the standing man divides the presented face of the woman, who sits like a statue, into two, non-identical halves. The presented face is a silent mask that nevertheless speaks for more than itself; it is moved almost solely from the outside through a choreography of power. No subjective individual, but a whole order of society speaks to us from this face. The theme of a conspicuously large number of Inge Morath’s photographs is the models’ bodily self-control. They expose the struggle, inscribed in Western culture, over the so-called ”female” ideal of beauty as an act of dressage.

In the four space-encompassing monitors of her installation Coloured, Ingrid Mwangi focuses the gaze in parallel and simultaneously on the head, the back, the upper thighs, and finally the feet. A glimpse of the female genitalia remains excluded from the large video staging, which is presented in four fragments. This emptiness and absence, staged as existing, points to the corresponding terms – primitivism, femaleness, sexual desire – i. e., the cultural fiction with which Western modern art, from Gustave Courbet (”L’Origine du Monde”, 1866) through Pablo Picasso (”Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”, 1907) to Marcel Duchamp (”Étant donnés ...”, 1947-1966) and many others, was able, through the gaze and representation, to play with such virtuosity on the hidden keyboards of the domination of female passivity.

The West and the art forms of its modernism, especially in beautiful masterpieces, have often referred the applauding art world to the extra-historical or prehistoric ”female origin” (not shown here). The model of history often chauvinistically favored and dominating in this aestheticizing master myth, which asserts that the ”primitive” is (and was) almost always what lives (or lived) in a conspicuous lack of modernization, still points to this peculiar and calculated dialectic, which is not free of a sexualized claim to power that is also suffused in the optics of Western art. There, the difference is not only one between colors and races, it is implicitly also a hierarchy of the difference between the sexes.

In the central film projection of Coloured, Ingrid Mwangi operates with a practice of spatialization. She multiplies, varies, and reproduces the image of herself as something discursive and bundled in language and images. There, in an allotted projection, the video mirror images already mentioned are broken into another media shape. On the right is the projection of a cinematic ”body figure” that could be named Ingrid Mwangi, put together from four fragments as well as from electronically created and synthetically-colored (bluish, greenish, etc.) changes. This projection is a slightly different degree and intentionally intensification of the images shown in the four video loops we have described. For this transformation, the artist uses the body and the procedures of technology like a spectral picture archive that, electronically pepped up, remains anonymous, global, and coded in terms of pop. This body fragment consists of anthropomorphic, erectly constructed fragments, here also renewed by four individual segments of the body that do not compose an image, but constantly slide into each other.

As the aesthetic process of a media design, the performance with the title Coloured is a kind of safety valve, a structured and narrative theatrical tale. Its intent is to confront the fetishism aimed at the body of the black woman with an articulated objection and with subversive complexity. Perhaps the performative part of the project corresponds to the alternative model of the catharsis acted out in the theater. For in the film projection integrated in this installation, Ingrid Mwangi also acts as a full-sized person. Here one sees how she carried out the performance, so to speak as a social actor in a flashback, life-sized on the stage, which she then places in the space as a relict and minimalistic object with the transformed and reworked traces of Action Painting and Minimal Art.

Later she herself summarized the performance in the present tense in the following words: ”I stand just in front of the projection on a specially constructed, 1.80 m x 2.80 m stage made of very darkly stained wood. A hollow space, open in both directions, in the double-bottomed stage ensures that all the sounds caused by my movements on the wood are broadcast, amplified, into the performance space. The stage thus becomes an instrument I use and on which I play. I stand and concentrate. Then I begin to sway back and forth as far as I can until I lose my balance and fall. Slowly I let my voice produce noises. I snort and moan. I shout. I writhe, trembling. I drag my skin squeaking across the stage, drum with my hands and feet, scratch, and stomp. I pound on the stage. I whisper and curse. Intermittently, I fall silent. I listen, hum, and exhale.”7

The picture as representation: She enters the room, uncovers the fragment, walking swiftly and erectly past it. She throws herself onto the ground. Ingrid Mwangi (who worked and experimented with her voice as sound material together with Shelley Hirsch, the New York voice performer who introduced Mwangi to the possibilities of expanded voice techniques) begins to create sounds. These sounds are not comparable to anything, but they recall many things. They are song and noises. They come in long passages and tones, as if from a rhythmically constructed, abstract space. Finally she emerges, life-sized, from musical sounds of lament whose phonetics she constantly changes. She rises, stands up, and is large. She throws herself to the floor, pushes herself up on both arms as if she wanted to do push-ups, shows her body in profile, turns her upper body and her head, opens her mouth, and shows her teeth. She snarls. She pushes into the realm of prejudices and counters the racist glance of white societies that, with many of their (ir)rationally coded forms of refinement (like science, art, fashion, lifestyle, media, etc.), have looked at black women as ”wild and exotic animals” and have in no way stopped doing so in the ”postcolonial society”. This experience of modern societies’ existing desire in the public and private spheres to see her body as a show is what the artist calls her ”culture shock”. An especially neuralgic point in this for her is to be colonialistically viewed in glorified fashion as an ”exotic woman” with the usually romantically mystified appeal of the ”alien other”.

The installation Coloured operates with the question and the approach centered on or circling around the question ”How can this glance be depicted and staged? What is its historical and social space? How can it be shown, used, and transformed?” One could also add: ”How can the process of showing, as an autonomous act, be intelligently depicted and reversed?” This is why Coloured also conveys the diffused multiplicity of the perspectives of the glance at the dark-skinned woman/artist, especially as that of a glance at the dark-colored skin of her body, which she does not present in her installation as an unchangeable husk. The image of the body, namely, is constructed in a whole palette of pigments of possible dark-skinnedness that, from monitor to monitor, becomes lighter by degrees, while remaining dark at the same time. The point is much more to find signs, figures, moving structures, and relationships for her intentions. In this, there is an interplay of the artist’s answering glance and sometimes also an echo of fear: ”I can’t get out of my skin. I seek possibilities of depiction and images of the felt limitation in the face of stereotyped thinking and the reduction to exoticism fielded against me.”8

In Western society, hair is considered a special badge of subjectivity and individuality, probably because of its prominent position on the head, its material plasticity, and its playfully changeable shape. But it is so not only in the West. Ingrid Mwangi has lived in, knows, and experiences both cultures. Until she was fifteen, she lived in Kenya, where she was born in 1975, the daughter of a German mother and a Kenyan father. This is why Ingrid Mwangi’s video images often point to African hair culture, which she structures, binds, wraps, braids, and bundles in many ways to changeable masks around her face, for example with a degree of public recognition in the video Neger. Through the one-eyed opening in her hair, she casts a brief glance back at the viewer. The sounds underlaid in this passage of the video give the pictures a surreal atmosphere, transforming the mask briefly into a ”beehive”. Ingrid Mwangi clarifies this: ”In one shot, I look out of the small opening; then one hears a sound like the humming of many bees. I briefly twitch, the camera zooms in, and then the hole flaps shut (cut to a shot of the same mask, but this time covering both my eyes), like a reaction to a threat.”9 Ingrid Mwangi writes further: ”To have grown up in Kenya means being in a culture in which one is intensely concerned with one’s hair: a great deal of time, patience, and imagination are put into cutting it and braiding it as well as the most various ways of chemically treating it, for example straightening it and bleaching it. I, too, spent many hours in my childhood dealing with the plasticity and consistency of my hair. And it seems a short step for me to use this material in my work today. Thus, my newest work Your Own Soul also points to African hair culture. And this poses the question of freedom and self-determination.”10 Precisely hair’s special susceptibility to being shaped into structures – the procedures of straightening, lightening, and bleaching, understood as an act of transforming and restoration, the possibility of forming bizarre volumes from it, and of developing repeatedly changeable forms – was, as a childhood pattern, not solely a mimetic approach to or rejection of the white society’s racist and sexist cultural stereotypes, but also a way of dealing with the experience of race and sex differences and their symbolism.

In one of the four monitors of Coloured, which assume a symbolic mirroring function on the left-hand wall of the room, without any entertaining body poses, the artist repeatedly crosses her arms to cover her breasts, which the dominant glance in Western patriarchal culture have labeled primary sex characteristics. In this way, she not only creates the contradictory and clear image of refusal in the face of consumable female gender attributes. For here a continuing frontal, very abstract image arises of her body, on which her face cannot be seen. Then she turns her upper body and shows an abstracted image of her back that fills the entire monitor. She turns her back on the viewer. For a short time, scars become visible that look like the traces of lashes from a whip; then they disappear. The pathos of the physical, the corporeal, that appears here receives for awhile, as in modern art, an orientation toward the threatening and is then moderated again. These drawings are a digital transporting of the image of scars from another unnamed part of her body onto this image level. The influence of media, science, technology, digitalization, and a struggle against the triviality of mass-media pop art can be directly read as a network-ethical position from her work Coloured.

The identity, or more precisely, the existential constructivism on which the artist is thus working is a kind of moral-ethical self-design. This existential constructivism, with which she designs herself and also her pictorial alter ego, is constitutive in all of her artistic projects. As a media artist, Ingrid Mwangi is always in a turning motion of plumbing questions between the society of the blacks and that of the whites, as well as between the identity of a black and a white woman. Her position is never unambiguously on only one side. Ingrid Mwangi is more interested in fusing the two horizons.

In another momentary image of this video loop, her hair over her spine becomes a fine line that, like a flowing drawing darker than her dark skin, consciously marks the verticality of her body. As in the other three video loops, her body then turns back to its media-representational ”show side” and displays the crossed arms over the once again concealed female breasts. The installation goes beneath this surface and shows the technologic of a spatial construction in coordinates that shift and demonstrates at the same time that identity is not a firmly defined concept, but rather a moving process that is able to change, metamorphose, and depict itself only because it is mirrored in the glance of the others. Viewers of the installation move as if in a three-dimensional coordinate cube, in no part of which can they be triumphally conscious that they perceive the entire installation at once or that they can dominate it with their glance. This space is perspectivally constructed, but while one is always admonished to perceive time as a fourth dimension, the view of space as a whole eludes the glance in every spot. Again and again, obstacles against arbitrarily consuming the performance or installation Coloured are built in. The theme of ego plurality that the media artist presents cannot be academically sorted out. Above all, questions are posed, inquiries begun, situations, states, and processes opened up in moving picture processes, and few answers given.

Viewers gain reflective access to the installation via their feelings and emotions, as well as through their own temporal movement and the resulting relations between, for example, proximity and distance. The viewers are in a space that can never be perceived as a simulated illusionary space of a spectacle that absorbs them in utopian or apocalyptic fashion – quite in contrast to many of the electronically generated spaces of the New Media. For this reason, too, Coloured cannot be understood solely as a traditional ”picture” or as a ”technological media installation”. Like the basis of a store of ideas, the work is part of a conceptual project of the artist’s, one that wants to confront and challenge. It is the renewed attempt by the media artist Ingrid Mwangi to deepen the difference of female corporeality (dark-skinnedness) in space and time as a phenomenon, but thereby also grasping it conceptually – as a staged and social being-in-the-world.


1 Dieter Rot, in: Rhodos School of Design, artist´s proof`; 1966, idem, Der Fluß des Denkens hat die Form der Haut; idem, Das Denken des Philosophen will im Kreis fließen; idem, Rots Denken fließt um die in seine Haut eingegangenen Dinge herum. This notice is found in the Fluxus archive of Emmett Williams in Berlin.

2 Noted in conversation between the author and Ingrid Mwangi on Sept. 18, 2002.

3 Michel Foucault, Il faut défendre la société. Cours au Collège de France, 1976. Cf. Bernhard H. F. Taureck, Michel Foucault, Hamburg, 1997, p. 106 ff.

4 Cf. Bernd Stiegler, Michel Foucault und die Photographie. Manuscript from the conference Michel Foucault und die Künste, ZKM, Karlsruhe, 2002.

5 Cf. Marion Strunk, Als ob's wirklich weltweit wirksam wär'. Strategien der Subjektkreationen in den Arbeiten von Janine Antoni, Matthew Barney, Eva & Adele, Zoe Leonhard, Alba d'Urbano, Comme des Garçons, Eva Wohlgemuth u. a., lecture, Sept. 24, 2002, Karl Ernst Osthaus-Museum Hagen, unpublished manuscript, with the generous permission of the author.

6 Her husband, the playwriter Arthur Miller, remarked in 2002 after Inge Morath’s death: ”I am caught offguard, for example, by the number of pictures which feature women ... At the same time she was perfectly aware that even among her fellow-photographer colleagues a woman had a certain unacknowledged second-class, almost retarded position ... Inge resented it as a kind of condescension ...”, in Arthur Miller, Inges New York, Vienna, 2002, p. 13.

7 Conversation between the author and Ingrid Mwangi on Sept. 16, 18, and Oct. 4, 2002.

8 Ingrid Mwangi, in Your Own Soul, script Stadtgalerie Saarbrücken 2002.

9 Conversation between the author and Ingrid Mwangi on Oct. 4, 2002

10 Ingrid Mwangi, in Your Own Soul, script Stadtgalerie Saarbrücken 2002

© Gislind Nabakowski, 2003

Written for Your Own Soul. Ingrid Mwangi, Kehrer Heidelberg/ Stadtgalerie Saarbrücken, 2003 on pages 50- 65.


The Other State in the Sense of Reinterpretation or

“The River of Thought Takes the Form of Skin?“

by Gislind Nabakowski