If Ingrid Njeri Mwangi – the daughter of a Kenyan man and a German woman – had been born during the Third Reich, she would have been considered ”of an inferior genotype” and classified as ”degenerate progeny”. She might never have been born in the first place, as racial anthropologists were demanding the forced sterilization of mothers of Afro-Germans even before the rise of Nazism. In ”Mein Kampf” (1928), Hitler furthermore gave the blame for this ”bastardization” of his Aryans to the Jews, who ”bring the nigger to the Rhine” in order ”to destroy the white race they so despise, to hurl it from its cultural and political pinnacle and rise to become its masters themselves”. Mwangi – who was born in Nairobi in 1975 and moved to Germany with her mother and siblings at the age of fifteen – was lucky, although only in this one isolated sense. After all, bloody struggles had led to the attainment of Kenyan independence in 1963, and Germany was thought to be the heart of Europe, free of all prejudice. We will refrain here from delving deeper into the questionable independence of an East African republic in the late colonial economic system. Suffice it to say that the still latently perceptible social, political and cultural stigmatization of a colored person, an Afro-German, in Germany cast quite some doubt on the ”luck” of later birth. Mwangi was confronted with the constraints and fears of a young woman with black skin in a society as conditioned as ever to intolerance, racism and sexism and absorbed with its role at the navel of the world. When asked today why she became an artist, she cites the unusual possibilities art offers her for countering this collective exclusion, persecution and suppression of everything considered foreign.

According to a saying of the East African Kerewe, ”the idea that we are all alike is mere talk, for we differ from one another in knowledge”.1 The knowledge referred to here is the body as knowledge: the concept of the body’s exterior and interior, its physical and mental characteristics, as a unified whole. This concept is only distantly related to the animist (i. e. ”inspired”) natural religions of the Africans, emerging to a greater extent from the knowledge of the unmistakable, irreplaceable individuality of every human being. The Christian missionaries likened members of so-called primitive tribes – ”heathen savages” – to animals and disputed their possession of a soul. Nazi ideologists adhered to this doctrine even in cases of baptized persons of other continents, referring to them as ”degenerate individuals”. At best, they regarded members of ”impure races” as ”exotic” objects. A recent study by the Bielefeld Institut für interdisziplinäre Konflikt- und Gewaltforschung shows that 22 percent of all Germans think that foreigners living in Germany should marry their own compatriots. This opinion, incidentally, is held by more women (25 percent) than men (19 percent). A sizable 14 percent of all Germans still think that some groups of the population are inferior to others. And 16 percent think that white people are justified in leading the world. Nearly one fifth of all Germans (17 percent) say that Jews bear part of the blame for their own persecution. Every second German (52 percent) is of the opinion that many Jews attempted to gain advantages from the Holocaust – and that they made the Germans pay for the past.2

The much-cited process by which the Germans have supposedly come to terms with their past apparently never really took place. What did take place was unreflecting repression. Those are the red threads of action to which Ingrid Mwangi ties her black dreadlocks in order to demonstrate her futile attempts to break out of the stereotypical black-and-white of her ”post-colonial” German reality (Wild at Heart).3

With his post-colonial look at the ”terrible nearness of distant places”, the first non-European documenta producer Okwui Enwezor focused on the new self-conception of art as a critical documentation of our globalized present. Enwezor defines post-colonialism as the sum of all ”practices whereby cultures evolving out of imperialism and colonialism, slavery and indenture, compose a collage of reality from the fragments of collapsing space”.4 The artists he presented ”document” their criticism of the ruling system with all the media they need to ”de-sign” their counterworlds: their own bodies as vessels of memory and bearers of messages, materials of natural or synthetic origin, digital computers and audiovisual projectors (sound and image transmitters) in combination with the respective projection surfaces, projection bodies and projection spaces. The documenta 11 exhibition accumulated the prospective surfaces, bodies and spaces of an art practice that reflects and projects our immediate present in a kind of modern-day Tower of Babel. Perhaps the most fundamental message conveyed by Enwezor’s linguistic jumble is the discovery of art in the context of responsibility. The reality-oriented and political character of the post-colonially globalized ”fragments of collapsing space” presented in Kassel in 2002 points at the very least to new means by which artists can make an impact on society – particularly those artists who work on eliminating the boundaries of our ”boundary-maintaining systems” (Jürgen Habermas) from within the authenticity of their own biographies and experience.

Ingrid Mwangi’s perceptual-strategic method consists in opening up a ”third” realm of experience as a wedge in the concealment/discovery dualism by having subject and object appear alternately as her alter ego, live as well as virtually. In the sense of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus ”The subject does not belong to the world; rather, it is a border of the world”,5 she experiences her existence in a border world, albeit one that applies not only to her. In her self-presentations, the exploration of the state of her own body often leads to the self-tormenting dissection of her own identity, to the radical questioning of her own self. From the very beginning, she has carried out this continual self-exclusion with the aid of the synesthetic possibilities of performance, an art form capable of lending expression to the conscious as well as the unconscious, to physical as well as psychological states. In her interaction with her own self, she relies on the one hand on the impetus of physical processes; on the other hand she experiments with the interfaces of nature and culture on the border between the perceptible and the unspeakable. By means of the continual dialog between her true self and her virtually transformed superego, Mwangi endeavors to make her aura – her astral body, in a sense – i. e. the state of her soul – interspatially experiencable.

It is quite evident that Mwangi’s dreadlocks are a particularly important element of what she communicates with her body. Mwangi attributes this circumstance to her childhood in Nairobi, where – as she recalls – she spent lots of time, patience and fantasy practicing the cult of dressing, felting, braiding, straightening and bleaching hair, the latter two – when applied to kinky hair – being indications of the denatured attempts of blacks to adapt to the nature and culture of the whites. Dreadlocks, on the other hand, are an Afro look that has long since been absorbed by the world of the whites. Particularly young people wear dreadlocks as a kind of protest hairstyle, directed against the older generation and the shorn heads of the neofascists while at the same time serving as a form of peaceful demonstration against neocolonial globalization politics. Of all the various forms of body language Mwangi practices, the cultic linguistic images she forms with her dreadlocks are those in which the stylistic device of ritualization becomes most perceptible: A sculptural process of metamorphosis, the transplantation of archetypical energy symbols like the ”Urpflanze” or the snake into the present. The dreadlocks embody her roots as well as her feeling. They are sensors, antennae and transmitters. One of the key dreadlock works is the spatially staged video and sound installation Neger – Don’t Call Me: A wild woman at her core (Wild at Heart), Mwangi uses her dreadlocks to form hair masks of prototypical, often animal-like faces which are ironically overdrawn stereotypes of German images of Africans. An invisible audience of Germans, personified by four chairs, faces these projected video sequences. The voice of the person behind the changing masks arises from the seats of the chairs, fragmentarily relating her experiences and language difficulties (especially with the word ”Neger”) in Germany.

Mwangi dissects her black-and-white image and, in the four-part video installation, coloured, anatomizes her body into virtual images of various behavioral patterns and views, producing an icon of very personal states of mind, gradated from white to black. In the same breath, the work quite distinctly reflects the cultural/temporal-historical phenomenology of the ”other” sex: a feministically accentuated motif of liberation from the corset of socially ritualized conventions resonating throughout her artistic projects. In the photo series Static Drift – as an example of a ”different” readability of the world – the performer exposes her ”Borderlines”, having had the ”Burn Out” of a Germany shadow burned into the skin of her stomach by the white sun, or the words ”Bright Dark Continent” into the stencil of Africa. As a media artist she is familiar with the rhetorical power of projected pictures, signs, symbols and texts, and aware of the media characteristics of the body as a vessel of memory and remembering, a generator of energy fields, data logger and processor, both receiver and transmitter – but also as a resounding body or instrument. Mwangi has at her disposal an unusually expressive and modulable voice that makes particularly her live performances a unique experience. Her ”chants”, always improvised, modulate the musical speech patterns of her African ”half”, turning them into entirely autonomous speech rhythms through the fusion of tonal and atonal elements. Freeing the Voice was the title of a 1999 performance at which her freely improvised ”Stimmungen” literally crept under the listeners’ skin. It is a deeply inward sound that breaks loose, rears up, and finally flows almost inaudibly back into her body.

Mwangi does not employ her performance-oriented media repertoire in an ostentatious or directly agitational manner, but places her faith in the concretization and conveyance of feelings filtered from the difference between the body as object and the body as subject. Her work is related to the inherent human knowledge already alluded to above. Not only animist natural religions but also European conceptions of human nature – as expressed in theosophy and anthroposophy, for example – view the soul in the manner Mwangi endeavors to express in her “Hair Piece” and sound installation Your Own Soul, namely as a source of power-producing fields of energy. Once again, the sensorial dreadlocks are involved. Here they appear as oversized jute yarn, worked in the manner of hair (braided, knotted, dyed, etc.). Thus transformed and interwoven with fragments of text and sound, they represent the adaptation and alienation process experienced by the artist. Mwangi: ”The ownership of one’s own hair becomes a symbol for the ownership of one’s self.” And: ”You can’t pretend to be passive! This has just as much to do with your soul as with mine.”

With To Be in the World, Mwangi takes a first step towards transferring her own experience of borders to others, now quite directly. In this case the ”others” are members of her family, to whom she presented a sequence of video scenes of violence of the kind shown day after day on TV world news. The consumption of information that is fed by everyday racism, discrimination, violence and war is reflected in the faces of the viewers as the flickering of the light from the television screen. Tone fragments from the TV recordings circle the black room in which six monitor steles have been assembled and are showing the virtual facial reflections of the ”test persons” thus tormented. Here Mwangi uses artistic means to propose the sentiment radically formulated by Sloterdijk6, according to which ”In-der-Welt-Sein” (‘being in the world’) means ”In-der-Gewalt-Sein” (‘being in the power / under the control’ or ‘being in violence’ – a phrase with a double meaning due to the fact that the German word ”Gewalt” can mean power/control or violence). In the light of the ”frightening” monitors, that which truly exists merges with that which merely appears, making timidly questioning lines of text visible: ”What can I do? What can you do? Can we do? …”

You can’t pretend to be passive!


1 Regina and Gerd Riepe (eds.), Afrikanische Religionen, project file, Mülheim an der Ruhr, 2000, p. 46.

2 Jochen Bittner, Deutschland: Wo jeder sich vor jedem fürchtet, in Die Zeit, No. 46, November 7, 2002, p. 10.

3 Detailed description of the multimedia performance Wild at Heart in the attic atelier of the Hochschule der Bildenden Künste Saar, Saarbrücken, 1998.

4 Cf. Okwui Enwezor, The Black Box, in Documenta 11, The Catalog, Ostfildern-Ruit, 2002, pp. 42-55.

5 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus logico-philosophicus, New York, 2001, p. 632.

6 Cf. Peter Sloterdijk, Medien-Zeit, drei gegenwartsdiagnostische Versuche – Sendboten der Gewalt (essay series of the HfG Karlsruhe), Ostfildern-Ruit, 1993, p. 11.

© Horst Gerhard Haberl, 2003

Written for Your Own Soul. Ingrid Mwangi, Kehrer Heidelberg/ Stadtgalerie Saarbrücken, 2003 on pages 32- 41.


Art is the Message, by Horst Gerhard Haberl