No real meeting can take place without destroying us: there is no meeting without love and no love that does not start by killing us.

Christian Bobin, L’épuisement, éditions Le temps qu’il fait, Cognac 1994.

Ingrid Mwangi was fifteen years old when she left Kenya for Germany for a temporary stay that was in fact to become one of no return. This permanent move, undertaken with no time for preparation or goodbyes, was to be a hard blow for the adolescent who couldn’t speak her mother’s language, German. A new language, new climate, new culture: it was to be a violent shock, a painful rupture. This permanent, imposed exile drove her to analyze her surroundings: her new compatriots and this German society so different from her childhood world. Ingrid immersed herself in writing, and used the visual medium for expressing herself. She was drawn to psychology; later, she would consider working in the medical sector or doing humanitarian work. But she finally opted for visual communication, with its capacity to express emotions transcending the verbal, and studied graphic design  and the new artistic media: performance art, video, photography and digital art. At the conclusion of her higher education Ingrid would, in theory, work in the field of design or advertising. But one question tormented her: how could design or advertising help in addressing the evils of society? Ingrid was searching for meaning. It was a final year German student at the Hochschule der Bildenden Künste Saar, which she also attended, who was to give her the key. This decisive meeting would be the point of departure of an artistic collaboration founded on a shared ideal and an emotional bond. Robert Hutter and Ingrid Mwangi share similar preoccupations: the latent violence of German society and a world that, blind and deaf, promotes individualism and ruthless competitiveness. To propagate their humanistic conception of the world, they decided not to confine themselves within a classical medium that might restrict their analysis of the multiple facets of complex societies. Performance would be their medium of choice and the body, specifically Ingrid’s body, would become from then on the support of all the experiments of this artistic duo who have since 2000 signed themselves Ingrid Mwangi Robert Hutter.

This strong connection with the body facilitates their lively interaction with a very diverse public. Ingrid’s body is a receptacle of emotions reflecting the state of the world, and their performances are so many intuitive processes of personal development. Each work created constitutes a form of therapy for the two artists; each therapeutic session is a form of personal introspection, which is transformed into an invitation to collective exorcism through the performance. For each performance offers a space for dialogue, for taking a fresh look at the world; it is a three-way conversation between Ingrid, Robert and the public. And in these dialogues, mirroring the turmoil of the modern world, their bodies regularly become the theatre of pain. In Wild at Heart (1998), the braids in Ingrid’s hair constrain her repeated agitated movements, threatening to scalp her. In Coloured (2001), she tirelessly slaps her thighs and back. In Retrocession (2007), the Kenyan artist Jimmy Ogonga, using an empty electric tattoo machine, pierces Robert’s back until it bleeds. In Shades of Skin (2001), Ingrid’s back is lacerated. This pain that the couple inflict upon themselves symbolizes the physical and mental violence that societies suffer or inflict upon others. All these sometimes radical works give the impression that the pair, attempting to free themselves permanently from the trauma of societies, try to expiate these sins personally. Their individual experiences associated with the history of Germany and the world serve as point of departure for each new project.

Ingrid’s adjustment to her new situation has been developed through several works. The discovery of a new culture and of her place in that Western society has given rise to a series of works that are highly critical of Germany’s position in modern history, on race, the idea of belonging and of home. Static Drift (2001) is a photographic diptych. The first image shows a light-colored shape of Africa imprinted on Ingrid’s stomach with the caption “Bright dark continent”. The second image shows the shape of Germany imprinted in a shade darker than her stomach, bearing the inscription “Burn out country”. This juxtaposition of images and texts printed on the female belly (the matrix) is an implicit reference to preconceived ideas transmitted from generation to generation. Even today, Africa, dubbed “the Dark Continent” by early explorers, still carries all the negative connotations of that adjective: obscurity (and obscurantism), night, the unknown, the menacing. By adding the word “bright” on the light-colored shape, the two overturn that perception of the continent by evoking the idea of vitality, hope and inspiration. As for Germany, printed in a dark shade, it is running out of steam, exhausted, and represents by extension the West and the end of a totalitarian hegemony. This topic of ideological decline was also explored in If (2003), a work which was based on a photograph of Hitler surrounded by a group of women. Here Robert, disguised as Hitler, is surrounded by pensive-looking women, each represented by Ingrid, whose face expresses a variety of different emotions. This disturbing image evokes gentleness as a response to the violence perpetrated by the architect of chaos. In this photograph, the German woman has a dark skin, in seeming defiance of the theory of the superiority of the white race. The race question is also tackled in Neger Don’t Call Me (2000). Neger, the German word for Negro, a taboo word that harks back to the degradation of slavery, dirt, evil. In the video of this installation, Ingrid transforms her dreadlocks into a mask: the frizzy hair functions both as a protective shield and a form of armor for confronting attacks. Ingrid uses this gesture, sculpting her face with her hair, to display her difference while also shielding herself from the gaze of others. Germany, which was not an active colonizer, does not have a multicultural society. Robert knows it, and Ingrid has experienced it since her arrival in this country. Accepting difference is a challenge presented to a society Ingrid now belongs to while wondering where her real home is. The idea of home is developed in the installation In My House (2006), which shows a dilapidated building devastated by fire; on the floor is a poem about the dream of a house. With mere ruins representing a home, the question arises whether this is a dream of a lost paradise: the world of childhood. This world is also evoked in Home Sick (2006), a performance in which Robert tattoos the word Fuss fassen (in German, moving to a new home) on the sole of his left foot, as though to convince Ingrid and remind himself that Germany is their home. This far from innocent gesture records both Ingrid’s unsettled state and her deepest feeling: that of belonging, in spite of herself, to a society that calls itself progressive but does not accept people unreservedly as it constantly reminds them of their cultural, racial or linguistic difference.

Several of Ingrid’s videos and performances have been concerned with her learning a foreign language, her problems in communicating with others, and her ability to make herself understood through words. The double channel video Conversing (1996), features Ingrid in conversation with herself:  a painful, absurd dialogue of the deaf made up of tirades and reproaches based on utter incomprehension, condemnation without appeal and inevitable rupture. The importance of voice and sound is paramount in several performances in the 90’s, experiments sublimating the story of the Tower of Babel, which is held to mark the starting point of linguistic barriers and the endless stream of tragic misunderstandings flowing from that. All the works from Language Trilogy (2001) to Song of the Devastation (2005), including Freeing the Voice (1999), Regen (1999), From the Soul (1999), Big Show (2001) and Wild Life (1999) were conceived as formal exercises in the use of the voice, testing the limitations on communicating a message through sounds rather than through words. Performance is a laboratory for creating a universal language based on emotion and feeling rather than on the subjective understanding of the definition of words. These artistic projects express a strong desire for communication, showing that the voice divested of words has the power to transcend ideas. These projects also refer to the physical and mental imprisonment represented in the installation Beyond the Border (2001). The performances, all punctuated with incessant roars and obsessive voices, evoke an attempt at physical and spiritual liberation, a profound desire for emancipation. The violence the pair have witnessed or experienced in the flesh is imposed on their audience by means of words that Ingrid mutters or shouts and also through constrained movements.

Each performance is an intuitive process of personal development for the two artists; a process charged with empathy and otherness, a process of confronting demons and embracing the pain of the world. Any other approach would be utterly hypocritical for Ingrid Mwangi Robert Hutter. In Desperate for Change (2001), the silent Ingrid’s face is bathed in tears while phrases such as “what can you do” and “what have they done” move down the screen. The installations and videos To be in the World (2002), See in the Light (2002), For Children (2006), Blood Poem (2006) and Man of War (2006) urge the public to free themselves from the complacent straitjacket of blind positivism. This injunction occurs again in My Heart of Darkness (2001), where the emaciated body of a black child thrown to the ground inevitably awakens guilt that disturbs our comfortable little lives. These appeals for a collective awakening of conscience find concrete expression in the aesthetic violence of the installation Down by the River (2001), in which Ingrid’s body floats on its stomach in red water while a text commenting on blood poured into the river is handwritten into red earth on the ground. This work, symbolizing all kinds of violence, both past and yet to come, suggests, through those symbols of fertility, earth and water, that we need to free ourselves from the burden of inevitability in order to maintain our belief that a different kind of world is possible.

At the turn of the millennium, the performance of the two artists is muffled in silence, a silence which symbolizes the sound of the soul returning to the body after years of restless wandering and doubt. The two now display their political and social commitment through new performances in urban spaces. Nairobi, Bamako and Johannesburg become source of inspiration and platforms for dialogue with a new public that has probably never set foot in a museum or an art gallery. Ingrid Mwangi Robert Hutter reach out to the people and raise local issues that are often divisive. In Eastleigh Crossing (2009), Ingrid walks through the stagnant water of a flooded street in the suburb nicknamed “Little Mogadishu” in Nairobi and tries to engage the curious onlookers crowding to observe her peculiar behavior. The series of photos in Raft (2007) reveals the appalling state of the ocean floor, while the performance Creepcreature (2009) tackles issues around desertification and drought. Questions concerning the division of public space, water treatment and the environment generate reflections on the impact of individual responsibility on communal property. In The Cage (2009) Robert, from within an enclosure, tapes his eyes closed, cuts his hair, and puts handfuls into small packets that he attaches to the fence before presenting his back and torso to the crowd, who write personal messages there and then take a packet of hair as a “souvenir”. This public exposure of the personal sentiments of passers-by and onlookers transforms Robert’s body into a platform for collective demands. In Human Walk (2008), Ingrid walks through the streets of Nairobi with two placards: on her front, the words “I am human”, and on her back, “I am Kenyan”. This work, a response to the inter-communal violence experienced in Kenya, is an invitation to dialogue, the first step towards forgiveness.

Once again, each performance is an intuitive process of personal development for Ingrid Mwangi Robert Hutter. The body, instrument of inflicted violence, is the vehicle of traumatic experiences, a martyred body enduring the never-ending assaults of the world, displaying its stigmata to all those guilty of non-intervention. This bruised body, like an echo of the suffering of humankind, is a space of tension, confrontation, of clashes over territory both mental and physical, public and private.  For these two artists, performance is often an exhausting combat with the invisible, or perhaps a struggle with themselves that could lead to madness and gives rise, unrelentingly, to an oppressive silence. Why endure such physical trials? Why give vent to such screams against the world, cries of rage that could rent the vocal cords? Because these voices are those of the voiceless. And this body, reflecting a world adrift, can be perceived as a laboratory of destruction whose aim is to transcend chaos in order to embrace the pain of humankind.

Constant Triumph (2008) pays homage to Ingrid’s sister’s struggle against breast cancer. In this video, Helen Mwangi-Taylor expresses her hopes and fears and celebrates her long and difficult fight against the disease. This work could in itself be regarded as a synthesis of the whole Ingrid Mwangi Robert Hutter approach: an ode to human dignity, an apprenticeship in the redemption of the world. And today, the silence enveloping most of their performances is a new register in their ceaseless hymn to life.

N'Goné Fall is an independent curator and consultant in cultural engineering. Associate professor at the Senghor University of Alexandria, Egypt, she is also a founding member of the Dakar-based collective GawLab, a platform of research and production in the field of technology applied to artistic creativity.  

© N'Goné Fall, 2013

Written for Intruders on pages 64-69.


Today, and Always, I Embrace your Pain

by N'Goné Fall