The focus of much of Ingrid Mwangi Robert Hutter’s work to date has been the exploration of their own duality, their unique fusion of male and female, black and white, German and Kenyan. Static Drift (2001) is a perfect example of this. The outlines (read borders) of Germany and Kenya respectively are transposed onto Mwangi’s skin, leaving the viewer in no doubt as to the artist’s intentions and/ or targets.

But in 2009/10 with the cycle of work Intruders, as in the world around, things just got a little bit murkier.

The artist’s frustration is tangible. Where once the violence in Mwangi Hutter’s oeuvre was visible and literally skin-deep, it now pervades everything, soaking by osmosis into the consciousness of the viewer. This is pure rage, wild flailing punches at the state of the world as evidenced most clearly in Under New Management (2009). Intruders as a body of work is thus in a sense truly modern. If the purpose of art is to reflect the world in which it was created, these works achieve this by not just offering us images but by revealing our own wholesale insecurities.

Interestingly, with few exceptions, these new images and films could conceivably be located anywhere. The rigid geographical delineation of Mwangi Hutter’s work has been lost, everything is in flux. Who are our real enemies? Who is intruding on whom? These are the questions posed by the artist and to which no real answers are suggested. Theirs is not a unique complaint. John Berger addresses similar concerns in From A to X: A Story in Letters (Verso, 2008) where the author imagines an epistolary novel for the noughties from discovered packets of letters between an imprisoned man (‘accused of being a founder member of a terrorist network’) and his lover struggling to make sense of her new found loneliness amidst a hail of bombs and bullets. At no point does Berger suggest where this is all taking place.

The Third Packet of Letters:

On the strip of cotton fabric that ties together the packet are two words written in smudged ink:

Home Land

In Mwangi Hutter’s Homeland (2008), a photo and video work, the text is not smudged but rather sprayed in tall, pink acrylic paint. The artist portrays first two children and then four perched upon a piece of rusting rolling stock surrounded by parched countryside. In the first of the images, the word ‘Deutschland’ is accompanied by a swastika, scrawled in graffito. In the second, the swastika has been crudely crossed out and the word ‘Deutschland’ appears inverted, the implication being that the two components of the graffito no longer belong together. The image is further complicated by both the ethnic origins of the children and their seeming multiplication. The effect of the cancellation of the swastika is a red herring, the style is similar to that employed by another artist with more than a passing interest in both race and the use of public spaces to raise issues, Jean-Michel Basquiat. The point is that the swastika remains in full view, almost brought to centre-stage by its very cancellation.

As in From A to X the identity of the location remains a secret. Conceivably, this piece of metal could still be in Germany or it could be a relic, exported in another time and left to the mercy of the elements. Berger describes a possible explanation in one of X’s letters to his wife:

From welder to welder

One million workers of the Third World. Dismantle for scrap the great aircraft carriers and passenger liners of the First World. The ship once grounded, with the wood and insulating material taken out, they cut the hull with acetylene. Wherever there are traces of oil or petrol the flames risk to provoke an explosion. They wear no or little protective clothing. 20 to 30 accidents a day on the beach at Tossa. Welder’s daily wage – 1 dollar.

The theme of our violent times and our increasing apathy to them continues in Window Shopping (2009). The innocence of childhood is again juxtaposed with the tools of the soldier as two girls look with curiosity into the vitrine of a shop selling automatic weapons. The girls seem at once both interested and dismissive as if they are seeing nothing new but are nonetheless attracted to the shiny metallic objects. It recalls the description of another work (Untitled V) by another German photographer, Andreas Gursky of which the following was noted by Emanuela Mazzonis:

The shop-front window with its stock of Nike shoes is a container, the box in which the fetishized object is transfigured for the masses through mise-en- scène. It becomes an icon for globalism, photographed through a small and symbolic fragment of what in reality is globalism itself, a reality that in its immensity cannot be defined and which can be perceived only through an ensemble of fragments put together.

Substitute the words ‘Nike shoes’ with ‘tonz of gunz’ [sic] and we have a much more poignant definition of true globalism. Mwangi Hutter’s bastard child of Gursky’s 1997 work replaces the Air Jordan with the AK-47, front and centre in all its non-jamming magnificence. It is hard to think of a more fetishized object amongst those who would wage war; its shape being one of the most recognised symbols of our age, equal to and probably beyond both the previously mentioned swastika and the Coca Cola or Nike swirls. In Germany, the AK-47 will always call to mind Baader-Meinhof’s logo for the RAF, a 1970s example of terror-branding that Mwangi Hutter would certainly not be unfamiliar with. Where is this shop? It doesn’t matter in all honesty, it could be anywhere, and that’s the point, and it’s not a pleasant realisation.

The most immediately disconcerting of all these images however is Fence (2009). Hutter is shown, stripped to the waist, imprisoned behind seemingly hastily-erected fencing, a Temporary (NON) Autonomous Zone. The reasons for his arrest are unexplained but the scene, with its assembled crowd, has more of the feeling of a public execution about it. We are all familiar with this type of imagery and Mwangi Hutter here play to our innermost fears. What if we were to become wrongly imprisoned for an activity we didn’t even know was unlawful? Artists in other media have also recently posed similar questions; Romain Gavros in his video for M.I.A’s ‘Born Free’, Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross in their film The Road to Guantanamo and Dave Eggers in his 2010 novel Zeitoun who could conceivably be describing Mwangi Hutter’s own photograph when he writes:

The parking lot, where a dozen buses might normally be parked had been transformed into a vast outdoor prison.

Chain-link fences, topped by razor wire, had been erected into a long, sixteen- foot-high cage extending about a hundred yards into the lot...

Zeitoun was in disbelief. It had been a dizzying series of events – arrested at gunpoint in a home he owned, brought to an impromptu military base built inside a bus station, accused of terrorism, and locked in an outdoor cage. It surpassed the most surreal accounts he’d heard of third-world law enforcement.

A second, equally powerful strand within this series of images finds Mwangi Hutter returning to an earlier concern of theirs, that of intrusions into nature. Their magnificent 2007 triptych, Ozone, which somewhat unsettlingly predicted both the BP-induced disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and earlier environmental devastation in Nigeria signalled the artist’s interest in destruction of the natural world.

For Intruders however, changing Nature is largely portrayed through the eyes of children. Death is omnipresent; in Boy and Death (2008) and Hell‘s Gate (2009) the interest is almost taxidermical. There is none of the beauty of deconstruction and reconstruction found in the work of Polly Morgan here, death is presented as it is, cold and lifeless. The boy is captured as he surveys first a dog and then a fish, with interest but also with acceptance. In Hell‘s Gate it is Mwangi herself sitting with the dead beast, seemingly praying.

What could this all mean? Intruders is the work of a mature artist, shock tactics have all but disappeared. A key to understanding these troubling images could be to view them through the eyes of a child. Enough clues are offered to us, almost every image gauges the reactions of children to the world around us and their disappointment, curiosity and acceptance in equal measures with it.

Intruders is thus the work not only of an artist but also that of parents, concerned not for themselves but for their children as to the future for this world.

Richard Elliott is a freelance writer based in Venice.

© Richard Elliot, 2013

Written for Intruders on pages 76-79.


Homeland Insecurity

by Richard Elliott