I.

“Vive la liberté, la liberté, la liberté! Nous sommes libres. N´oublions pas que notre devoir, c´est d´être libres. Allons moins vite, nous arriverions à l´heure. La liberté, c´est de n´arriver jamais à l´heure.” 1


The struggle for liberation. In the play “Ubu Enchaîné” the main protagonist Père Ubu – a malicious characterization of Alfred Jarry´s pigheaded high school mathematics teacher turned politician, Félix-Frédéric Hebert – encounters this group of soldiers who consider themselves to be supreme individuals whose decisions and actions are not influenced by anybody but themselves. They have transformed the French Revolutionary credo “liberté, egalizé,  fraternité” into a kind of dogma to which they rigidly adhere, in such a way that the freedom they are trying to achieve becomes a kind of straitjacket. The French author´s absurdist parody makes us reflect on the problematic relationship between oppression and freedom, the individual and the collective, on the nature of the never-ending conflict between those who are in control and the powerless. The work of Ingrid Mwangi is not half as farcical, satirical and bizarre as the collected plays of Jarry, often described as somebody who was eccentric to the point of mania and lucid to the point of hallucination, but it equally deals with these kind of binary oppositions. Her videos tend to talk about being caught and being free, about repression and liberation, about dominance and opposition, about the self and the other. In some other sense Mwangi also resembles the madman from Laval. She is a brave – if we might use the word in this context – artist who is not afraid to shock her public into an awareness by juggling with clichés. She does not refrain from using commonplaces about topics such as racism, exoticism and identity but she does so in a subversive way by abstracting and estranging the situations she deals with. She mentioned herself that she reacts to, interprets and questions stereotypical opinions which she encounters in daily life. This implies that the work of Ingrid Mwangi is not just about the world which surrounds her, it is also and intensively about Ingrid Mwangi, the artist, the private and the public person both of them represented through mediation of the camera.


II.

“Die Maske war eine epochale Erfindung, in der die berühmte Ambivalenz jeden Bildes für alle Mal begründet ist: es tritt an die Stelle aller derjenigen, die abwesend sein müssen, damit sie im Bild anwesend sein können. Die Maske, in einer dramatische Zuspitzung dieser Bedingung, verbirgt jemanden, um ihn durch sein Bild zu ersetzen und im Bild vorzuzeigen. Ob sie einen Leichnam verbirgt oder einen Tänzer, der den Toten spielt, so bringt sie sowohl die Verhüllung wie die Enthüllung dessen, der sie trägt, auf ein und derselben Oberfläche zustande.” 2


The above-mentioned quote is part of a larger text in which Hans Belting, Professor for Art History and Mediatheory at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Karlsruhe, explains how the mask lies at the origin of the visual arts. He insists on the ambiguity of the image, which deals both with absence and representation, exposure and disguise. This polarity seems to determine the basic structure of Mwangi´s video Neger. We see how she hides herself behind intricate masks made out of her own hair. The hair – the ultimate symbol of seduction in certain cultures – becomes a veil hiding face and features of the performer. The artist´s own body becomes the material out of which she models references to traditional African sculpture. In Wild Life Mwangi presents herself as an animal behind bars, as if she has built her own cage. Her imprisonment seems to be an evocation of the Western fear for darkness and our own instincts. In a more explicit way she deals with this polarization of revealing and hiding in the performance A Woman in Purdah. She questions whether or not Islamic women who observe the tradition of Tschador or Burka are really un-free and surpressed or whether these garments are just instruments to protect them from the public – male – gaze. No one will deny that this is an extremely tricky topic. I doubt whether any other artist would be able to pick up this subject without falling into the trap of cultural relativism or eurocentrism. Mwangi succeeds in doing so by stripping the question to the bare essentials. Although one might think so whilst reading these lines Mwangi does not take recourse to pathos. Although it is essentially dramatic, her work has abandoned all characteristics of despair and revolt. It is not bitter nor inspired by a spirit of revenge. She speaks in a powerful and self-confident way about suffering and pain without being militantly aggressive.


In several texts it is mentioned that Mwangi puts her own body at the center or core of her work. That sounds a little strange, it seems more as if her whole being – emotional, intellectual and physical experiences – form the core of what she is doing. No doubt her physical appearance and `aura´ determine a large part of her work. Her performances appear to be some kind of solemn ceremonies, self-conceived rituals. There is a paradox there. Rituals are actions and movements, which are performed out of age-old traditions. Most often hardly anyone knows what their original meaning was, how they came into existence. They are repeated from collective memory. The codes are unclear. Mwangi conceives and repeats rituals, which spring from her own personal history. She is the only one who can reconstruct the exact significance of her movements and actions. The public can hardly decode them. It can only be baffled, stunned and enchanted by the enigmatic gestures and sounds the artist produces.


III.

The edition 2002 of the Miss World contest was supposed to take place in Nigeria. Past November we did however witness how Christians and Moslems commenced fighting in Kaduna after some provocative statements were made with regard to this event. More than 200 people got killed in riots succeeding an article by the newspaper journalist Isioma Daniel who allegedly claimed that Mohammed might have married one of the candidates instead of condemning the competition. Daniel fled abroad after the regional government of Zamfara incited Moslems to hunt her down and kill her. The West reacted with a whole load of articles on women-issues, censorship and the opposition between Christianity and Islam. We expressed sorrow and regret and the show was moved to London. Miss Turkey – who repeatedly stressed her hyphenated identity, being a Moslem who lives in the Netherlands – won. End of story. Fin.


In one of her statements Mwangi mentioned that the terrible reality of the past and various aspects of the present-day global condition cause her disquiet. As a consequence of that she would like the viewers who look at her work to experience the same sensation. If newsfacts or events cause her distress she reacts on them and tries to transport that “Be-unruhigung“. It is the beginning of a story. The start.


IV.

The savage. The Negro. The primitive. Those are taboo-words, which we dare not use, being inhibited by our political correctness, our fear to damage, insult and hurt. Mwangi uses them, literally or metaphorically. She speaks, sings, shouts and shows them – without shame or restraint. A back, marked by the relatively fresh imprints of a whip, is called to mind. Not yet healed into scars, no longer bloody. In-between wounds. Even those who only have a fragmented historical knowledge or very little political awareness, are immediately reminded of issues such as slavery and colonialism. It is an image with a scandalous directness, which nevertheless functions as a metaphor. As a European born in a country which overturned and abused the population of an African country over a period of more than fifty years, these images are unwanted. They remind you of facts and figures, which you would like to forget, be unaware of and delete. Mwangi does not allow you to do so. It makes you wonder how a viewer less burdened by a bloody colonial tradition would see and interpret them. Mwangi occupies both sides. She has Afro-European roots, lives in front and behind the divide. From her father´s side she belongs to the ”Wretched of the Earth“, and from her mother´s side she belongs to the ”Camp of the Conquerors“. Taking this hybridity into account, it cannot be denied that Mwangi´s work is determined by the discourse of gender and race.


This brings us back to a much more difficult – possibly a rhetorical question. Is Ingrid Mwangi a Kenyan artist, a Kenyan-German artist, a German artist from Kenyan decent or a European artist from African decent with the German nationality? Is she African, European or Afro-European? Artists living in between culture have become fashionable. Their so-called split identity is no longer a marginal thing, it has become a selling point. These alleged Diaspora-artists are generally considered to be both exotic and familiar. As more and more critics and curators get interested in the traditional and cross-cultural theme, their work is openly welcomed in their new Western homeland – even if this means that they have to tolerate leftist-paternalist encouragements. Their work is not solely considered to be art, it is also seen as a social statement. This implies that these artists are burdened with expectations. They should remain as authentic as possible, should not allow themselves to become too westernized, and their works should include references to themes such as cultural transplantation and migration.


The Dutch writer Hafid Bouazza – from Moroccan decent – claims that the hybrid author has no more social obligations than the so-called ”pure“ one 3. His ”multiple“ identity should not force him or her into the role of multicultural mouthpiece. Bouazza states that the only homeland of the writer is his language, his only passport is his style. Out of all the elements of the cultures into which he has lived, he produces his own culture with the imagination as his sole instrument.


This sounds like a warning and maybe it is one. Don´t try to pin down the capricious butterfly of the imagination. Do not allow that the work of artists of so-called mixed decent such as Mwangi becomes just that – an interesting perspective into the mind and world of an immigrant. It is much more than that. It is a world in itself.



Notes:

1 Alfred Jarry, Ubu Enchaîné (1900), in Alfred Jarry, Œuvres Complètes, Paris, 1972, vol. 2, p. 452.

2 Hans Belting, Aus dem Schatten des Todes, in Constantin von Barloewen (ed.), Der Tod in den Weltkulturen und Weltreligionen, Frankfurt/Main, 2000, p. 223.

3 Hafid Bouazza, Beer in bontjas, Boekenweekessay 2001, published by CPNB, Amsterdam, p. 12.



© Jan Hoet and Ann Demeester. 2003


Written for
Your Own Soul. Ingrid Mwangi, Kehrer Heidelberg/ Stadtgalerie Saarbrücken, 2003 on pages 42- 49.

MWANGI HUTTER

Beyond Wounds and Scars. The multiple worlds of Ingrid Mwangi
by Jan Hoet / Ann Demeester