In early 2003 the Museum for African Art presented Ingrid Mwangi's video installation neger don´t call me in an intimate gallery, juxtaposed with 'Facing the Mask', a large-scale exhibition of historical African masks. Mwangi's installation used video projection and sound to reveal personal confrontations with difference and prejudice she faced as a young teenager, when she left her native Kenya to live in Germany. Neger Don't Call Me presents a grid of images of the artist creating abstract masks out of her own dread-locked hair. Her masks refashion traditional African forms as well as masks worn by bank robbers and a range of zoomorphic forms. The installation also included four chairs with built-in speakers emitting the artist's commentary on how living in Germany heightened her awareness of being African. Neger Don't Call Me expresses the fury and refusal surrounding racial classifications that contrasts with her awe and respect for the African images, like those found in 'Facing the Mask'. The poignant juxtaposition of the historical African masks and Mwangi's desire to change perceptions about contemporary Africa highlights the creative context of much of her work.
Mwangi attended the University of Fine Arts Saar, in Saarbrücken, Germany, where she explored graphic design for two years and then changed her major to new artistic media, studying with Ulrike Rosenbach, a renowned German video artist. Rosenbach studied under Joseph Beuys, who encouraged artists to make art (what he called the social plastic) that had social consequence. Using Beuys's methodology, Rosenbach urged Mwangi to experiment with body art and performance, to lift artistic material out of experimentation and illustrate connecting points between self and society. Working with video as an open medium of image and sound, Mwangi began to work with and alter images of her body as a means of collapsing oversimplified narratives of race, gender and sexuality.
In an early suite of video works
wild life, neger and masked, Mwangi transformed herself into beastly images that derive from the discriminatory imagination of the West. By turning herself first into a roaring caged animal in Wild Life (1999), then into a minimalistic self-portrait covered with a mask of her own dread-locked hair in Neger (1999) and Masked (2000), Mwangi's videos blend beautiful images with the edge of brutality embedded in racial stereotypes. The success of these works lies in Mwangi's deft ability to critique the consumption of these images while questioning the role of the viewer in identity construction.
While Mwangi could easily have continued to mine creative material from a self-reflexive point of departure, she chose to take on a broader range of issues. Her working method of starting with her body and personal experiences evolved as she began to collaborate with her partner, the German artist Robert Hutter. Together they created
to be in the world and see in the light, a powerful pair of video works. Both capture close-up views of individuals responding to violent images shown off-camera. Presenting one individual at a time on a single monitor, To Be in the World documents a range of emotional states. Shot with a digital camera in a dark setting, the footage presents intimate encounters with the viewer's faces lit by the disturbing footage on the source monitor: the use of close-up angles, coupled with audio-bleed from the original material, allows viewers to tap into their own imagination.
Recent works such as
dressed like queens and chameleon demonstrate Mwangi's continued desire to break video work conventions. In Dressed Like Queens, Mwangi projected images on to three large, hand-dyed fabrics commissioned in Kenya. The red, brown and green textiles drape down and pool together on the floor, while the video portrays a pregnant woman, flanked on each side by Mwangi. The artist narrates a text about the strength and power of African women as the woman moves majestically through space. Dressed Like Queens represents a reclamation and commemoration of African women that resonates with feminist ideologies of recovery and empowerment.
Mwangi's installation pieces often stir and unsettle emotions by mixing known references and images in controversial contexts. In her most recent installation
splayed, three flat-screen monitors present the artist - arms outstretched - formally echoing Jesus on the cross. As the words 'monogamous polygamy' are incised into the artist's forearms, Splayed questions the role of women in complex social systems using the lens to investigate connections between individuals and society. If artists' works are read as responses to their immediate environment, it is clear that Mwangi is exploring the potential and limitations of video as a tool of social change, both in and out of Africa.

© Laurie Ann Farrell, 2005

Written for Contemporary Art Magazine, issue no. 71,
London 2005


Ingrid Mwangi

by Laurie Ann Farrell