For Helen

You only have to look at the work of Ingrid Mwangi to understand straight away what her concerns are. Actually, I shouldn’t write Ingrid Mwangi, but rather Mwangi Hutter, considering the improbable ‘twinship’ that has resulted from fusion of these two separate entities. An addition, rather than a dissolution of one into the other. This ‘twinship’, which I would like to stop and reflect on for a moment, tells us more than it seems to, not so much about the couple but about Mwangi the individual. The decision to appear, through her name, artistically inseparable from that of her accomplice illustrates her journey of some years, one that has taken her through various stages of maturation from a self-centred, singular ‘I’ to the particularly problematic plural ‘we’. Certainly, one can think of numerous examples of artistic couples, but they are always considered as two separate entities.

We know, of course, that in reality a fusion of two beings is an impossible operation. There will always be two ‘I’s confronting each other. However, what matters here – as it does, I am tempted to write, in every artistic act - is the project: the message it sends to others and which brings us back to our own perception of ourselves. Mwangi did not wish to disappear. She wants to be something else, different beyond even the name which, at the end of the day, is of merely symbolic importance. Her history, embodied in this hybrid character, is real because she has invented it, even if only for a brief instant.

We all dream of reinventing ourselves. Of waking up one fine morning, different to what we were until then. But we don’t dare throw ourselves into that void of alterity. We are not aware of the diegetic nature of our biographies. Only the artist has the freedom to experiment with what we store inside ourselves. For if personal history is based on a memory and sensory illusion, a reconstruction of fragments, then a collective history belongs to a political and conceptual illusion. It is the materialisation of our adult experience, of how we see the world and ourselves. The creation is the place in which these two scenarios meet, repel each other and come into conflict to create, in the end, a symbiosis to which we can finally apply the term ‘I’.

To understand fully how these two such conflicting entities contribute to the creation of an unconscious personality – in other words, an artistic personality – we need perhaps to go back a bit, into the personal illusion of the artist. Ingrid Mwangi was born in alterity and, for her whole life, has had to negotiate this ambivalent and rich resource. This double alterity gave her, like Alice, the ability to see both sides of the mirror; like Janus, the ability to see in opposite directions. Therefore, the ability to contemplate the world through the prisma that Jean-Paul Sartre termed ‘doubling’ (dedoublement).

The artistic gesture is not, therefore, a gratuitous, self-sufficient act with no justification other than its own existence. Its purpose is to reveal our presence to the world and bear witness, in the original sense of the word, to what is seen and what is lived. This testimony is, of course, a metaphor, a translation of emotions and singular reflections. Using her favourite means of communication – video – Mwangi plays with the illusion of reality of a moving image in order to escape the limits of perception. It is like being in a highly-structured dream. Mwangi’s way of using photography, another of her instruments, is more graphic than technical, pictorial or architectural. I would separate her photographic and videographic work into two distinct parts, even though these two elements clearly make up a coherent and structured whole: the quest is one and the same.

This quest, it seems to me, could be summarised by reference to the essential question of the German philosopher Ernst Bloch: the question of what constitutes a ‘we’. How do we answer this universal question? Perhaps, Mwangi suggests, by starting with the cancellation of the ego, the conditio sine qua non for attaining a level of perception that would permit us access to a primal fluidity. Clearly this is not simply a question of melting into another, but rather of being all things at the same time. Assassin and victim, mother and daughter, male and female lover. The impossibility of understanding ourselves outside of a totality whose contours we do not control. The attempt to rise up: ‘I am the world’, she seems to shout silently. And nothing that happens in the world will be unknown to me. In his theory of perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty seized on the mediumnic role of the body: ‘My body is both alive and visible. He who sees all things, can also look upon himself, and recognize in what he thus sees as the "other side" of his visionary power.’1

In Mwangi’s work this visionary power acts with almost perfect symmetry. On the one hand there are the photographs, from which she seems to be absent, such as Ozone, Ebb Flood or Kenya Human Mediator. In these three works the search for an essential harmony is experienced from the outside. The body becomes all-seeing and the viewpoint is political, social or environmentalist. Here, it’s a question of opening our eyes to something that we don’t know how to see anymore. The damage that we cause to nature, the wrong we do to ourselves and each other defending ideas which, in the end, are more or less the same, or again the complexity of negotiated loving relationships in which a perverse game illusions and cynicism weaves its web. These are generic causes. An inventory of the interaction between human beings and their habitat, or between human beings and their fellow men. A situation on which the artist declines to comment. The work is open and intelligible to whoever wishes to open their eyes to what is around them.

We exist only in the eyes of others, Mwangi tells us. And this ‘other’, vast and indistinct, is formed from a part of ourselves. The eyes of a lover, the eyes of a child, the eyes of a mother or that of a sister are the prisms through which we come to know ourselves better. What Mwangi proposes is to eradicate the traditional relationships which regulate human intercourse; to extend this intimate circle to all of humanity, based on an organic, essential memory. A memory which is no longer simply a personal affair, but a matter of concern to all. She reminds us that every artist is a magician, a shaman and a witch, and can pull from memory a story embracing centuries and traversing continents. It is the magic of revelation. A revelation that is spiritual and yet secular, in which no god would care to intervene.

In her videos, the artist uses her visionary power on her own body. At this point the body becomes arbiter, an intermediary between herself and another world of which we are not aware. It oscillates between animal incarnation and spiritual purity. It is during this mediumnic operation that the body yields completely to the spirit, or rather, to the sacrality of the soul. Unlike European monotheism African religious traditions, whether animist or monotheistic, have preserved a direct rapport with the sacred, a magical and transcendent dimension. In voodoo, Sufism, or with the Gnawa of southern Morocco, trance is a determining element of ritual and communion with the divine. It is the particular moment in which one loses self-awareness. This ontological transformation which lets one pass from a state of being to a state of objecthood cannot be attained through the intellect. It’s a question of incarnation, in the original sense of the word, of renouncing the flesh for an abstraction. We find ourselves transported into a space of transubstantiation.

Mwangi’s characters are evanescent. Even if we recognise in them the features of the artist, we instinctively know that here we’re dealing with something else, that the silhouette we see is inviting us on other journeys. It keeps passing in front of us like a ghostly apparition or a mirage. For isn’t a mirage possibly the best way to define an identity, or to show the limitedness of our lives, the link between a past we have only dreamt about and a possible future? Every time she appears on screen, the artist seems to whisper to us under her breath – the silence is always palpable – the body that you see is not me. The thing you think you are reaching out for and that forms my essence, is not what you perceive.

In In my House, for example, the scene is fixed: a house in ruins, its wind-battered walls in a state of total abandonment. At the end of a seemingly endless corridor an elusive silhouette appears to beckon us. We enter, intrude even, upon these ruins, chasing what seems to be a mirage. Following the meanders of a labyrinth in which we lose our way, we turn into a room where we chance upon the figure we had glimpsed before, crouched down and curled into a ball. Perhaps it is praying, or maybe crying, or perhaps it is digging in the earth or leaving a message for other possible survivors? We will never know. Until we discover that vast text, impossible to decipher.

In Being Bamako, the artist walks through the streets of a neighbourhood of the Mali capital with her eyes closed. She comes across passers-by and the alleyway whose narrowness forces her to see things from the inside, with her hands, her senses, wearing a dress she made herself, as if offering herself as a gift to those she will meet along the way. For the body permits an ambiguous presence, even more so when it is put on display, one that creates conflict between artistic illusion and physical reality, a paradox that Mwangi is fond of employing and one she has learned to master. As Henri-Pierre Jeudy reflects ‘Images of the body do not relate to the body as an isolated entity, they occur simultaneously as images of the world. Language only allows for the organization of arbitrary classifications, giving interpretation a sense which is always close to that of illusion. To a certain extent, the collision of body images teaches us that there is no real body language. The manner this is spoken of already implies a negation of the image by objectifying the sense it conveys.’2   

Objectification is perhaps the element by which the artist pulls us into her universe. Through the ostentation of her body we know for certain that a coded message exists. Mwangi appears, all of a sudden ‘like an image of the world’, to use Jeudy’s phrase. She gives herself up, like a sacrificial object, to decidedly pagan rituals. The body becomes a metaphor, a virgin canvas onto which the artist transfers her vision of our humanity; an instrument of mediation through which she speaks to us about another and herself at the same time. She reveals an ancient memory, buried in the depths of our consciences, whose resonance, in the contemporary world, cloaks a body of evidence that words alone will not suffice to decipher.

There is no doubt in my mind that she succeeds in her search for harmony and yes, love, - I insist on this outmoded word even in these jaded times – attaining an equilibrium that cannot leave us indifferent. What she teaches us is that the question of the ‘we’ begins with ourselves, from the way we negotiate our belonging to the world to our way of appearing to another and holding their hand. It then continues with the search for a forgotten memory, all of which remains are the cabalistic signs it is our task to decipher. Being in the world means keeping one’s eyes wide open and using one’s own visionary power. And it is for this reason that we need art. To allow us, just for a second, to go beyond the mirror.


1 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, L’œil et l’Esprit, Paris, Gallimard, 1964.

2 Henri-Pierre Jeudy, Le corps comme objet d’art, Paris, Armand Colin/Masson, 1998.

© Simon Njami, 2008

Written for
IngridMwangiRobertHutter. Along the Horizon, published by Il Trifoglio Nero Genova, Italy 2008


Beyond the Mirror

by Simon Njami