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Wangechi Mutu Responds

The following is a response to Maura Reilly’s article “Taking the Measure of Sexism: Facts, Figures, and Fixes” about the current statistics of Women in the Art World. Our coverage begins with our Editor’s Letter.


Wangechi Mutu, Shy side-eye, 2015.


Born in Nairobi in 1972, lives in Brooklyn, New York

It’s important to notice how women are represented in exhibitions and other art infrastructures, and it’s absolutely necessary to look at raw numbers in order to grasp the gender imbalance in any situation or context. The numbers can be shocking and glaringly honest, and without them people wouldn’t be fully convinced of how uneven the playing field is.

But I think there are other ways as well to note the disparities—nuanced ways in which the absence of women is manifest—in terms of ideas, choice of imagery, type of work curated in exhibitions, and how the female form is presented. How often do women appear in art, and how do they sit and perform in the works? Is the figure always represented as docile, inactive, sexualized, or subordinate? Does she have an inferior role in a larger narrative that emphasizes the superiority of the male protagonist? Is her appearance stereotypical in terms of weight, skin color, hair texture, and facial expression? Statistics help document the unfair representation of women, but studies and analysis of conceptual and intellectual misrepresentation are also important.

My experience has been varied now that I’m traveling for my art and moving in and out of the United States. I find that I am more aware of my gender when I go home to Kenya. I tend to experience more explicit tensions or annoyances related to being female. When I’m in the States I feel more detached by virtue of my race and ethnicity.

What I do know is that I’ve tended to surround myself with a very strong, competent female work team. My art is the very center of my power of expression, and the last thing I want is to have the ideas I create and the environment in which the art is made sullied by sexist behavior.

I have limited control over the misogynists who inhabit our world, but in my home and studio I can create an environment without the “testosteronic” tendencies of some males. I can also make decisions about the kind of masculine behavior I need around my work/living environment that is conducive, loving, and supportive of the ideas I’m creating. Everywhere else the battle continues, and any person who thinks that women are free and gender balance has been achieved is living under a cushy delusional rock.

I often wish the art world was an ideal, enlightened, progressive, and more perfect place than the rest of the world, but sadly, I know that is not the case. So the way to create greater equality in the art world is to create and fight for greater equality in the whole “real” world, in all sectors, genres, generations, races, and professions. We all need to get hip to the fact that we must struggle to end unfair treatment toward anyone and end the oppression and the inhumanity that we still inflict on one another in order to create any kind of equality.

A version of this story originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 61.

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