I have no “muse” in a singular sense. There are people I admire tremendously, such as my grandmother, who has become a kind of archetype in my mind. She’s an old lady, 93. She lives in the Nyeri District, on the slopes of Mount Kenya, in this beautiful, green, green area, in the house where she raised my mom and uncles. It’s a farm they went back to after the Emergency years [1952-60]. Told, like many in her generation, that it was for their security, they had been removed from their land as the British attempted to quell the Mau Mau Uprising.
My grandmother was a progressive woman in an unusual way. It’s hard to frame that in contemporary terms. She is, in fact, a devout Christian. She really wanted to go to school, to read and write, to learn to drive. At that time, you had to barter your traditions for the right to an education. My grandmother had her hanging earlobes sewn up, but she was circumcised, and she made sure that her daughters were not. She did not have to be coerced into this. You often have to convince the elder women it’s a value system they should let go of.
My grandmother is a capsule of time and history. She ran a business and drove very fast (when she could still see). She was feisty-and she’s a tiny, tiny, tiny lady. Some—though not all—of her kids resent her, because she was a very tough mom. She had nine children, from the time she was 16 into her 40s. Not all of them survived, and she raised them during a time when the country was being turned inside out, forced from being a place of great diversity to one that is more homogeneous. This was the span of her life. She has seen people in full-on tribal garb, speaking fluent classic Gikuyu, celebrating our people’s rituals and traditions, all the way to now, contemporary Kenya as we know it.
We were raised in the city, in Nairobi. My sisters and brothers and I went to Catholic school. We visited our grandmother’s house and our cousins in the countryside. We wondered what happened during those very difficult times—but we didn’t speak of it, except in small ways, in passing. But lately, the more curious among us—the artists, the more intellectually inquisitive members of the family—have begun to understand that the older generation can’t talk about it. Some of it was too horrific. But also, people swore an oath of secrecy. Our area was particularly bent on getting the British off the land. The freedom fighters were fed and sheltered, and they would tell people what they were doing, but this was all in secret. Those oaths: the people in Kikuyuland have not said anything for all these years. My grandmother took an oath. So many people who were involved have died without speaking and without being celebrated.
My grandmother lives in the region the activist Wangari Maathai [1940-2011] came from. Wangari was another one of these incredible power-women who reflect and yet transcend their upbringing. She came over to the U.S. like Obama’s father did, like my dad did, on a Kennedy scholarship in the 1960s. She was a professor and an environmentalist, and wound up being an activist on behalf of many people—women, farmers, landowners. She came to realize that a simple idea—taking care of natural resources—was a key to empowerment, and built a movement that pitted her against the highest powers in Kenya. Her loudest period was when she was fighting the dictator Daniel arap Moi [b. 1924] over Uhuru Park in Nairobi—our Central Park. He was going to build a big skyscraper there, nicknamed “Moi’s erection.” She fought him, and suffered tremendously. She was beaten—the women she was protesting with were beaten—but the project was canceled. My generation has not yet done this kind of thing, activating under one umbrella idea, and putting ourselves in such a vulnerable position, in front of the powerful, in front of the riot police.
I guess what I find so fascinating about such women is that there’s nothing about them that feels invincible. They are normal women with such seemingly simple ideas that it’s easy for men, for people, to pooh-pooh and disregard them. We’ve finally understood the implications of what we’ve done to our climate, how we’ve treated our animals—Wangari was pointing out these issues decades ago. Something so basic, so essential, can be truly radical.
I’m always trying to make things with what I have around me. Anything, at any moment, the most ordinary materials, can be used to work out a question or a problem. My cumulative process relates to women of that generation. This is how I was raised, how my mother and grandmother and all the women around me get things done: bit by bit. You pick the kernels of the maize, you sift the rice, and you get it done. These humble gestures are slow and done over such a long period of time that it’s difficult to see that a mountain is being moved.
Kenyans have had to take things that were broken and work them back together. Disparate and wounded, a young nation, we had to imagine what we would be. From an artistic point of view, this is an open place: fill it, do with it what you please. Kenya has been somewhat lucky—it hasn’t seen the long-term violence, civil war and military takeovers that other African nations have suffered. Our process has been gentler—maybe less exuberant, but we’re believers, building things patiently.
One of my recent series is called “Kibaba.” A kibaba is a tin can. There’s a saying that goes, “Haba na haba hujaza kibaba,” which means, “Bit by bit the can gets filled.” It takes a while, but eventually you get there.
—As told to Faye Hirsch
CURRENTLY ON VIEW “Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey,” at the Brooklyn Museum, New York, through Mar. 9, 2014; “The Shadows Took Shape,” a group show at the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, Nov. 14, 2013-Mar. 9, 2014.
Wangechi Mutu is a Brooklyn-based artist born in Kenya.