In conversation with Wangechi Mutu

“It’s the afterlife, right after life.”

C& is media partner of the major show “The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Hell, Purgatory revisited by Contemporary African Artists” at the MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst. As part of the show, C& will feature a series of exclusive conversations with the participating artists.

“It’s the afterlife, right after life.”

Wangechi Mutu, Metha, 2010. Installation view MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main, photo: Axel Schneider © MMK Frankfurt


MMK/C&: What is the work exhibited at the MMK about?

Wangechi Mutu: The moment in 1994 when the genocide in Ruanda happened was one of these very quick and almost intangible things. I was in the United States at the time and I went to visit my mom, my family that spring. She`d been mentioning to me how people were leaving, running away, from Ruanda to Kenya. They spoke about it in my mother’s church as well. At that time we couldn`t comprehend the magnitude of it. It was at the same time far but also very near as the few survivors came to Kenya and the Congo. I remember a story that I often tell relating to my mom’s cooking. She is very consistent and always cooks a very particular kind of fresh-water fish from Lake Victoria, not ocean fish. However, that day she decided to cook ocean fish, because all of the bodies from the genocide had ended up in Lake Victoria. The excess of “food” that was coming down the rivers had caused a boom in the fish population. And I remember eating our food and thinking that someone has to eat those bodies, they have to be somehow reentered into our lives through these animals. So I’ve always been completely horrified and captivated by this circle of death, life, violence and reincarnation. The word “metha” means table and actually comes from the Portuguese word “mesa”. The dead bodies had been preserved for record-keeping and forensic purposes and where placed on these slatted wooden tables. The table also reminds of the altar in churches. These are one of the most graphic areas in which people were killed in Ruanda. Many had fled to the churches, but were often given up to the militia by the church’s head or would just be burned inside. So this surface is in a way like a sacrificial table, a memory, a document, a preserved signifier of the potential of human hatred, the mania but also the efficiency in the killing.

MMK/C&: How did you go about the creative process?

WM: The creative process for me goes through many layers. There is an idea that doesn’t leave me and haunts me. It doesn’t always have a form. I see this meal that I was eating and I see these pictures from the newspaper and CNN and all these things are bigger than anything I can grapple with. And then I research this thing that I’m fascinated with, and it occurs to me at some point that I want to represent it in this one particular form. I think the table for me has always been a very significant form where we come together to commune, to converse, to romance, to discuss. I pick an object or an item and then I use it as a kind of testing ground to see how I would make it stand for this massive issue.

MMK: What about the hanging bottles?

WM: I wanted to really push the notion of wine as a surrogate for blood and as a ritual element. Instead of sacrificing an animal or person, we use this liquid to symbolize the killing because that is such a powerful thing. No matter how easily or quickly it can be done, killing a chicken or a ram is the giving of a life. This liquid is used in the Catholic Church to symbolize the body, the blood of Christ. One of the beautiful things about dripping the wine is that it doesn’t only look like blood – it’s also alive, it’s a living fluid, like milk. It may become rancid and smell bad but it’s actually still alive as a liquid. It’s creating more and more bacteria. At the opening night in Texas, the smell of the freshly opened wine bottles filled the room. The next morning, however, it started to smell like yeast. Because of the warmth and the humidity in Texas, the wine had turned into the bread and I thought to myself, this is the miracle that I was hoping for and had been thinking about this whole time, how this death had turned into food that would sustain us. In some ways, ironically, this massacre has made for more life, which is so morbid. Many of these women were raped during this war and out of them many, many children were born.

MMK/C&: In European-North-American art history, the “Divine Comedy” has been interpreted by numerous artists (such as Botticelli, Delacroix, Blake, Rodin, Dalí or Robert Rauschenberg) – what role did this play for you in respect to your engagement with the topic?

WM: What I find really poignant about the Divine Comedy, and why I actually use the Divine Comedy in this way, is its utilization of metaphor as a way of flushing out a particular issue. I love one of the things that Simon Njami said about Dante’s relationship with different people in Florence – that these stories he created for each and every person in the Divine Comedy were very personal, were based on his being ostracized in Florence, and that these massive narratives that he gave them really come out of this deep feeling of rejection. Then you truly understand that this guy was genius enough to create some place, like a god, for everybody to exist in. Especially for those he didn’t like, he created really difficult, torturous, eternal existences in that world. I think that’s very powerful and amazing. In my work, the creation of these enormous worlds and the placing of people within them, then the allowing of one’s imagination to contort them, to punish them, to enrich them, to destroy them, is so important. That story becomes the salve, the medicine that allows you  now to pursue a different way of life, a different thought. We can actually create spaces for the imagination to live out and play out all of these things. That is what I think is so important about the Divine Comedy and about art; it gives a space to play out these scenarios so they won’t happen in real life.

MMK/C&: The over 50 art pieces in the exhibition are assigned to the areas heaven, hell and purgatory. What realm of the afterlife does your work belong in??

WM: In the exhibition, my work is situated in hell. But for me there is not a real separation between paradise, purgatory, and hell. I don’t really think in that way. I guess my work is not really so much in the afterlife as it is situated in the dream world, in imagination, nightmares as well as ‘day-mares’. I’m a big believer in the interpretation of dreams. In African belief systems, we have another way of breaking it down: There’s the living, and the living dead, and the dead dead, and the unborn. The living are ‘us’ when are here, the living dead are the people who have died but retain a certain amount of power amongst us because they’ve just died. But mostly, the reason why they retain power is because the living dead are the people who are dead and who we still remember, the ones we pray to, or are still in touch with. They are living dead – they are still amongst the ‘alive’. So the ‘living dead’ is probably my favorite. I think that my work lives in that realm if anything – not the after life, it’s the life, right after-life.

The exhibition The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Hell, Purgatory revisited by Contemporary African Artists curated by Simon NjamiMMK / Museum für Moderne Kunst, 21 March – 27 July 2014, Frankfurt/Main.



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