Pippy Houldsworth Gallery is pleased to present You Are Here, the first UK solo exhibition of US-based Kenyan artist Wangari Mathenge. The exhibition will draw on early memories and personal observation to address the diasporic experience of home and of establishing oneself at a distance from one’s cultural origin. You Are Here will also include the artist’s first large-scale installation. This work, incorporating Mathenge’s first stop-motion animation, will invite the viewer to step into the space of her paintings.
Mathenge will recreate a life-sized family living space from the 1970s, filling the room with retro furniture, books, and music. The installation will draw on the years Mathenge spent in London – she moved at just eight weeks old, living in Hampstead Garden Suburb while her father worked on assignment to the Commonwealth Secretariat. Mathenge will hang the room with paintings from The Expats, a series that responds to photographs from her childhood. Her stop-motion animation, each of the multiple frames comprising a mixed media drawing guiding the viewer through the scenes of the paintings, will be displayed within a vintage television. This body of work responds to Mawuna Remarque Koutonin’s essay, “Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants?” which demonstrates how two seemingly interchangeable words, expat and immigrant, are used as racial signifiers associated with perceived wealth or poverty. Describing her figures with loose, expressive brushstrokes, Mathenge’s tender depictions contradict hierarchies created by language in relation to race, status, and wealth, calling into question words that perpetuate ‘otherness’.
Also on display will be new paintings from Mathenge’s ongoing series, The Ascendants, which explores relocation and acculturation in relation to diasporic communities. ‘To ascend’ is to climb upward, to be elevated, to move from that which is inferior to that which is superior, but ascension may also describe a return to the source and Mathenge considers both definitions to examine what it is to belong. Large-scale canvases will present intimate snapshots within the home. Her figures are surrounded by everyday objects that act as markers of time, location, and culture. Family pictures pinpoint individual narratives, while the brightly patterned East African kanga fabric – covering tables, cushion covers and sofas – and the recurring Akamba curio of a Maasai elder celebrate a wider inheritance. Acting as a reminder of cultural history, these objects aid the individual in adapting to their new home, all the while reflecting on the loss and refabrication that occurs during relocation.
Within this series, Mathenge reserves space for women, reclaiming the domestic sphere – traditionally a space for labour – as a place of sanctuary and learning. Her figures appear at leisure or at rest. Whether asleep or deep in contemplation, each exudes serenity, comfortable to lie sprawled across a sofa within her own thoughts. The presence of books – on diverse topics from science fiction to art history – piled high or propped open – signifies a rich interior world of intellectual curiosity.
Wangari Mathenge (b. Nairobi, Kenya 1973) holds an MFA in Painting and Drawing from the School of The Art Institute of Chicago, IL (2021). She also holds degrees from Howard University and Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, DC. Mathenge’s first solo project, Aura of Quiet, was presented at Roberts Projects, Los Angeles in 2019. Other recent exhibitions include The Expats Studies: Impressions on Paper (solo) The Sacristy Gallery, Chicago (2021); Gaabo Motho, Sakhile&Me, Frankfurt (2021) and Witness: Afro Perspectives from the Jorge M. Pérez Collection, El Espacio 23, Miami (2020 – 21) alongside artists including Lorna Simpson, Portia Zvavahera and William Kentridge. She will be included in a group exhibition at Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin, later this year. Mathenge was commissioned by T: The New York Times Style Magazine to make work for their 2021 Culture issue. She has also been featured in publications including Artforum, The Financial Times and Artsy. Collections include Weisman Art Museum, Minneapolis, MN, and Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin. Mathenge lives and works in Chicago.