Artist Wangari Mathenge invites you to step inside a life-sized 1970s living room

Katy Cowan, Creative Boom, 30 September 2021

What does the idea of home mean to you? It's something US-based Kenyan artist Wangari Mathenge explores in her first UK solo exhibition, drawing on early memories and personal observations of the diasporic experience and what it is like to live somewhere at a distance from one's cultural origin.


At the heart of You Are Here at London's Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, 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 – where she moved at just eight weeks old, living in Hampstead Garden Suburb while her father worked on assignment to the Commonwealth Secretariat.


In that room, which you'll be able to see up close, Mathenge will hang paintings from The Expats, a series that responds to photographs from her childhood. A stop-motion animation featuring her works will also be displayed within a vintage television. This particular body of work responds to Mawuna Remarque Koutonin's essay which asks: "Why are white people ex-pats when the rest of us are immigrants?" This alone demonstrates how two seemingly interchangeable words, ex-pat and immigrant, are used as racial signifiers associated with perceived wealth or poverty.


In each painting, Mathenge uses loose, expressive brushstrokes to create her characters – it's a tender tribute that contradicts 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 you see here. These look at relocation and acculturation in relation to diasporic communities. As the Gallery explains: "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.


You'll notice that these paintings always feature women, "reclaiming the domestic sphere – traditionally a space for labour" as the Gallery puts it. They instead depict a place of sanctuary and learning where each of her subjects appears at leisure or at rest. Whether asleep or deep in contemplation, there's a serenity and comfort to the painted scenes. 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.