This was our woefully uninformed view until we finally tracked down the haunting abstract painting (see above) that hung above the fireplace in one of the last curated booths of 2016’s 1:54 African Art fair and discovered the artist was Mwangi Hutter. Its simple, monochrome and static style contrasted favourably with the noisy, primary coloured attention-seeking pieces that the crowds were enjoying.
Mwangi Hutter is an artist but not a person. It is, unusually for African art, an art duo. They are modern, multicultural and transcontinental couple that produce art together between their homes in Berlin and Nairobi. Their aesthetic seems to draw upon their racial duality for inspiration without overplaying it. The search for self and identity is present and acknowledged in their work. Uniquely, they are two talents, complementing not competing with each other, to create an mutual artwork that expresses a common artistic vision.
The stamp of approval from the gatekeepeers of the African art work came long ago. This couple have seen their art showcased at leading galleries and events on the global art calendar, including venues such as the National Museum of African Art (Smithsonian), the Venice Biennale and – interestingly for an aesthetic that is un-apologetically African in nature – in Asia, at the Mori Museum in Tokyo; this disparate geography shows they have a wide and engaged audience.
Mwangi Hutter do not restrict their work to one art form, they work in multiple media, demonstrating an artistic dexterity and breadth that ambitiously encompasses everything from wax sculpture to video and performance art.
In a 2014 interview with Studio Internationale, they explained their uninhibited creative process in refreshingly clear terms: “We enjoy drawing on the qualities of different forms that we use for our creations. Performance is a very direct and immediate way of expression that demands honesty and focused attention on what is happening in the present moment. Video offers the chance to rethink and reevaluate the snippets of “reality” that have been recorded, as well as the chance to create a world that functions differently, for example with regard to the passing of time. A photographic work has the quality of freezing the moment and letting a story unfold from just one frame or a combination of several images. Installation gives us the chance to combine vehicles of meaning and to immerse the viewer in different sensorial impressions within the space that holds them – for example, video, sound, written text and objects. Overall, it is exciting not to have to limit oneself in using different mediums, but rather to have a whole array of media to work with.”
Whilst this refusal to limit the tools of their creative expression is something to celebrate, it is at times difficult for us, the audience, to see a consistent narrative or identity in their work that marks it clearly as a Mwangi Hutter. It is undoubtedly in the abstract, shadowy figurative paintings, first seen in 2015, where their talent shines brightest.