Artpace Alum Wangechi Mutu’s advice to a young artist in the You[th]Pace Teen Council

Artpace Alum Wangechi Mutu’s advice to a young artist in the You[th]Pace Teen Council

I first discovered the work of Wangechi Mutu on my Tumblr dashboard, tragically sandwiched between Nirvana gifs and paintings of cats. Arresting and organic, her collages conjure up a universe totally at home in both the near future and the distant past. When I discovered that she was an Artpace alumnus, I instantly knew that I needed to interview the artist behind this powerful oeuvre. Although her practice in New York made an in-person exchange impossible, she was gracious enough to reply to my questions over email. Needless to say, she didn’t disappoint. Wangechi’s tale is one of heritage, pride, and dedication to craft, and the advice she gives will prove invaluable for any young artist looking to make their mark. It certainly has for me.

Nathan Engel: What advice do you have for artists still in school?

Wangechi Mutu: …There is one thing you owe your humility to and that is to your Art. Humble yourself to your Art. Submit to your Art. Yield to your Art and what it calls for and requires.

Your Art should not be something disconnected and separate from you. It shouldn’t pull you around by the nose like some frightened traveler journeying through unknown places. If you’re committed to creating Art for as long as you can possibly imagine, then ask your Art what it needs.

But ask by creating and dedicating enough time to your work that through that very love and obsession with what you make, you’ll know whether: Should I move to this or that city? Should I apply for this or that residency? Would it bother my psyche and be too painful to show up at this opening? What type of relationships make sense for the continuation and health of my work? Your Art is not about you. Your Art IS you. It will tell you if you listen. So listen through your art.

And my last bead is, let go! I want to tell you that recently I emptied out my home studio. I took everything down that I had on the walls, all my cut-outs, my works in progress. I took chachkas off my shelves; everything came down. I stripped the entire space bare. I didn’t even realize how much I needed to remove this thick crust that I’d developed around me. But I did. I needed to let go!

I molted. And once I shed in this way, I felt so light and naked. I re-remembered how important it is to take away all that is familiar to you. To begin all over again. It was quiet again around me. And in that quiet, I’ve slowly begun a new body of work.

You[th]Pace Teen Art Councilmember, 2012-13
Nathan Engel is a senior at Alamo Heights High School in San Antonio, Texas.

Image credit: Photo by Kathryn Parker Almanas