Celebrated Kenyan-Born Artist Wangechi Mutu Finally Gets A Green Card

Celebrated around the world, Kenyan-born Brooklyn resident Wangechi Mutu gets Brooklyn Museum retrospective
For years, she had to stay in the U.S. while she was celebrated abroad because of visa issues.

Years of immigration limbo kept Kenyan-born, Brooklyn-based artist Wangechi Mutu from attending her own far-flung, internationally celebrated openings in places like Berlin or Brussels.

Now that she has a green card, Mutu’s major retrospective, called “A Fantastic Journey,” is opening next week at the Brooklyn Museum — just a 10-minute ride from her home.

“I feel like it’s time. It’s time to have a show that I can say, ‘Go see my exhibition, and it’s right here,'” said Mutu, 41.

Mutu, a mom of two, traveled from Nairobi to Wales as a high schooler and then to New York for college. She later spent more than a decade in a bureaucratic fight with U.S. authorities for the right to stay, even as she collected accolades and built up a portfolio.

She couldn’t leave the U.S. until her bid for a special talent-based green card got out of red tape — so she couldn’t visit her family in Kenya and she couldn’t attend openings the world over.

But she worked through the pain, telling herself, “If I don’t have an ability to go the places that I have been invited to show at and to speak at and to feature my talent, well then I am going to stay here in New York City and work my butt off.

“If I’m going to be here I might as well just throw myself into it. So many a time I would find myself stuck in my studio while in another country my exhibitions were opening and I was being celebrated,” she said.

Mutu’s retrospective, opening Oct. 11 at the Brooklyn Museum, includes more than 50 collages, drawings, sculptures and videos from the 1990s to the present.

She is famous for creating large collages of female creatures. slicing up National Geographics, fashion magazines, botanical prints and pornography.

She hides the porn stash until she has a cutting binge.

“I have moments where I buy a stack of them and I hide them from myself and from everyone else, and bring them out when I need them,” she said.

Her situation truly hit home on her birthday three years ago when she opened a magazine to read writer and undocumented immigrant Jose Antonio Vargas’ account of his own secret journey.

“I was in the final chapter of resolving this thing,” she said. “He kind of cracked a code for me, I guess a mental code.

“The immigration story feels like that border-crosser person is the dominant story. In fact that isn’t by far the only story, there are so many others.”

She joined a bigger discussion about the issue, traveling to Arizona for an immigration conference. After finding new lawyers, who filed a lawsuit against U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services on her behalf, she won her case and got a green card last year.

The experience has affected and shaped her work, she said.

“There’s a lot of reflection on this notion of being multi-experienced, a person from different histories, with double consciousness. … I have a lot of work that has these multiple heads,” she said.

“I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time imagining home, and thinking about a dream-like place as opposed to a real place because that’s not what I was able to do, meaning go home or be home.

“So I think a lot of my work leans towards the fictional, and the dreamlike, the imaginary space and sort of idealized space. Memory space.”

“A Fantastic Journey” opens Oct. 11 at the Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Pkwy. near Washington Ave. in Prospect Heights, (718) 638–5000. For info, visit www.brooklynmuseum.org. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.


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