Wangari Mathenge is an emerging Chicago-based Nairobi-born painter. Her structured portraits and figurative compositions address the black female experience within both traditional African society and the diaspora.Read More
Mathenge comes to art from a background in business and law. She came to the United States from her native Kenya to study, graduating from Howard University and Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, D.C. with an LLM in International Business and Economic Law. Shifting to an artistic career, she is now presenting her work in gallery shows and at major art fairs while pursuing an MFA in painting and drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Drawing upon personal experience and featuring family and close acquaintances, Wangari Mathenge's paintings delve into the dynamics of gender hierarchies, race, social status, and cultural hybridity. Her 'The Expats' (2019) and 'The Ascendants' (2019–2020) series present largely familial scenes. However, the apparent aura of quietness around the women in her works cannot be interpreted as passivity.
Wangari Mathenge subverts and reinterprets patriarchal African society. Within her carefully structured compositions, women convey their self-possession and strength through defiant expressions towards the viewer, and their posture—leaning back or forward in a powerful pose. They confidently and assertively claim the space they inhabit as their own. Mathenge's characteristically expressive, gestural brushstrokes and bold, vibrant palette conveys the inner strength of these women as well as the vibrant cultural identity they maintain.
Embracing and expressing their own culture and style, Mathenge's subjects (men and women) are surrounded by bright colours and patterned fabrics, in their clothing, head scarfs, and home furnishings. They project dignity and pride in forging their own identity and defining their humanity in defiance of the discrimination and othering that is often levelled against them.
Wangari Mathenge's art, with its poignant interrogation and reimagining of silent hierarchies, has already found an international following, featuring in private collections across Africa, North and South America, and Europe.
Michael Irwin | Ocula | 2020