Published  27/09/2014

Mwangi Hutter interview: ‘we are interested in personal and universal responsibility’

Mwangi Hutter interview: ‘we are interested in personal and universal responsibility’

Berlin and Nairobi-based artist duo Mwangi Hutter talk about their work as a collaborative, how they work through ideas and some past and forthcoming projects


Mwangi Hutter is an artist duo made up of Ingrid Mwangi and Robert Hutter. Since 2005, the two have worked side by side on numerous projects as a merged artistic entity. While I interviewed both Ingrid and Robert their answers come from a singular voice, that of Mwangi Hutter. Their work includes performance, film, video, photography, sculpture and installation to address issues and moments that are both highly personal and overtly political and social.

A Will Brown: Ingrid and Robert, can you describe what you are up to in the studio, and what new areas or forms you are working in?

Mwangi Hutter: We are continuing to push forward our explorations on the constructions of the self. The definition of self is “a person’s essential being that distinguishes them from others, especially considered as the object of introspection or reflexive action”. This is very interesting, isn’t it? It raises many questions for us. For example, how could such a “self” ever be truly pinpointed since it is subject to constant change and influences?

Our work up to this point has led us to dwell on these kinds of fundamental issues. Initially, we made work that involved deep self-investigation in relation to political and social issues; we were engaging with the body and with the pain or trauma of personal and collective histories. For example, some of our works involved cutting words into our skin, using our bodies as canvases. These works expanded into a phase of extensive public performance in which we left gallery and museum spaces and entered into the urban spaces of cities, including Nairobi, Johannesburg and a few others, to perform on the streets with more immediacy. There was also a period when we worked with our four children, really thinking about what kind of world we were imagining and creating for them, and how they featured in it. Recently, we have been working with ideas about creating an alternative world, and trying to envision what that could be, or at least what transformations could come from our work and the process of making it. It’s like peeling off layers from the outer to the inner and then arriving at something quite basic and subtle, like the self. (For a bit more information on the kind of work we are doing in this area, here is a link to a segment from our book, Intruders:

AWB: How do you approach your audience when making a video, installation or a performance? What are some of the key differences for you between creating each form?

Mwangi Hutter: 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.

AWB: When did you decide to work as a collaborative, and do you make art as individuals, and is the joining of individual works part of your collaborative process?

Mwangi Hutter: We have worked closely alongside each other since we met at art school in 1998, but it was in 2005 that we formally become a joint artistic entity, the first step being to combine our names and biographies. All our ideas and efforts flow into the one oeuvre we are creating; nothing we embark on takes place outside this common endeavour.

AWB: What are the central concerns, or investigations, at the heart of your work? Specifically the works: Eastleigh Crossing, Be Present, and In My House. Can you describe these works and the processes of making and conceptualising them?

Mwangi Hutter: Eastleigh is a suburb of Nairobi inhabited predominantly by Somali immigrants. It is nicknamed “Little Mogadishu” and has been described as a kind of country within a country with its own economy on account of its booming business sector. While visiting the area on research for a solo exhibition project titled Intruders, we came to a crossing filled with stagnant water from broken sewerage pipes. Matatus, the local minibus taxis, were ploughing their way through the water, while people on the busy pavement tried to avoid contact with the filthy water. Some resourceful individuals were making a business with makeshift rickshaws to ferry people over to the other side of the street for a few coins.

We instantly decided to “step in to” the situation. Eastleigh Crossing came into being. It is about confronting the location, intervening, creating a halt in the busyness of daily life and transforming the place into a creative space. In the work, passersby were stopped in their tracks and transported out of their usual context into a different dimension, and their daily stories, struggles and worries were momentarily cleared away. In this open space, astonished viewers had the potential to be aware of their surroundings in different ways, in relation to themselves and one another. The body movements and vocal improvisation that arose at the time of the performance were inspired by the intensity of the moment, and influenced by the viewers and the situation itself.

This spontaneous method of working functions especially well in an immersive environment, in which contemporary art does not as yet play a role, especially in the public arena. It can create an unexpected and possibly transformative experience for those who witness it. Like mementos, some people took photos and videos with their mobile phones, preserving and spreading the moment. Then, our post-production editing of the video helped to interpret and conserve that distinct point in time, including the place and the people, along with their specific reactions. This way of creating is especially interesting to us, considering the rapid demographic shifts and constant changes in Nairobi and many other cities.

Our approach of moving through many places and areas with an awareness of how we could imaginatively address the social dynamics and situations in those spaces led us to make the video installation In My House. The title alludes to a home, but also implies a country – or even the state of the world. The video displays the burnt-out remains of a building, with room upon room full of ash, numerous destroyed corridors and many collapsed enclosures. The burnt-out building was a ruin in Nairobi that we came across: we were so struck by the place that within hours of seeing it we organised a crew and shot a video there. The edited video shows a fragmented, ghost-like figure appearing in the building’s corners, blending into the interior portions that were gutted by fire. Throughout the work, low pulsating sounds and displaced noises of a body scraping and moving in the debris add to the mysteriousness of the atmosphere.

For the installation, we then made a text consisting of cutout, mirroring characters, laid out on the floor before the video projection. The moving image is reflected in the words, highlighting and animating them. This introduces a spatial experience for the viewer, and brings a poetic aspect that can be contemplated in relation to the scene in the video. The text reads like a series of dream sequences that conjure up ideas of an imminent and necessary upheaval. It points to an intuitive knowledge that things are not right, expressing a deep longing to awaken to a better world. It includes the words: I AM IN MY DREAM HOME, CONFUSION REIGNS, ALL ARE CHOKING ON POWER DREAMS, SOMETHING HAS TO HAPPEN HERE. This proved to be tragically prophetic; the year after we completed this work, post-election violence broke out in Kenya with devastating consequences.

The photo work Be Present engages a different longer-term approach; the image is carefully composed over a period of time. The work was conceptualised based on a photo from our archive. It was taken on one of our numerous walks along Mombasa beach together with a group of young men who have featured in several of our art works over the past years.

We return frequently to Mombasa to make works because it is a place that is rife with contradiction. It is beautiful, with long white beaches, hot weather and luscious fruits and flowers. During frequent holidays in my childhood, I had the most moving and inspired moments there. I remember gazing at the brilliant colours of the sky at sunset or dawn. On the other hand, for the people who live on the coast, life can be strenuous with the struggle to secure a good livelihood. Their focus is often turned towards the chances that tourists from the west bring.

With Be Present, we restaged the moment into a shot made with the same group of men, using the same composition with added props and then digitally altering it in post-production. The result is an image that speaks about cross projection; preconceived ideas about the other concerning prosperity and the fickle basis of exchange and the worry for personal safety. Mwangi Hutter is placed as a gold-hooded accomplice, a captive of a darkly grinning gang. Two men are on each side of him. They are also reduced to a masquerade by the exaggerated darkness imposed on to their bodies, almost completely obscuring the specificity of their features. In this, a potentially perfect place, players of “both sides” are staged to satirically highlight the folly underlying superficial opinions that have far-reaching effects.

AWB: I’m interested in your three-channel video, Turquoise Realm, 2014. Can you break that project down into component parts and highlight some of the key moments and subtleties?

Mwangi Hutter: Turquoise Realm arose out of a combination of several approaches. First, while working in Mombasa on another project, we spontaneously decided to also produce a work in the cottage we had rented. The setting of the turquoise-coloured room flooded with sunlight, the simple bed and net that swayed in the breeze passing through the open window struck us as being atmospheric and poetic. During a stay of several weeks, we conceptualised the work, staging ourselves as a woman and man posing in the nude. We had for some time been intrigued by the idea of the body as an offering, which brought us to the image of fruits and flowers blending in to replace the reclining bodies.

After recording different kinds of scenes, some of which we developed out of the moment, we engaged the process of editing to unfold the key moments of the work. We placed particular focus on a gesture of carrying, which proved to have manifold implications – including, for example, the pietà. We created a superimposition of both bodies, which then mingle into the form of fruits and flowers. Lastly, we chose a sound track that was previously recorded in an ongoing project of vocal and music creations, based on improvisation.

The work was completed as a three-channel video projection that displays a bed; two people are lying on the bed, as if waiting, while the third bed in the central projection remains empty. The body of the woman on the left slowly fades and, as she reappears on the right, within a luminous light, she bends to lift the heavy frame of her partner, carrying him off. Her cradling, protective bearing becomes a demonstration of strength, while he manifests the suppleness of complete reliance. In the end, they find themselves in the centre projection, lying nestled into each other by virtue of superimposition.

AWB: What are the most compelling ideas out there for you today?

Mwangi Hutter: Besides regular visits to Nairobi and Mombasa in the past years, we have worked in places as varied as Dakar, Bamako, Cairo, the Western Desert of Egypt, Casablanca, Essaouira, Kampala, Dar es Salaam, Antananarivo, Saint-Denis, Luanda, Pretoria and Johannesburg. In 2009, we were invited to participate in the public intervention project Urban Scenographies in downtown Johannesburg. For it, we devised a way of being and working that employed openness as a method. We declared we would meet every circumstance, place and situation with an attitude of inquisitiveness that would lead to the creation of a work. Within that four-week period, for example, we created several works in the area, including The Cage, a work in which a fenced-off enclosure is used as a setting. In the enclosure, Mwangi Hutter sightlessly shaves his hair and cuts off pieces of his clothes, drawing a large audience of passersby, street vendors and shopkeepers. He invites people to trade with him, he hangs packets filled with his hair and the snips of his clothing on the fence, and offers his bare upper body to be written on through the fence.

Implementing openness to a high degree prevents fixation on a single set of ideas that seem especially desirable in any given moment. This is possibly one reaction to our diverse background: we are aware of the problems behind over-conceptualised systematisations of any kind. What we seek to be true to is the naturally arising intricacy of interconnections, which does not mean following the egocentric creation of a self-arranged order. On the contrary, what interests us are the thoughts that support the understanding of interdependent realities, with the ensuing implications of personal and universal responsibility.

AWB: What exhibitions, shows, or artworks have you looked at or visited recently? Have you seen an exhibition or an artist’s work that you felt strongly about?

Mwangi Hutter: For quite a few months we have been avoiding looking very closely and forming opinions about the exhibitions we find ourselves at. This is sometimes necessary to protect one’s own authentic process. It is very tempting to log into the debates about “good”, “interesting” or “bad” art; this is one of the enticing factors for all of us who enjoy and use art to complement our understanding of ourselves and the world. Yet at times, as an artist working on one’s own vision, this can bring about interruptions. The meaning of being an artist is to access an alternative world view and practice, different from that which abounds. That is our focus, and it is grand as well as challenging.

AWB: Do you have any forthcoming projects or exhibitions that are particularly exciting for you, or are dramatically different for you? What’s coming up on the exhibiting end?

Mwangi Hutter: We are setting up a studio at a special location in Berlin: previously a graveyard site that was conceived of in 1936-39, it is being rethought as a place of art and culture. In the next phase of our work, we will be focusing more on creations within the studio: accurately composed video and photo imagery, as well as voice recordings. We are preparing a solo project that will be on view at Alexander Ochs Projects in Berlin this December, and our work is showing in group shows and touring exhibitions, including Heaven, Hell, Purgatory – The Divine Comedy from the Perspective of Contemporary African Artists at Savannah College of Art & Design from 14 October 2014 to 25 January 2015, and at the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African Art, Washington DC, in April 2015, with further venues in Spain, London and Harare.

Click on the pictures below to enlarge

studio international logo

Copyright © 1893–2024 Studio International Foundation.

The title Studio International is the property of the Studio International Foundation and, together with the content, are bound by copyright. All rights reserved.

twitter facebook instagram

Studio International is published by:
the Studio International Foundation, PO Box 1545,
New York, NY 10021-0043, USA