The verb "ascend," is usually associated with the idea of elevation, of moving or climbing upward, of removing oneself from that which is inferior to that which is superior. Ascension is associated with advancement, a promotion laced with positivity. But the intransitive verb also refers to a return to the source, to the beginning – a venture into the past. It is with all these contemplations that Wangari Mathenge's ongoing series – the Ascendants – draws inspiration.
Small to large-scale paintings in this body of work represent intimate interiors of a fictional diasporan home. Frequently the compositions combine figuration with still life – an array of objects that act as cultural cues and time markers, which like the unreliable narrator, provide questionable foundation to placing the events depicted. These objects also reflect the loss and re-fabrication that occurs in instances of dislocation and displacement.
Mathenge's paintings offer snap-shots in time often capturing figures at rest, withdrawn, or otherwise preoccupied with domestic routines implicating the viewer in voyeuristic enterprise. Recurring motifs in the series such as the East African Khanga fabric that adorns tables, cushion covers, couches or is otherwise presented as a decorative rug and the Akamba curio of a Maasai elder, propose a hierarchical significance in their import as 'diasporic objects.' These cultural objects act as mnemonic devices and their overt display serves as a celebration of identity, which in turn aids in the acculturation of the migrant to their adoptive homes.
The works also offer a divergent viewpoint, one that elevates the stature of women situated in domestic scenes – where they have been traditionally depicted as nurturers with servile concerns – allowing them to rest, reflect and remain intellectually curious as has been the case in the depiction of their male counterparts. In this way Mathenge confronts the traditional African patriarchy reconfiguring the domestic space to conform to contemporary ideals of equality while simultaneously refusing the male gaze.
Wangari Mathenge is currently attending her second year at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where she is pursuing an MFA in Painting and Drawing. Her works are held in private collections worldwide, with recent placements at the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota and the Sandretto Re Rebaudengo Foundation marking her first major institutional acquisitions. In 2021, Mathenge's work will be exhibited in various group shows in Europe and the United States alongside two solo presentations at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery (London) and Roberts Projects (Los Angeles).
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