Wangari Mathenge at Roberts Projects

Home Sweet Home (After Seurat, Manet and Pippin), 2023
Oil and oil stick on canvas, Polyptych

Photo Courtesy Roberts Projects

Wangari Mathenge: Tidal Wave of Colour
Roberts Projects
April 22 – June 3, 2023

Written by Eve Wood
Wangari Mathenge is one of those rare artists for whom lived human experience is the backbone of her artistic practice, and the eight luminous paintings that comprise her first major solo exhibition in the United States at Roberts Projects, represent both an actualization of her own personal desire to become an artist as well as a means by which she synthesizes and reinterprets artworks that have inspired her own creative process.

Each painting in this exhibition explores on a variety of levels, the fundamental impulse to create and to be seen and celebrated for those creations. The life of an artist is never easy, and these works demonstrate compassion and embrace wholeheartedly the artist’s own richly evocative and deeply personal journey. Drawing from artists whose works she admires, yet recodifying these images to reflect her own concerns, Mathenge has created a body of work that serves as both “personal revolution,” wherein the artist is reborn into her own truest self, and historical documentation wherein Mathenge reflects the changing and often tumultuous times we live in.

Colonial Veranda (After Wood’s “American Gothic”), 2023
Oil, oil stick and acrylic on canvas, Diptych

Photo Courtesy Roberts Projects

These paintings also reflect the vibrant community she calls home, and the lives of the people who populate these worlds. These are people the artist knows and loves, friends, and family – those for whom art is perhaps a non-inclusive experience made inclusive by Mathenge’s attentions. Mathenge has made it her business to create images where black lives not only matter but are the intricate tapestry from which our modern culture derives. Mathenge is also engaging with history in a very thoughtful and direct way. For example, in her painting “Odalisques,” the artist references the entrenched history of white men painting young, disempowered women as a kind of voyeurism. Works like Manet’s seminal and groundbreaking 1865 painting entitled “Olympia,” come to mind, specifically in that Manet, like Mathenge, challenges our perceived notions of beauty, asking that we expand our visual vocabulary to include images of women as vibrant and self-empowered. In Mathenge’s painting, color becomes a means of empowerment and reminds us of the colorful clothing often worn by women in African cultures. These dazzling colors transform the content of the painting into something even more electrifying as the two women, bedecked in luminous blues and greens that match the surrounding landscape, gaze out into the distance as though pondering their futures.

Odalisques, 2023
Oil, oil stick and acrylic on canvas

Photo Courtesy of Roberts Projects

Still other works in the exhibition engage directly with specific artworks by other artists such as the lovely, wistful “Arthur Sleeping (After Freud’s Annabel Sleeping)” where we see a young man sleeping with his back to the viewer. Color, once again, takes center stage in this quiet painting where the activated floral patterns on the bedspread stand in direct opposition to the young sleeping man. Like Freud, Mathenge suggests a less literal, more metaphorical content is at play here. In Freud’s painting, the young girl wears a simple blue dress and the bed she lies on is plain and not ornamented, metaphorically presenting the girl as innocent. Mathenge’s figure is much more alive, and one has the sense that perhaps he is dreaming of something extraordinary. Finally, as the title of the show suggests, Mathenge is engaging with her own lived history wherein Malcolm X’s iconic phrase was meant to capture the post second World War zeitgeist of global insurgency, forever altering our nations conversation about what it is to be black and electrifyingly alive in this country. In this instance Malcolm X’s initial Tidal Wave of Colour has finally come crashing down, sweeping away archaic notions of race and identity in the 21st century, as Mathenge reignites her world in bold, and mutinous colors.

Arthur Sleeping (After Freud’s “Annabel Sleeping”), 2023
Oil on canvas
Photo Courtesy of Roberts Projects

Tidal Wave of Colour
Installation View Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, LosAngeles, California;
Photo Paul Salveson

Tidal Wave of Colour
Installation View Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California;
Photo Paul Salveson

One comment

  1. This is such a beautiful exhibition! The importance of it and the power gave me goose bumps. Arghhhh I’d be there in two seconds if I could.
    Best Love Gallery to Gallery
    Chase Williams

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