Artist Wangari Mathenge used art as a means of communicating as early as kindergarten. “I loved using my hands – sculpting with plasticine, building structures using Lego blocks,” shared the Kenya-born, California-based painter in an interview with Art of Choice.
Her first experience with painting came a short while later, in primary school, when her parents enrolled her into an after-school art class. “Our lessons were held in the teacher’s garden, where she had erected easels and set out acrylic and watercolor paints for our use,” she recalled. “This was my first experience painting. Even though we were outdoors, we painted unobserved landscapes, which generally took the form of rolling hills. Cityscapes and imagined village scenes with huts and market stalls were popular.”
Now working as a painter and visual artist, Mathenge’s work confronts issues regarding the visibility of the black female in the context of both the traditional African society and the Diaspora. Her portraits and figurative paintings are realized through bold gestural strokes and mark making at times within structured compositions which derive from images of herself and those of friends and acquaintances.
But her road to painting wasn’t a straight one, and her background is actually in International Business and Law, as a graduate of Howard University and Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, D.C. “I moved to the US for college,” she says. “Living independently and removed from my family and formative culture gave me the space to look inwards. Art was a tool that I used to find a connection with space.”
“From childhood I had been guided to consider as a suitable venture a career in commerce, medicine, engineering or law,” she admits. “Working as an artist was never on the table.” Fortunately, she was extremely restless working in other fields and her search for sanity, she found herself reconnecting with artistic practice. “I now look at it as the only thing I have ever felt connected to,” she says.
It’s a good thing she returned to her original passion. Take a look at some of her striking portraits in the gallery below.