The Striking Portrait Art of Wangari Mathenge

Wangari Mathenge’s paintings explore her cultural upbringing, introducing elements from both African society and the Diaspora. Born in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1973, she spent her time as a child between London and Kenya, before moving to the US when she was an adult. Currently based in Chicago, Illinois, Wangari is a graduate of Howard University and Georgetown University Law Center and is currently pursuing an MFA in Painting and Drawing at The School of The Art Institute of Chicago.

But her introduction to art was much earlier, as a young child. “I started making art as a child,” she shared in an interview with Issue Magazine. “I was probably first introduced to it in kindergarten. My first recollection comprises plasticine, paper collage, watercolor and the varied possibilities of Lego blocks.”

These days, the majority of her work is based around people—portrait painting, that is. Often depicting people with whom she has significant relationships, Mathenge’s paintings are realized through structured compositions emboldened with gestural strokes and mark making.

According to Mathenge, through her work, she hopes to demystify what it means to be a Kenyan woman. “I was always intrigued by the fact that there was so much ignorance in the West as to the totality of conditions in Kenya,” she admits.

“Questions regarding the building structures, the cities, transportation systems all stumped me because these are things that I took for granted—that the West was aware that nations in Africa were organized and developing.”

Her portrait art is, at times, a reminder of what it looks like in these liminal spaces (between Africa and the diaspora), other times simply a glimpse back into the past, into other spaces as a way of recalling and recording. Scroll down to see some recent works by her.