Wangari Mathenge’s Portraits Make a Statement

Wangari Mathenge’s portraits are very straightforward – her subjects looking bold and confident. Through her art, the Kenya-born, California-based painter tackles issues regarding the visibility of black women in the context of both the traditional African society and the Diaspora. Using bold gestural strokes within structured compositions, her portraits depict herself as well as her friends and acquaintances.

Like most artists, Mathenge’s creative passion sparked early on, and she first experienced painting in primary school, when her parents enrolled her into an after-school art class. “This was my first experience painting,” she told Art of Choice. “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.”

But when she came of age, she never even considered becoming an artist, and as she moved to the US for college she enrolled in Howard University and Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, D.C, studying International Business and Law.

“From childhood, I had been guided to consider as a suitable venture a career in commerce, medicine, engineering or law,” she says. “Working as an artist was never on the table.” But living independently and removed from her family and formative culture gave her the space to look inwards. “Art was a tool that I used to find a connection with space.”

She hasn’t looked back since.