Nontsikelelo Mutiti is a Zimbabwean-born artist and educator working across disciplines to produce work that occupies the forms of fine art, design, and social practice. Mutiti received a diploma in multimedia from the Zimbabwe Institute of Digital Arts in 2007 and an MFA with a concentration in graphic design from the Yale School of Art in 2012. In June 2014, Mutiti was featured in a Vogue video piece about her friend and fellow Yale alumna Lupita Nyong’o’s love of hair braiding. Like Nyong’o, Mutiti shares a fascination with the art of hair braiding – apparent in her recent exhibition Ruka (To braid/to knit/to weave) at Recess in Manhattan. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng recently spoke to Mutiti about the inspiration behind her work.
How did you decide to pursue art?
I don’t think I decided to pursue it. I think people have natural inclinations to different things and it’s something that I found I could do. I wasn’t aware that not everyone could do things like draw until I got to school. One of my older sisters used to draw pretty well and my younger sister was also skilled at drawing, so I just assumed it was something that people could do. I just spent a lot of my free time at home copying images from encyclopedias and doing observation drawing. As a career, the way I use my work is to make a contribution to things. I’m involved in design efforts and making a lot of work that might fall under the label of graphic design. I got involved in graphic design because I had a lot of colleagues who made amazing work but that work would always be housed in bodies that weren’t living up to the content of their work. For example, websites that were generic or publications that weren’t very interesting or that were badly typeset. I wanted to rectify that by filling that gap. As a fine artist, I really love to draw and record things exactly as they appear. I started with a lot of portraiture but decided to move away from that for a while to exposure digital tools and see what that meant. What it meant to make work that could be in multiple interfaces outside of just a gallery or museum.
You mentioned your interest in drawing and graphic design, but what tend to be your mediums of choice?
I don’t have a standard way of working. I tend to give the work what it wants. Right now, because of a lot of the work that is coming to me feels like it’s collections of writing and images, those want to live in books. It shifts depending on what the work requires.
Why did you make the decision to come to America to study and work?
I learnt about the Graphic Design program at Yale School of Art. It seemed like a great opportunity for me to make new work in a range of mediums that I had been wanting to explore. I really appreciate that approach that the department takes, allowing designers to operate as self-initiated makers. There is an emphasis on research and developing a visual vocabulary that is meaningful and reinforces the ideas you are pushing. There is a preliminary year that successful applicants to the program can take if they do not have a strong foundation in Graphic Design. I was painting portraits before I got to Yale.
What inspired your recent project “Ruka”?
I have been fascinated by the act of hair braiding: hair braiding as work, as design, as sculpture, as mathematics, engineering… I spent time in the space learning to braid with and from invited workshop facilitators and visitors. All this observation and learning is part of my artwork.
What do you think uniquely draws women to the hair braiding salon (aside from the obvious goal of getting their hair done)? What is special about this space?
After I accompanied my cousin to an African Hair Braiding salon in Harlem in 2010 I became fascinated with these spaces. They looked just like some braiding salons in Harare, Zimbabwe. I went on to realize that there were certain motifs that were replicated wherever these African Hair Braiding salons appeared. I’ve since seen spaces like these in Detroit, Michigan, London, and Johannesburg. The television hung on the wall or on top of a cupboard playing a Nollywood movie, the brightly coloured walls in orange, yellow, lime green, or pink, linoleum floor tiles with vendors weaving in and out selling socks, scrunchies, combs, sweets, and other wares. Ruka was an attempt to create a physical drawing of those spaces. A time to reflect on the television watching, conversations, teaching, learning, and labour that take place in the African Hair Braiding salon.
Why is hair such a powerful subject for black women?
I don’t want to bring blackness into this discussion because then we will talk about race in a way that is not productive. Hair is important to everyone. White men are concerned about hair, too. We all think about hair loss, hair colour, and hair length. We all think about different levels of grooming. These aspects have different and sometimes similar connotations in our cultures. What has been interesting about having conversations with people, as part of my work or around my work, is the range of experiences we have had because of how their hair has been read or misread, or the styling or texture of their hair has been judged in positive and negative ways.
How have audiences been responsive to your work?
There are some obvious responses to some aspects of the work. Some friends have asked how the interactive aspects of my learning to braid and setting up a space that looks like a braiding salon could be artwork. Many friends who saw images on social media assumed that I actually opened a hairdressing business. I have also had curators asking why I am making work for the floor.
Are you preparing for any upcoming shows this year?
I am in a group show at the moment, After Afropolitan at the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn, New York. I have also just begun a year-long residency at the Center for Book Arts in New York. Consolidating research and generating new work is my focus for this year.