‘You Are Here’: Memories of 1970s suburbiaReview - an artist gives life to growing up in Hampstead Garden Suburb
In response to Mawuna Remarque Koutin’s question: “Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants?” Chicago based artist Wangari Mathenge mines her own childhood memories.
At the heart of her UK debut solo exhibition, You Are Here, are a series of paintings titled The Expats. Utilising bright colours, Wangari recreates scenes from her life growing up in Hampstead Garden Suburb. Wangari’s family moved to London when she was eight years old. Living in the diaspora, away from one’s cultural origin, life takes on a new texture.
This is an exhibition self-aware of its task to preserve personal history. But, rather than act as an archive, the current show obliterates certainty with memories that are often distorted. Underscoring the artist’s subjectivity, paintings lack precision in some areas, but other details stand out (notably, the titles of books) and each scene is observed as if from a distance. Loose brushstrokes, that blur the contours of each figure, give form to forgetfulness as well as the fluidity of an identity carved in opposition to ‘othering’.
Still, Wangari attempts to remember. And, almost obsessively, she recreates those same formative scenes, again and again, making use of different mediums.
There is a life-sized family living space from the 1970s, complete with retro furniture, books, and music. Stepping inside the scene of the paintings viewers come into direct dialogue with the art. Just like paintings, this scene is staged bright and beautiful with cheerful music playing from the Panasonic TV.
But, no matter how many ways Wangari tries to recreate them, her memories remain elusive. On the TV screen, a black and white stop-animation contrasts the room's vivid colours. The figures meander off-screen congealing and disappearing, leaving their stories unfinished.
The racism the family experienced in London is alluded to by a female narrator. The cheerful music gives way to jagged sounds, interspersed by two sentences on repeat: “People are so weird oh my gosh and we were all from the same area”, “People would confuse you for a...”.
You Are Here was at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery Houldsworth Gallery, 6 Heddon Street, London W1B 4BT until 13th November. Paintings can still be viewed online.