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Wangari Mathenge's paintings reframe Kenya's domestic workers

In a painting from the series A Day of Rest, the London and Chicago based painter Wangari Mathenge depicts three women sitting by the fireplace in her studio in Kenya. Subtitled “Kemunto, Mary and Sarah” (2023), a short-haired lady in a green dress places her hand on one of her friend’s foreheads as they stare back at her, resting their hand on her shoulder. The third woman gazes into the distance while the pair interact. While it is unclear exactly what is happening in the piece, Wangari paints the details of their braids and afro-textured hair, their nonchalant facial expressions and the colours of their clothes, with a carefulness, warmth and precision. 

The A Day of Rest series portrays 20 women the artist found through an organisation that trains and empowers domestic workers. The first paintings in the series were created in 2023. Wangari will be painting further works this year. “I was thinking about all the different depictions and stories that revolve around the domestic workforce, and I realised that it's always very negatively skewed,” she says. “I thought about how wonderful it would be to see them in a different light.” In “Muthoni” (2023), a woman relaxes on a brown sofa. In “Rehema” (2023), a woman fans open the pages of a small book. In “For Chantal and Arthur” (2023), Wangari paints a woman sleeping.

The portraits are from the days that the women she painted visited her studio in Kenya to unwind, eat, chat, relax and sit for her. “I asked them specifically how they would like to be depicted in the paintings and to pose accordingly,” she says. “Another thing I did was ask them to come with an item that they felt was important to them. The items were either uplifting — one brought a pocket Bible; another brought an inspirational book — or were [tied to] self-care. Someone brought lotion they use to counteract the damage to their hands from harsh detergents.”

Image: Kemunto, Mary, and Sarah, A Day of Rest, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London