Pippy Houldsworth Gallery is delighted to present Wangari Mathenge’s second solo exhibition in London, comprising paintings and installation from her new series, A Day of Rest. Prompted by an increase in media depictions of the plight of domestic workers in Kenya, Mathenge conceived of this body of work as a socially engaged project aimed at shifting the narrative around a workforce of over two million people across the country. Mathenge has formerly explored themes of relocation and displacement in her Ascendants series (2020-2021), which interrogated the language of global migration. In A Day of Rest, she returns to the issue, this time taking a closer look at domestic migration within Kenya, and in particular the narratives of young women who leave rural communities for the city, in search of work.
In a series of monumental paintings depicting seven domestic workers Mathenge gives visibility to a marginalised group often dehumanised in media representations. In these multifaceted portraits, Mathenge’s sitters take control of their own stories, positing a refusal to be defined by adversity and instead, projecting their varied ambitions. Arranged variously in tableaux of three or on their own, each woman poses with an object of personal importance. In this way, Mathenge compels us to consider each of these seven women as individuals, challenging our attitudes, as well as their own, to their profession.
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Domestic workers in Kenya are legally entitled to the same basic labour rights as any other worker – paid holiday, sick and maternity leave, health care coverage and a safe workplace, but in practice these legal protections are rarely enforced and workers find themselves at increased risk of sexual and gender-based violence. Many domestic staff are retained informally and have little recourse to such laws, meaning there is scant job or wage security, an expectation to commit to long hours, and to carry out a range of household tasks that may be outside of a person’s usual remit. Since the domestic workforce is overwhelmingly made up of women, many have the additional care burden of family. A Day of Rest emerged out of Mathenge’s desire to raise awareness of these issues and to advocate for change.