In this video installation, Mutu appears well attired in an elaborate gothic dress, ornate jewelry, and high heels, but with wild unkempt hair and long fingernails which she uses to dig into a huge three-tiered cake. Her decadent clothing and voracious appetite can be seen as a commentary on how the trappings of civilization separate us from the natural world and encourage excessive consumption, while her ritualistic movements may be read as an attempt to reconnect with both the earthly and spiritual realms of the forest around her.
Expanding on the drawing practice that underlies all her work, Mutu’s first-ever animated video features a magical, destructive creature played by the like-minded musical performer and recording artist Santigold. For this collaboration, Santigold takes on the role of an insatiable planetlike being, covered with flailing arms and tentacles, as well as spores that emit polluting smoke like factory chimneys. Reflecting on gluttonous consumption and overindulgence, the video offers an ending at once apocalyptic and hopeful in the sudden transformation of this sickly, sinister entity.
In Family Tree, Mutu presents thirteen portraits arranged as a genealogy of three generations. This ancestral pantheon, with its figures that are at once primitive and futuristic in their combination of human, animal, alien, and mechanical parts, demonstrates Mutu’s long-standing interest in transformation and adaptation as a necessary means of survival. Most of the figures in Family Tree include illustrations of organs from old medical journals, relating Western medicine’s historical dissections of the human body to the carving up of the African continent under colonialism.
As the title suggests, these three figures are stacked in a composition that speaks to power dynamics, inviting viewers to question the relationships among them and thereby question other hierarchies in everyday life and history. Such rankings of peoples have historically been constructed around fabricated racial and ethnic categories, which were invoked to justify Europe’s colonization of Africa, the Americas, Australia, and much of Asia. Mutu often uses woundlike splatters, as seen in the background here, to allude to the wars and bloodshed associated with colonialism, particularly in regard to violence against women.
This work conflates perceptions of woman as the root of evil—as in the story of Adam and Eve—and the characterization of Africa as the “dark continent” where evil forces originate and reside. With her flashy sunglasses, bits of military garb, and amputated arm, this figure suggests the interplay of power and loss over decades of civil wars in Africa. Her throne extends into the subterranean realm, connecting her to mysterious dark forces beneath the ground. By alluding to both the detritus of colonialism and the powerful spirits that have supposedly brought bad fortune upon the continent, Mutu addresses the persistent lack of understanding of African history, cultures, and religions.
This early work sets the stage for Mutu’s ongoing investigation of cultural hybridization and displacement, featuring symbols and strategies that will continue to figure in her subsequent practice. Seeking to complicate notions of racial identity, Mutu used bits and pieces drawn from many ethnicities to assemble the facial features of this creature, whose baldness only adds to her alien quality.
At once beautiful and grotesque, the figure’s body is also hard to decipher, with its multicolored patterning reading as skin or a catsuit, or both. The landscape is dotted with mushrooms— fungi that have no roots and flourish in inhospitable areas without sunlight—which can serve as a metaphor for immigration.
Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey
October 11, 2013–March 9, 2014
Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey is the first survey in the United States of this internationally renowned, Brooklyn-based artist. Spanning from the mid-1990s to the present, the exhibition unites more than fifty pieces, including Mutu’s signature large-scale collages as well as video works, never-before-seen sketchbook drawings, a site-specific wall drawing, and sculptural installations.
Born in Nairobi, Kenya, Mutu scrutinizes globalization by combining found materials, magazine cutouts, sculpture, and painted imagery. Sampling such diverse sources as African traditions, international politics, the fashion industry, pornography, and science fiction, her work explores gender, race, war, colonialism, global consumption, and the exoticization of the black female body. Mutu is best known for spectacular and provocative collages depicting female figures—part human, animal, plant, and machine—in fantastical landscapes that are simultaneously unnerving and alluring, defying easy categorization and identification. Bringing her interconnected ecosystems to life for this exhibition through sculptural installations and videos, Mutu encourages audiences to consider these mythical worlds as places for cultural, psychological, and socio-political exploration and transformation.
Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey is organized by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University by Trevor Schoonmaker, Chief Curator and Patsy R. and Raymond D. Nasher Curator of Contemporary Art. The Brooklyn Museum presentation is coordinated by Saisha Grayson, Assistant Curator, Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum.
This exhibition was made possible by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Major support was provided by Marilyn M. Arthur, the Ford Foundation, the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, Katherine Thorpe Kerr, Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, Gladstone Gallery, New York; Victoria Miro Gallery, London; and the North Carolina Arts Council, a division of the Department of Cultural Resources.
The exhibition in Brooklyn has been made possible by the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation.
Additional generous support has been provided by Gladstone Gallery, Victoria Miro Gallery, London, Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, and the Helene Zucker Seeman Memorial Exhibition Fund.