Museum  April 10, 2023  Howard Halle

Wangechi Mutu’s Magically Intertwined World

Courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, Victoria Miro, and Vielmetter Los Angeles

Wangechi Mutu,The End of carrying All, 2015 (still). 3-channel animated video, color, sound, 10:45 min

Thematically and stylistically, Wangechi Mutu’s art is a bubbling stew of ingredients that don’t always cohere. Part Afro-Futurism, part cyber-punk, and part body horror, Mutu’s sculptures, collages, and mixed-media paintings cover a lot of ground. They weigh in on gender, race, colonialism, climate change, and globalism, and all of it is linked by a dense web of folkloric references that are often arcane, if not obtuse. Still, there’s no doubting the visual impact of the artist’s work if you don’t let its busyness get in your way.

Photo: Cynthia Edorh

Wangechi Mutu, 2021.

 

“Wangechi Mutu: Intertwined” at the New Museum takes comprehensive stock of Mutu’s thirty-year career and occupies the entire building with over a hundred works spanning painting, collage, drawing, sculpture, and film. The show’s title is apt since in both her 2D and 3D work, Mutu’s forms are often characterized by sinuous, serpentine contours, and in fact, snakes feature prominently as subjects (as in 2022’s Nyoka, a larger-than-life bronze of an anaconda coiled in a basket). 

Mutu, 50, was born in Kenya and currently divides her time between New York, where she first gained notice in the early 2000s in Nairobi. Her education included a stint at The New School for Social Research, where she studied anthropology and art. Like many a current star, she also earned an MFA from Yale, whose graduate program is the de facto academy for contemporary art. She is, in other words, the very model of a significant multicultural artist, though one set apart by the sheer weirdness of her work—which, to be fair, possesses its own kind of phantasmagoric beauty.

Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Dario Lasagni

“Wangechi Mutu: Intertwined,” 2023. Exhibition view: New Museum, New York.

Some of the earlier works here comprise of works on paper, concentrating on the well-worn theme of women’s objectification by the media. Tilted “Pin-ups” (2001), they deconstruct the semiotics of cheesecake photos by presenting subjects whose features have been disfigured by applications of ink, watercolor, and bits of collage. A later series titled “Mud” (2003), moves further into hardcore with images of models cut out of porn magazines, splattered with muck.

From the collection of Paul and Linda Gotskind. Courtesy the artist and Vielmetter Los Angeles

Wangechi Mutu, Fallen Heads, 2010. Ink, paint, collage, contact paper, and plastic pearls on Mylar, 104 × 53 ¾ in (264.2 × 136.5 cm).

 

Both bodies of work lend themselves to any number of readings regarding the hypocrisy surrounding the sexualization of black women, as well as their more general exploitation under white supremacy. “Mud,” however, employs a metaphor that surfaces throughout the show: Soil, not only in the sense of terrain, territory, or symbol for fecundity but also as the source of a dystopian, Gaian mythology, in which Mutu morphs women, plants, and animals into chimerical creatures that suggest a return of the repressed in supernatural form. 

Her sculptures are especially potent in conjuring such beasts, though they do occasionally resemble Hollywood special effects, with several being worthy of director Guillermo del Toro. Two examples seem to have emerged straight out of the Black Lagoon: Water Woman (2017), which takes its form as a languid mermaid with webbed hands and a face resembling a tribal mask; and Glider (2021) which sports armor plating, a spiny exoskeleton, and a google-eyed women’s head.

Collection Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn and Nicolas Rohatyn, New York. Courtesy the artist

Wangechi Mutu, People in Glass Towers Should Not Imagine Us, 2003. Mixed media collage on paper, diptych, overall 140 × 102 in (355.6 × 259.1 cm).

Her paintings are similarly fantastical. The diptych Yo Mama (2003), for instance, pictures a one-woman Laocoön, who, rather than being subsumed by a snake, has decapitated it, and pierced it with one heel of her stiletto boots. The piece is an encomium to the Nigerian feminist Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti, the mother of the acclaimed Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti who also fought against the practice of genital mutilation on young girls. She’s meant to be seen as Eve in the Garden of Eden, dispatching the serpent of phallocracy instead of being seduced by it—a triumph oddly contrasted with her pose, in which she leans on one arm, spreading her legs and thrusting her pelvis like a stripper waiting to have dollar bills stuffed into her G-string.

Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Dario Lasagni

“Wangechi Mutu: Intertwined,” 2023. Exhibition view: New Museum, New York.

Video and performance are also part of Mutu’s practice, and the two combine in The End of carrying all (2015), a three-channel animation starring the artist herself. Mutu assumes the role of a female villager walking through a panoramic, tropical landscape with a basket on her head. Her path gets increasingly steeper, and the scenario more apocalyptic, as she encounters a locust swarm and her basket begins to fill up the encumbrances of the global economy: Satellite dishes, bicycle wheels, oil rigs, and buildings. Reaching the top of a hill, she transforms into a giant gelatinous slug slithering off a cliff. After the ground erupts in green lava, nature is restored as the sun sets. Whether this is meant as a cautionary tale, or as a devoted wish for humanity’s extinction is hard to say.

Ultimately, what can be said about “Intertwined” is that it’s as convoluted as it is compelling: A gordian knot of associations that resists unraveling.

About the Author

Howard Halle

Howard Halle is a writer and artist who has exhibited his work in the United States and Europe. Between 1981 and 1985, he was Curator of The Kitchen's Gallery and Performance Art series. From 1995 through 2020, he was Chief Art Critic for Time Out New York. He lives and works in Brooklyn.

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