Kenyan born and New York based Wangechi Mutu undoubtedly stands as one of today’s most unorthodox and inscrutable mixed media artists. Through intricate collages, she sublimates the female body and its psyche transmuting it into “hybrid” dismembered entities. Strangely alluring and repugnant, empowering and grotesque, Mutu’s art is deeply transfixing, utterly complex and strikingly direct.
Fascinated by challenging conventional standards of beauty, she explores the raw intersections of ethnicity, female gender and sexuality; attempting to dissect the residual psychosis of misogyny and the violent repercussions of post-colonial racism still recurring even at the dawn of the 21st century.
“Violent incidences are often fastened to images of privilege in my drawings. Images of altered or slightly mutilated bodies with diseased skin sometimes look like bizarre and colorful fabric costumes. There is this tiny percentage of people who live like emperors because elsewhere blood is being shed.”
Confronting issues as commanding and disturbing as consumerism or the objectification of women and more particularly the hyper-sexualization of the black female in Western culture, Mutu also tackles various other heretical topics, including fornication, mutilation, or gynecological diseases of the female organs.
She constructs idiosyncratically stunning collages from sources as diverse as fashion and porn magazines; medical and science books; or ethnographic photographs taken from publications such as Africa Adorned. This is not your traditional collage! The artist incorporates a compound of foreign materials scoping from water color, natural pigments, ink, glitter, pearls and even soil taken from her native Kikuyu land in Kenya.
Quintessentially architectonic, Mutu’s art focuses on the ideological structure of the human body, the soul within. She dismisses accepted notions of silhouette or contour instead creating unique, bold and innovative forms.
Merging the notions of beauty and ugliness, and addressing the complex relationship between these two paradigms, her work confronts a modern society that rejects the very idea of black sub-cultural influence as a valid hypothesis. “The two are always with each other. Like siamese twins forever trapped in the same body yet irrepressibly clinging to their own identity.
At times, her work reverberates with that of artists like Hannah Hoch, Karel Teige, Shirin Neshat or even classical masters like Hieronymus Bosch. The remarkable quality inherent to her art probably resides in her ability to not only amplify mainstream stereotypes about gender and social class, but also to elevate them to a higher forum of contemplation and dialogue. Her images are incredibly abstracting. They unearth a new spectrum of vision about black identity, particularly concerning the idea of beauty and self-appreciation of the female body.
“Women’s bodies are particularly vulnerable to the whims of changing movements, governments, and social norms. They’re the sensitive charts that indicate how a society feels about itself. It’s also disturbing how women attack themselves in search of a perfect image, and to assuage the imperfections that surround them.” -Wangechi Mutu
There is always a sort of underlying violence embedded in each of the pieces she creates. Affirmative fears, archetypal dogmas and the stigmata of war are all woven into one highly elaborate composition. The results are overpowering metaphors that often puts the viewer in a state of catatonic bliss, halfway between sheer avoidance and not being able to confront the subject directly.
Mutu‘s art is a constant stimulus on how children of the diaspora are able to successfully merge parts of their African roots with elements of Western culture. The confrontation between African identity and predominance of Western culture remains a central point in Mutu’s work. Often the ghosts of Josephine Baker or Eartha Kitt (two of her favoured muses) come to haunt her. She is also intrigued by modern icons the likes of Grace Jones. These women were all forced to reinvent themselves as new hybrid “alien” creatures largely based on Western stereotypes; however, they were able to turn their caricatural characters into powerful maces of protest against the myth of white supremacy.
“Camouflage and mutation are 2 important themes in my work, but the idea I’m most enamoured with is the notion that transformation can help us to transcend our predicament. We all wear costumes when we set out for battle. The language of body alteration is a powerful inspiration. I think part of my interest in this comes from being an immigrant but I’ve also always been interested in how people perform and maneuver among one another.”
Although European and Western development are still perceived as the pinnacle of civilization, history has clearly uncovered their failure to address the obvious atrocities.
Wangechi Mutu’s art is a testimony of these moments of “Human Waste”; taking imagery from these gestures of violence and hopelessness to create possibilities for the resurgence of life and hope.
“Each human being has the eternal duty of transforming what is hard and brutal into a subtle and tender offering, what is crude into refinement, what is ugly into beauty, ignorance into knowledge, confrontation into collaboration, thereby rediscovering the child’s dream of a creative reality incessantly renewed by death, the servant of life, and by life, the servant of love.” Yehudi Menuhin
Wangechi Mutu (b. 1972, Nairobi, Kenya) graduated with an MFA from Yale University in 2000 and a BFA from New York’s Cooper Union for Advancement of Arts & Science. She currently lives and works in New York. Mutu was the recipient of numerous prizes and awards including the 2010 Deutsche Bank Artist of the Year. Her work has been featured in various prestigious museums and art galleries including: Saachi Gallery, New York, Susanne Vielmetter Gallery, Los Angeles, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Miami Art Museum, Tate Modern, London, the Harlem Studio Museum, New York, Kunstpalast Dusseldorf in Germany, and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
More recent exhibitions include the installation “Moth Girls” at Musée d’Art Contemporain of Montreal and “Black Thrones” on display at Gladstone Gallery in Brussels from May 15 -July 7.
For more insight, please visit: wangechimutu.com
All images courtesy of the artist.