I am sipping tea in Wangechi Mutu’s Brooklyn studio. It is a bitterly cold day, with sunlight shining through the parlor floor windows, reflecting on shiny jewels that encircle the eyes and dot the Afro of an older collage work. “I keep that hanging there,” she said, “to remind me of things that I did right and wrong.”
Dressed in grays and blacks, Mutu’s presence today is muted but her words shine, glittery, dazzling, colorful, most of all, serious, like the content of her art, her collages, her sculpture, and her video, all currently on display in A Fantastic Journey, up until March 9, 2014 at the Sackler Center for Feminist Art in The Brooklyn Museum.
It is her first survey exhibit in the US and she loves that it has traveled to her hometown. The show is rich, and detailed, inviting viewers to take a journey through her work from the mid-1990s to the present, much like the journey her life has followed from Nairobi, Kenya to New York City.
Mutu, whose first name is pronounced Wah GEH She, left Kenya as a teenager to attend high school in Wales. “I couldn’t wait to get out,” she said. Although she had no family here, after high school she came to New York to study art at Parsons School of Design. Unhappy there, she transferred to the New School to study anthropology and cultural studies but found that she could not afford it. Then, she discovered a real New York treasure, Cooper Union, a school that does not advertise and where tuition is free. Since the school did not accept international students, she had to wait a year to become a resident. Cooper Union was followed by an MFA in sculpture at Yale.
Leaving your homeland is one thing. Returning is another. At least that was what Mutu discovered when she wanted to go home. There was just no guarantee that she would be admitted back into the US. So, she stayed here, separated from her family and Kenya for 20 years, unable to attend the openings of exhibits elsewhere in the world. The whole situation was unfortunate and, given the tangles of immigration and immigration policy, it was only resolved fairly recently.
Despite, or maybe because of her exile, Mutu dug into her art, always working in multiple media including drawings, sculpture, video, site-specific installations, as well as her signature collages. Whatever the medium, she gave great thought to the subject of her narrative—feminism, colonialism, race– and to the artistic process that best moved the story forward. “I have a narrative in mind from way in the beginning,” she said, explaining how she works.
Mutu picks a pose or a figure from a magazine or a photograph, and then draws it very small. Once she has done that, she enlarges it, changing the body and the original figure.
“Sometimes, I make the figure fuller, less confident, dropping the shoulders. Once they are larger,” she said, “they are transformed into a bigger story.”
At every stage, Mutu thinks about what is going to happen next: “I ask myself, who/what is this person? Someone might be ornate, someone bare, someone nude. What will happen when I remove all color and experiment with ink and paint?”
Mutu began making collages, mosaics, and assemblages as a young child, cutting up paper and magazines, and crushing egg shells—so early that she cannot remember the time when she first made art. Early on, she was struck by the power of collage: transferring one image into another.
“One of the reasons I treat the skin and the body the way I do,” Mutu said, “is that I’ve seen Elephantitis and Polio. With tropical illnesses, everything grows.”
She was also attracted to and terrified by the medical journals that filled her house. Her mother was a nurse-midwife and the books included grotesque photos of all sorts of tropical diseases. “One of the reasons I treat the skin and the body the way I do,” Mutu said, “is that I’ve seen Elephantitis and Polio. With tropical illnesses, everything grows.”
It’s hard to tell how much these journals contributed to her later-in-life exploration of gender but, clearly, a powerful sense of femaleness pervades Mutu’s work. While, at times, gender is not obvious and her women seem androgynous, often we see them in squatting positions—a posture she describes as “both exotic and erotic.”
Mutu describes the evolution of Riding Death in My Sleep (2002), one of the earliest collages in the exhibit. The work originated with a picture of a woman squatting, taken from a music magazine. Mutu still has the original picture. In Mutu’s collage, though, the woman, squatting on a dark mushroom-covered mound, is wearing high heel boots. She is primal and animal but at the same time, wearing a heel, “a signifier of modernity.”
In addition to integrating the primitive and the modern, Mutu also messes around with ethnicity. Clearly, the woman in Riding Death is multiracial. Her head is albino and the rest of her body, except for the boots, is covered with multicolor leopard skin patterns. The effect. What world does she come from? Is she ready to pounce or is it merely the tension of her body? Why is she crouching in this alien environment?
Mutu has answers to all of these questions. Her creatures, she says, are less about space and “more about an investigation of humanness and the interrelatedness of our species.” To gain greater control over her creations, Mutu shifted from working on paper to Mylar in 2004 because watercolor was time sensitive and paper absorbed the paint much too quickly. It would become permanent even before she had decided what she wanted to do. But pools of paint stay wet on Mylar, allowing Mutu to work on the mixture for 24-48 hours. “Mylar is very inert, a very objective surface so that I can do my emotional things.” Recently, she has been experimenting with working on linoleum.
We confront things that we recognize as having been something we once knew or thought we knew, now transformed into something unknown.
Getting inside Mutu’s emotions means deconstructing the colorful and complex elements that comprise her collages: their shapes, their textures, and their puzzling identities. We confront things that we recognize as having been something we once knew or thought we knew, now transformed into something unknown. Sometimes, cyborgs replace humans. Always, fantasies trump or, at the very least, transform realities.
Saisha Grayson, Assistant Curator at the Sackler Center, who helped install A Fantastic Journey, sees in Mutu’s collages a reflection of her keen interest in science fiction and in Afro-futurism. Grayson notes several big themes in the show: extreme hybridity, with Mutu deconstructing and reconstructing collages through clippings from fashion, motorcycle, pornographic, and music magazines, pieces of contact paper, fake fur, and glittery jeweled encrustments. Mutu describes her work as an effort to keep “dissecting the female costume masquerade,” a process that continues with her new work, not in the exhibit, where she uses hair from wigs and extensions in hairnets as her paintbrush, dipping them in ink and paint and creating her own paper to use in her collages.
To Grayson, Mutu’s use of throw-away stuff—felt blankets that become tree trunks, packing tape with snakeskin imprint, and cheap jewels—intentionally undermines our expectations. The felt blankets that we recognize as packing blankets in the States are called rescue blankets in Africa where people sleep in them. In many of the collages, sequins and glitter add sparkle. So, especially in Mutu’s sculptural work, materials are transformed but never entirely. She forces us to reconsider what we think we see and already know.
Mutu repeatedly raises issues of post-colonialism and race. She produces new family trees, new hierarchies, and strange evolutionary mash-ups. In Family Tree (2012), a work created for the show, there is a suite of 13 portraits, each with a different personality. Though the lines of lineage are drawn clearly on the wall, each of the portraits is totally different. Each is a unique hodge-podge of skin tones and anatomical features as well as flora and fauna. Though the group shares a family resemblance of sorts, it is impossible to name any of the creatures or see how they evolve from each other.
Mutu refuses to give in to the mythology of woman as the seductress in the Garden of Eden. In her version of biblical history, the woman in the collage decapitates the snake by spiking him with her stiletto.
Elsewhere, in Yo Mama (2003), a tribute to Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, the Nigerian feminist-activist mother of the musician Fela, Mutu refuses to give in to the mythology of woman as the seductress in the Garden of Eden. In her version of biblical history, the woman in the collage decapitates the snake by spiking him with her stiletto. We are left pondering high heels as a signifier of beauty and entrapment or as a weapon used to behead the snake and conquer entrapment. The collage here, formed with larger pieces and minimal encrustation, intermixes phallic and Medusa imagery with the powerful narrative of snakes as the carriers of magic.
A Fantastic Journey opened in March 2013 at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, where Mutu collaborated with her old friend, curator Trevor Schoonmaker. “They had a deep trust and they appreciated each other’s work,” said Grayson, who began working on the exhibit once the show was confirmed for the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
The Nasher space was a square, open landscape—“easy,” said Mutu. There was complete flexibility and a very empty slate. So, the exhibit there relied on a circular organization with Playtime, the interactive sculpture made of trash bags wrapped in gold twine hanging from the ceiling, filling a much larger space. The piece, which Mutu said children immediately understand as soccer balls, is scaled back in the Brooklyn exhibit, where it forms a lake-like shape in a rectangular room. “It’s playful,” she said, “but kids don’t play lightly.”
Deeply involved with every aspect of the installation, Mutu said that the Sackler space was a challenge. “You are always working around the perimeter of the Judy Chicago Dinner Party piece,” she said. “The walls are permanent and very thick.” To heighten the journey from one section to another, she tried to obliterate the viewing point. Because people enter from multiple access points, there is no clear start or finish and the works can be viewed from different perspectives.
To Grayson, the idea of a journey is carried out quite literally in the Brooklyn show. There is the grand salon with seven major collages and thirteen smaller portraits in the Family Tree (2012), followed by a darker space with encroaching roots from trees made of packing blankets, and an even darker back room, framed by a sculpture of a tree and two collages with tree branches that lean toward each other.
There’s magic in the back room. On one wall is The End of eating Everything (2013), an animated video commissioned for the exhibit. Unlike an earlier video, Amazing Grace (2005), where Mutu walks into the ocean singing the hymn in Kikuyu, the newest video is an effort by Mutu to transform one of her works “into a time-based piece.”
Collage can be considered one frame. The video features the singer Santigold who looks beautiful and normal in the beginning. Mutu’s intent here is to turn the female into the planet and then to make us see that maybe she is an animal. “She’s actively hideously devouring the planet. It’s a metaphor of a particular behavior, consumer and greedy, blind progress.” The images are riveting: full of pot holes and blisters, festering.
But it is in the vitrines which display Mutu’s sketchbooks that we discover her most revealing work, the unedited sketches that she works on during holidays and other times when she cannot make larger work. “They are,” she said, “the beginnings of very internal personal stories, my nightmares and my daymares.”
They are such an honest stream of consciousness that she was not sure that she wanted to include them in the show. Unadorned in the Nasher show, she has collaged over some of them in the Brooklyn exhibit. How ironic that this bold and powerful public artist feels more comfortable putting veils on her private work.
A Fantastic Journey is at the Brooklyn Museum through March 9, 2014.
Roslyn Bernstein reports on arts and culture for such online publications as Tablet, Huffington Post, and Guernica. Bernstein is a professor of journalism at Baruch College, CUNY and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She is the author of Boardwalk Stories and the co-author of Illegal Living: 80 Wooster Street and the Evolution of SoHo.