Art: Wangechi Mutu’s Grossly Beautiful Collage

yomammaWangechi Mutu: Yo Mamma, 2003. via Nasher Museum of Art

Combining diverse artistic approaches–including ink drawing, collage, installation, painting, video, and animation–and commenting slyly on race, gender, colonialism, and sexuality in her subject matter, Wangechi Mutu has always most attracted me with her work’s sickly beauty. There’s something so eye-catching yet simultaneously upsetting about her mixed-media compositions, they force viewers to look first for pleasure and then again for meaning. Born in Nairobi, Kenya, and educated at Cooper Union and Yale University, Mutu has been exhibiting since the late 90s but seems to be gaining more and more recognition in recent years, with a major solo museum exhibition that is ending its national tour at Northwestern University this fall. Her work has primarily focused on subversions of the female form, which Helaine Posner describes as a “cross-cultural look at the exoticized, eroticized, and demonized female body, particularly the black female body, as the repository of society’s fascination and fears” (The Reckoning). Her female figures tend to be elongated and contorted, at times even lumpy, made up of disparate pieces that seem to call out the innumerable expectations, presumptions, and stereotypes placed upon women in general by contemporary societies, and on black women specifically.

Many of her pieces mix pornographic imagery with ethnographic photography like that seen in National Geographic. In her series of collages collectively titled The Ark Collection, she playfully and pointedly juxtaposes black female porn models with details of Masai tribal textiles, jewelry, and figures taken from popular snaps by photojournalist Carole Beckwith. Mutu intentionally draws associations between the hyper-sexualization of black women in contemporary media and the long-held Western fascination with women living in so-called “primitive” or “exotic” cultures. Complex and confrontational, these works are also intriguingly beautiful, inviting viewers to consider how their different parts add up to a bitingly satirical whole. In these as in other works, we see a kind of dualism, which Mutu has herself described: “I was thinking in terms of two histories; I was moving from seeing myself as a person from Kenya in America, to seeing myself as a fusion of the two. When two ideas come together, it doesn’t always create a very logical result, it doesn’t add up to what people expect, and you can’t tell where one begins and where one ends” (“Resonant Surgeries: The Collaged World of Wangechi Mutu”).

Mutu- the ark collection2Wangechi Mutu: The Ark Collection, 2006. via Border Crossings Magazine

Mutu- the ark collectionWangechi Mutu: The Ark Collection, 2006. via Border Crossings Magazine

In many of her more recent pieces, the artist works on a large scale (about life-size for her figures) to create mixed-media representations of female-animal-plant hybrids, seemingly amorphous bodies that exist in fantastical landscapes. Her imagery seems to reference everything from environmental concerns and sci-fi technology to high fashion models and acid flashbacks. It is easy to draw a line between her work and the early cut-up collages by Picasso (which she cites as an influence), the gritty, exaggerated bodies of Egon Schiele, the overlapping composite paintings of Francis Picabia, and the grotesque figures of Georg Baselitz; however, Mutu brings the aesthetic of these white male modernists into the current age, and infuses it with her unique perspective, gendered and racial experience, and cultural signifiers. Of her identity as a black woman artist, she has commented, “Part of my baggage with feminism is that it still hasn’t taken into consideration the work done by women outside America and Europe. We’re coming from very different behavioural patterns as far as how the patriarchy expressed itself on us. European and American women occupy a very different space from African women, and even that is too general because there are different countries with different histories and different religions… I still feel there are many battles to be fought concerning how women are placed in society” (“Resonant Surgeries: The Collaged World of Wangechi Mutu”).

Another thing I appreciate about Wangechi Mutu is how she elevates the collage technique to a higher plane, as it is not typically considered a “high art” form. Many well-known artists have worked in collage (Picasso himself was a pioneer of the medium), but it is rarely considered a primary approach for major artists aside from someone like Hannah Höch or Richard Hamilton. I’ve never been quite sure why, I assume it has something to do with the typically small size of collaged works, or perhaps that it is by nature appropriative. Mutu’s life-size scale and expert utilization of different media, along with her captivatingly bold visual style, lend her collages a dynamism and confrontationalism that is not so often communicated with small cut-paper collage. She continues the practice’s tradition of using found imagery to comment on societal and cultural issues, but is not obvious about it in the way the Constructivists and Pop artists were, nor so cheeky as Dada artists, preferring to hint and cajole until her audience realizes the profound subtleties found within. Her figures suggest characters, her compositions suggest narrative settings, and we are allowed free reign as viewers to examine closely how she employs symbolic imagery, and how these women are positioned and what their gestures or actions may indicate. Her imagination and expansive artistic vocabulary continually blow me away, and here I’ve only scratched the surface of her varied output (she’s probably most known for her mixed media works, but she also does performance, installation, sculpture, and film). Actually, I should just take a step back and let her work speak for itself.

 

untitled-640x845Wangechi Mutu: Untitled, 2003. via Wangechi Mutu

onceuponatimeWangechi Mutu: Once upon a time she said, I’m not afraid and her enemies became afraid of her The End, 2013. via Nasher Museum of Art

ridingdeathWangechi Mutu: Riding Death in My Sleep, 2002. via Nasher Museum of Art

Mutu- Forensic_Forms_5-598x845Wangechi Mutu: Forensic Forms, 5 of 10, 2004. via Wangechi Mutu

Wangechi Mutu - SantigoldWangechi Mutu: The End of Eating Everything, 2013. See a clip of the short film. Film still via Wangechi Mutu

Mutu: Fish-Trinity-1100x728Wangechi Mutu: Sketchbook Drawing (Fish Trinity), 2011. via Wangechi Mutu

MutuWangechi Mutu: Blue Rose, 2007. via Wangechi Mutu

misguidedWangechi Mutu: Misguided Little Unforgivable Hierarchies, 2005. via Nasher Museum of Art

People-in-Glass-Towers-Should-Not-Imagine-Us-EDITED-1100x766Wangechi Mutu: People in Glass Towers Should Not Imagine Us, 2003. via Wangechi Mutu

Mutu_361_TheStormHasFinallyMadeItOutOfMe_loresWangechi Mutu: The Storm Has Finally Made It Out Of Me Alhamdulillah, 2003. via Wangechi Mutu

Me.I1-1100x675Wangechi Mutu: Me.I., 2012. via Wangechi Mutu

Sources:

Robert Enright and Wangechi Mutu. “Resonant Surgeries: The Collaged World of Wangechi Mutu.Border Crossings Magazine.

Helaine Posner. “Wangechi Mutu.” The Reckoning: Women Artists in the New Millennium. Prestel Publishing, 2013.

Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey.” Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.

Wangechi Mutu artist site.

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