Reverberating Images

The Various Arts of Wangechi Mutu

A successful collage is synthetic, its disparate component parts adhering as a rational whole. It would be impossible to imagine any other configuration of its diverse elements, recombinant and now perfect. Wangechi Mutu’s luscious, fantastical, multivalent, clamouring collage works hang together as intense composites— evidence of mind wrestling with matter. Prodigious, complex visual presentations, what they are not is static or fixed. Not one is a lullaby to sleep by. But disharmony is not what she’s after either. In fact, it’s the juxtapositions of various histories, mythologies and representations recombined and adjacent, abutting and intersecting that evidence the real interconnectedness of the world as it should be—creatures all of us, including nature, collaged together as a functional operating reconciliation. Us the world, “conciled”— since first days, or reconciled since we woke.

Wangechi Mutu, Even my old soul has an old soul …, 2019, ink and watercolour on Mylar, 111.5 x 81.5 inches. All images courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

It wouldn’t be possible to say it better than art historian Kristine Stiles did in Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey, published by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in 2013 to accompany the travelling exhibition of the same name. Stiles wrote, “She cuts into what separates us with the precision of a surgeon before suturing our reconstruction from the fragile visual slivers of the wounded family of humankind, already fragmented, deformed and traumatized.”

Wangechi Mutu intends the collage work to be aesthetically engaging—beautiful the way something seductive needs to be in order to do its stuff, and while she’s not interested in a binary or dialectic either/ or approach, the works mustn’t be so beautiful as to be comfortable to the eye and its beholder. Her model is the oyster, which requires an irritant to produce its nacreous beauty; pearls are abundant in Mutu’s collages.

The painful and destructive interruption of colonization is a persistent presence in Wangechi Mutu’s work, appearing in as many and myriad forms as that unspeakably brutal and deliberate habitation, invasion, eternal occupation, resource- and greeddriven political manifestation could provoke. Still, Wangechi Mutu harnesses it practically as an explanation for the efficacy of collage. She refers, in this interview, to artists who were all victims of colonial education: musician Benjamin Clementine and artists Chris Ofili and Ana Mendieta—all of them sharing the skill of “splicing, and dicing and recreating and inventing, misusing and abusing and highlighting the various languages that we were taught in our schools.”

In her striving to imagine a better, more generous and inclusive future, Mutu give us, in her collages, sculptures, drawings and videos, images of the future, taken in many instances to an unhappy extreme— bloodied, savage, distorted, imperilled and cataclysmic. Carrying on is apocalyptic, even if presented as alluring and seductive, in the way that her work unavoidably is. But carrying on—continuing, as the future state implies—is what we must do, and her work suggests a better way is possible. Kristine Stiles noted in her catalogue essay the ideal of intersubjectivity, writing that Mutu’s art is the pictorial embodiment of that ideal, “one that pictures the awkward, failed but philosophically moving attempt to arrive—even momentarily—at what must and can only be an image of constantly shifting needs, desires, identity, and knowledge in the effort to imagine the other imagining us.”

Simply, this is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Wangechi Mutu’s work evinces her persistent empathy in reading of the psychic and physical pain and distress of others. Anger, too, impels the work an unmistakable emotional state but deflected in part by its being carried by hybrid figures, by creatures not readily identifiable—testing the us-not-us possibility of avoidance and exit. With image and accompanying text prodding in full the idea of the social contract, Magnificent Monkey-Ass Lies, from 2004, is one example. Anger almost spits from the text of her nonetheless beautiful work: “So I was thinking if you were on the auction block would I even bid on your white ass. This cold has made you thin and bitter, but my heart still aches with love, and I remember when animals devoured us and we tasted good to them. Everything I am saying is dedicated to all you magnificent monkey asses, yeah you. Your greatest invention is the desire to own every demon on earth.” Wangechi Mutu’s text for Magnificent Monkey-Ass Lies speaks with contempt about the “desire to own every demon on earth,” to own every everything. Yo Mama, a double panel, large collage from 2003, suggests the opposite—not the desire to scoop and grab and dominate but instead to allow for multiple worlds, to acknowledge and encompass them all.

Tree Woman, 2016, red soil, paper pulp, soil, wood glue, wood, 78 x 34 x 30 inches (figure), 32 x 36 x 4 inches (pedestal).

The colour pink engenders a welcoming positive response, rosy in its assurance of well-being. This is the ground of Yo Mama, a fierce and alternative originary myth, no less bloody and with similar bad outcomes for the snake but paralleling the dispatching gesture of the Virgin Mary with her tiny foot on the head of the now dead serpent. Mama has, with one stylish stiletto heel, pierced the snake’s neck—if such an anatomical description applies to a snake. Blood drips and spatters and seems, in the adjacent panel, to be generative in a spermatazoac manner. The length of the snake’s body coils and loops from just over Mama’s shoulder, across and to the next panel. Mama is chic, shapely and powerful. Dressed in spangles, hair arranged elaborately and well, groovy and wise and entirely in charge. An island that is a pink jellyfish, tentacles waving like party streamers, with a forest of palm trees proliferating on its dome, is connected to Mama by the sensuous loops of the snake. With wit and relentless beauty Wangechi Mutu persuades us to consider broadly, with generosity and compassionate interest and in an expansive state of more rather than a limiting regime of less.

The following interview was conducted in spring, 2019. The artist has a number of exhibitions and installations scheduled in the coming months, including: The Façade Commission: Wangechi Mutu, The NewOnes, will free Us, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, September 9, 2019, to January 12, 2020; “Are We There Yet? Arts of the Black Atlantic,” Ellen Johnson Gallery, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH, August 2019 to May 2020; Rock My Soul, curated by Isaac Julien, Victoria Miro London, London, UK, October 20 to December 20, 2019; Inaugural Exhibition: Waking Dream, Ruby City: Linda Pace Foundation, San Antonio, TX, October 13, 2019, to 2022.

BORDER CROSSINGS: I see your reposed portrait head called This second Dreamer (2017) as an Africanized version of Brancusi’s Sleeping Muse (1910), which leads me to one of the many fascinations I have with your work. It has to do with the relationship between the reclamation of a language—in this case an art historical one—and the invention of the pictorial language in which you were finding a way to represent the Black female body. What can you take from what already exists and what do you have to invent on your own?

WANGECHI MUTU: There is a smaller and earlier version of This second Dreamer called Mwotaji, The Dreamer (2016) that is more the size of my head. But the sculptures of disembodied heads are related to my Maria (1997) work, a Virgin Mary with the head of a doll that I was so obsessed with. I found this doll head in the street when I was an undergraduate student and kept it around for months; it was completely separate from its body and it was from a brown doll. Something about this head floating along on its own in the city produced many images for me. I went on to produce Maria and then after, I painted fallen heads, sleeping heads; I made collages and paintings. And then later on I produced the floating heads in The End of eating Everything (2013), my animation film. But I never thought to reference Brancusi directly. I actually love his work and am still fascinated by the work of a number of those modernist artists who unashamedly harvested many of their ideas from traditional African sculpture. What sculpture has allowed me to do is to regain the confidence that comes from working with material that is of my birthland. I can’t say it any other way. For me, it is a personal piece; it’s this head in recline, cast from my likeness, that is positioned as if in peace where it is. I was thinking about the brutality of separation from one’s home and history and at the same time very much enjoying paying homage to the beautiful hairstyles, the braided coifs, and all this incredible and ephemeral body art that should be understood as art. I am conscious of the discussion of Africana and modernism and what modernity has extracted and derived from classical, tribal African art. What I’m trying to do is take history home, take history to the heart, take art history deep into my own personal experience, and tackle these issues from a much more authentic space and not from a place where I’m recreating a romantic notion of something or someone I’ve never met.

The lens through which I view Banana Stroke (2017), the extraordinary performance piece you did with banana leaves at the Met, makes me think of Rebecca Horn and her painting machines, or her kinetic sculpture called The Kiss of the Rhinoceros. You say you’re bringing it back home, but I find a previous home for what you’re doing in contemporary art. There are differences— your piece has a balletic quality and Horn’s painting machines are mechanomorphic—but when you perform, are you also playing inside a framework that has already been gesturally enacted?

This second Dreamer, 2017, patinated bronze and wood, 8.5 x 14.75 x 16.25 inches, edition of 3.

Of course I’m aware of her work and I love a lot of what she has done. I think that I am able to trick the eye and the mind because the banana leaf is used constantly in very specific moments of protest and political dissent. When something public needs to be said, Kenyans and a lot of Africans would take banana leaves off the trees, which signified “We come in peace, but we also want to be heard.” Then they’re seen as big paintbrushes that are beautiful extensions of my body. Sure, Rebecca Horn is interested in that mechanization of the body, as well as in an exactitude that I associate with a Germanic way of thinking, but she is also dedicated to pulling apart what the female body can represent and also how art functions within a space and in a context and where it comes from. It can be this mechanical apparatus that just moves back and forth—a lot of her pieces do that—but then there are these wonderful dissolves and shifts that happen because these mechanisms that she creates never do perfect things. So, yes, I’m looking at her, but I’m thinking more about Ana Mendieta’s feather applications, her beautiful blood drawings; about Coco Fusco’s performance in a cage, dressed as the last of the Amer-Indians; of Adrian Piper’s dance performances; of David Hammons’s basketball drawings; and Senga Negunfi’s soft sculptures—these and many other performance artists who have worked with ephemeral materials to create objects, drawings and paintings that are not necessarily even visible after the action, that are not preserved as pristine moments of singular genius. There is extremely poignant art all over the world that is done in the earth and on walls and in the caves and on skin, and I’m also reverberating from those kinds of images.

What I find so compelling is the rich way that you conflate meaning. You explain that the figure in Yo Mama (2003) is a tribute to Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, the mother of musician and activist Fela Kuti, but you put her in stiletto heels, which she uses to decapitate the snake, and we’re right back in the world of the Virgin Mary. In Catholic iconography Mary stands on the head of Satan, who is a snake. I have the feeling that all the layers are intentional. Is that making you too conscious as an artist?

I think you’re right. One of the things that make me most nervous is that we’ve decided to take only certain lines of history … let me put it this way. The Virgin Mary is the result of many, many his-stories that came before her emergence, and there are many fertility goddesses and virgin births and deified humans from all the way before the ancient Egyptians. With time they were adapted and changed for the purposes of whatever culture and environment they were in. Water women, Nguva, Yemanja, are part of these female mother goddesses I have studied. Eventually the domineering Catholic religion stopped at this veiled, white-skinned woman whose eyes are looking down upon us all and the only skin revealed is on her hands and face. I’m asking what happened to all the other versions; what was so wrong with them, or frightening about them? What was so powerful about them that we have had to cloak this one or cover or disguise this one so she dominates with her very static, stoic, serene look, or whatever I can call it? For me, she is placed there to represent women, and yet she doesn’t capture the reality of women’s experiences with power. So I’m peeling back and squeezing out all the other versions and I’m not being particularly tidy because colonization is a messy, singularizing story. It says, “I don’t care if you understand it or not, but it is the story that we brought and it’s the story that you’re going to believe and that will take you forward.” Why don’t we bring all these truths together and see if they make any sense?

…to continue reading the interview with Wangechi Mutu, and others such as with Wanda Koop, Alex Janvier, and Tammi Campbell to name a few, order a copy of Issue #151 here, or SUBSCRIBE today!

Volume 38, Number 3: Painting

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #151, published September 2019.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.