The last few years have seen the rise and mainstreaming of a culturally significant type of creative. A handful of examples: in literature, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Taiye Selasi, Teju Cole and many others have produced highly publicized and much-discussed complex narratives. In film and television, cross-cultural transplants feature in motion pictures and widely-viewed TV shows - Zimbabwean-American Danai Gurira and British-Nigerian Chiwetel Ejiofor come to mind. In contemporary art, diasporic Africans such as artists Chris Ofili, Julie Mehretu and Yinka Shonibare have found international acclaim. Tate Modern in London recently wrapped a major (and long overdue) exhibit of the modernist art of Sudanese-born Ibrahim El-Salahi and earlier this year, The Brooklyn Museum opened a floor to the awe-inspiring, house-sized pieces by Ghanaian artist El Anatsui in a widely viewed traveling exhibit. Also currently on exhibit at the museum is a survey of the work of Kenyan-American artist, Wangechi Mutu. This is an “Afropolitan” moment.
Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey is a brief (50 pieces) but immersive exploration of the evolution of an artist. Although Mutu is a multi-media artist, she is perhaps best known for her large-scale, wildly colorful collages on Mylar. This thoughtfully presented survey includes presentations in a number of other medium: video, site-specific fabric installations and importantly, selections from the artists’ sketchbooks dating back to 2005, marking the first time these notebooks have ever been on display and giving the viewer brief insight into the artistic process. The exhibition rooms themselves are dimly lit with walls cast in soothing earth tones, a common curatorial choice which in this case effectively highlights the expansive energy of each piece.
A Shady Promise
Le Noble Savage
There is no singular question at the core of Mutu’s work. The collages themselves are complex, multi-layered, explosively-hued pieces in which many themes are addressed simultaneously. This work is the ultimate existential mash-up. Mutu explores the complexities of this world by asking and answering a thousand questions at once.
A piece featured early in the survey is one that fully encapsulates the Mutu aesthetic. The themes with which Mutu grapples in Riding Death in My Sleep are threaded throughout almost all of her work. A maybe woman, alien-like in her appearance, sits astride a globe. Her features are cross-racial, the skin is white. On top of her head is a winged and tailed fantastical elephant and to her side, an eagle head--the enduring symbol of these United States. The creature squats, poised as if to spring right out of the frame. At play are questions about multiculturalism, the sexualization and objectification of the (black) female body, race, hybridity and all that it represents; conflict, isolation and 'otherness'.
Riding Death in My Sleep
At this point, Mutu has spent more time outside of Kenya than years spent there. Yet by the artists’ own admission, the imprint of her home continent is unmistakable. Representations of the art of the Makonde find a home in many of her pieces as do birds in varying form--explained by the artist during a recent public presentation as the Kikuyu symbol of the spirit. Suspended Playtime, a piece that occupies a central space in this curation, is a collection of balls made out of black plastic bound in twine and suspended with gold thread from the ceiling. This piece is intentionally reminiscent of the improvised soccer balls that children in cities and rural towns across Africa create and play with—a commentary on the resourcefulness of the children but also on lives oftentimes lived in comparative deprivation. Similarly, the rough grey fabric that clings to the walls like a fungus in a number of the installations is identifiable to a familiarized eye as the blanket fabric used in some township homes, dormitories and even prisons across southern Africa during cooler months. It’s cheap, plentiful and these days probably made in China.
Mutu's use of specific and intentional imagery and symbols can be fairly easily contextualized and this makes her art essentially, accessible. In Your Story, My Curse one of the central figures’ rear end is partially covered by bananas and banana peels suggesting quite plainly Josephine Baker, arguably the first publically eroticized black female body in western culture who (in)famously performed in a banana skirt as part of her repertoire.
Over the years, Mutu has repeatedly addressed the same themes yet while the themes themselves have essentially remained unchanged, her work is far from stagnant. While earlier pieces such as Yo Mama (2003), an easily digested tribute to Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, mother of Fela, may lack the intensity and complexity of her newer work, standing alone it is tremendous. In this diptych, a wide-legged Eve triumphantly slings a headless snake across her shoulder while her stiletto boot drives down into the earth pinning down the snakes’ head. The newer pieces may have more flash and glory and the earlier work may be sparer and plainer, but it’s almost as though the artist knew she would have many opportunities to make her point. Hers is a talent that has been nurtured and allowed to cook slowly on the backburner, producing a rich, unctuous and sustaining broth.
In stark contrast to the collages is the artists’ work on video. In Eat Cake, a 12-minute loop in which the main character is played by the artist dressed in elaborate gothic garb, Mutu creates something akin to a horror movie. A wild creature, with talons for nails and unkempt hair squats over a cake as though defecating and proceeds to destroy it. Something in this piece feels borrowed, but from what? A 'witch doctor' or medicine man 'bringing the bones' and speaking the language of the spirits he calls forth? It’s terrifying but mesmerizing stuff.
In the specifically commissioned collaborative animated film The End of Eating Everything, boundary-bending musician Santigold portrays a medusa-haired creature with an insatiable appetite. This piece places itself firmly in the emergent so-called genre Afro-futurism--a label that attempts to categorize similarly minded genre-flexible art which might include anyone from musicians Janelle Monae and Sun Ra to filmmaker and fellow Kenyan Wanuri Kahiu whose short film Pumzi created a stir at Sundance a few years ago. In Afrofuturism, the black experience is reexamined often with alternate endings and science fiction often succeeds in grappling with the painful legacies of the racialized past for Africans and those of African descent. Of note, Mutu’s work will be included in an exploration of Afro-futurist art, opening soon at the Studio Museum of Harlem in New York.
While this survey is comprehensive, a more complete viewing of Mutu’s work must include more of the artists’ extraordinary non-collage pieces. Not included are two notable works, Exhuming Gluttony: Another Requiem an installation in which wine bottles drip onto a huge wooden table in a room lined with animal pelts and the Blackthrones series – an assemblage of towering black chairs. Still, based on the vast and extraordinary body of work that Mutu has produced over the last decade, the well from which her inspiration springs, is deep. Undoubtedly, Wangechi Mutu has much more to show us.
All images of Mutu's exhibit ©Chiwoniso Kaitano
Chiwoniso Kaitano is a writer and founder and curator of “TheSALON” a literary reading and culture series in New York.