Considered by many to be one of the most important contemporary African artists of recent years, Wangechi Mutu is a Kenyan-born, New-York based artist known for her elaborate collaged works on pieces of Mylar and sculptures. Her work boldly explores the contradictions of female and cultural identity, race, colonialism, and sexual identity just to name a few. Constructing collages using fragments from fashion and travel magazines, pornography, African art books, images drawn from science fiction as well as hand-drawn and painted elements, Mutu’s work is filled with provocative juxtapositions of the female body. With these collages, she draws the viewer into conversations about the eroticization of women’s body, particularly African women. Mutu observers that, “Females carry the marks, language and nuance of their culture more than the male. Anything that is desired or despised is always placed in the female body.”
Kenyan-born Wangechi Mutu has trained as both a sculptor and anthropologist. Her work explores the contradictions of female and cultural identity and makes reference to colonial history, contemporary African politics and the international fashion industry. Drawing from the aesthetics of traditional crafts, science fiction and funkadelia, Mutu’s works document the contemporary myth making of endangered cultural heritage.
Piecing together magazine imagery with painted surfaces and found materials, Mutu’s elaborate collages mimic amputation, transplant operations and bionic prosthetics. Her figures become satirical mutilations. Their forms are grotesquely marred through perverse modification, echoing the atrocities of war or self-inflicted improvements of plastic surgery. Mutu examines how ideology is very much tied to corporeal form. She cites a European preference to physique that has been inflicted on and adapted by Africans, resulting in both social hierarchy and genocide.
Mutu’s figures are equally repulsive and attractive. From corruption and violence, Mutu creates a glamorous beauty. Her figures are empowered by their survivalist adaptation to atrocity, immunised and ‘improved’ by horror and victimisation. Their exaggerated features are appropriated from lifestyle magazines and constructed from festive materials such as fairy dust and fun fur. Mutu uses materials which refer to African identity and political strife: dazzling black glitter symbolises western desire which simultaneously alludes to the illegal diamond trade and its terrible consequences. Her work embodies a notion of identity crisis, where origin and ownership of cultural signifiers becomes an unsettling and dubious terrain.
Directed by MoCADA family, Terence Nance (“An Oversimplification of Her Beauty”), “the Triptych” is a unique and profound documentary film series profiling some of the most outspoken visual artists of our time: artists whose talent spans the gamut from interdisciplinary to photography and performance. The documentary is itself a work of art, featuring three intimate 25-minute conversations with three bold and culturally resonant voices in art.
Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey is a brief (50 pieces) but immersive exploration of the evolution of an artist. Although Mutu is a multimedia artist, she is perhaps best known for her large-scale, wildly colourful collages on Mylar. This thoughtfully presented survey includes presentations in a number of other media: video, site-specific fabric installations and, importantly, selections from the artist’s sketchbooks dating back to 2005, the first time they have been on display. 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.
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.