Brilliant Ideas Episode #21: Wangechi Mutu
An Artist Who Presents Africa
Desire and contempt behind the splendor
Wangechi Mutu, an artist from Nairobi, Kenya, says that, to her, making something is devising something new that is opposite to destruction. Through various artworks such as vivid-colored collages, films, and installations, Mutu casts a question and answers about countless issues in Africa. Mistaken views on women, more specifically, African women is a subject that the artist mostly focuses on. She thinks that there is no other thing subjected to both desire and contempt than a female body.
It might be the reason that her works are visually glamorous and beautiful, while giving a little sad feeling. The 21th episode of Brilliant Ideas presented by Bloomberg and Hyundai Motor features Wangechi Mutu, who hopes that people who see her works can escape from a mundane life for a moment to think about what it means to live as a human being.
Eyes of Society on Women
Most distinctive pieces by Wangechi Mutu would be collages of women, created by overlapping vivid colors and various images. The earlier works are based on the artist’s experience as a female student in Nairobi, and violation that had been prevalent in the context of the colonial culture in Africa. The collage method that represents her artworks started from that time, inspired by Dadaism and pop artists.
Mutu usually cuts out images from fashion, medical, or adult magazines, combines them into a collage, and applies ink or watercolors on the collage. Organic shapes of a female body and distorted faces seen from her works have a unique color and atmosphere that cannot be created by digital works, attracting viewers’ eyes. Completed through this process, the artworks of the artist demonstrate wrong views on women, while also criticizing esthetics, ethnicity, and eroticism presented in contemporary publications. Having lived in various cultural areas, Mutu has seen that Western countries such as the U.K. or U.S. as well as Africa regard women as a mere object of sexual desire. She was displeased about violence employed on women just because women are physically weak, and started to create works about this.
One of her early works, <Riding Death in My Sleep>(2002), shows a woman who seems more like an alien than a human sitting on a globe-shaped floor. The color of her skin is white; her lips are thick as in African women; an animal, a combination of an elephant and an eagle, flies over her head. The artwork is a collage that features multiple races, created by Mutu around when she had spent more time in foreign countries than in Kenya, her home. Through the work, she expressed the American multi-racial culture and conflicts within the culture that she had seen and felt. The woman in the artwork seems as it could pop out from the canvas, standing for multiculturalism, racial discrimination, and sexual objectification on African women. Mutu expressed the anxiety and irrationality she experienced in the U.S. as a dark-skinned woman in a form of an eccentric image of a woman who could not settle in one place, always ready to leave.
Some works of the artist are influenced by women in the real world, to reveal hardships that singers or actresses in Western countries have had only because they have dark skin, being constrained by racial and sexual discrimination.
From Nairobi to New York: Advancing Afrofuturism
Growing up in Kenya, Wangechi Mutu had firsthand experienced the colonial era and the remains thereof in Africa. Even after being educated in Wales, U.K., and moving to New York to become an artist, Africa, the root of the artist, has always been inside her heart. For that reason, most of her works studies situations of today and in the past colonial era of Africa, and, in particular, perception on African women in the present and past societies. Through the views of the world on women felt by the artist, she proposes a new way of looking at wider range of subjects, such as poverty or change of perceptions and the consumer culture.
Works of Mutu are also widely known for representing Afrofuturism, a cultural esthetics that covers the history of Africa and America, science, cosmology, fantasies, etc. <The End of Eating Everything>(2013) is a representative work of the artist that firmly put her works in the category of Afrofuturism. An animation running for eight minutes, this work shows an African woman with the head of Medusa running about in the complex and contaminated place to fill bottomless hunger, eventually ending up destroying herself. Created by collaborating with Santigold who is an American singer and producer, the work shows the current situation in Africa, where people endlessly covet materials. The background sounds of nature and industrial gadgets mixed with each other and the elaborate but sad image of the woman deliver a strong yet melancholy scene. Critics say that Mutu expressed Africa in her imagination by using a science fiction, which made this work one of the representative Afrofuturism works.
<Suspended Playtime>(2008) is another Afrofuturism work of the artist. The work is an installation which features multiple head-sized balls made by wrapping animal pelts with garbage bags: Dozens of balls hung from the ceiling by gold-colored strings remind the viewers of soccer balls that children in the suburbs of Africa play with. Mutu made this artwork to concentrate on many problems such as material deficiency, conflicts, and diseases in Africa existing behind a scene of children playing. Giving a repulsing feeling even at a glance, the work seriously discusses about the weight of social problems, showing the character of the artist’s works, in which many stories and meanings are included.
At an interview, Mutu said that she uses esthetics of resistance, poverty, and repulsion to express hope, or concepts further than hope. Her works are glamorous; they are also a little uncomfortable to look at for a while. Even so, people cannot take their eyes from Mutu’s works; it would be because the images she creates have a meaning further than what is being seen. ■with ARTINPOST
<Alien, Classic Profile Series> 2003
Collage and watercolor on mylar 55.9×43.2cm Courtesy the Artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects ⓒ Wangechi Mutu
<Alien, Classic Profile Series> 2003
Ink and collage on mylar 55.9×45.7cm Courtesy the Artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects ⓒ Wangechi Mutu
<Alien, Classic Profile Series> 2003
Ink and collage on mylar 30.5×22.9cm Courtesy the Artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects ⓒ Wangechi Mutu
<Figures Series!> 2003
Mixed media on mylar 106.7×78.7cm Courtesy the Artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects ⓒ Wangechi Mutu
<Wangechi Mutu│Nguva na Nyokia>(2015.10.14-12.19, Victoria Miro)
Installation view Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro, London ⓒ Wangechi Mutu
<The last Grower> 2015
Two panel collage on linoleum 66.7×75.6cm Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro, London ⓒ Wangechi Mutu
<Green dream> 2015
Collage on linoleum 73.7×58.4cm Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro, London ⓒ Wangechi Mutu
<Forbidden Fruit picker> 2015
Collage painting 100.3×148.9cm Courtesy the Artist, Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York; Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects and Victoria Miro, London ⓒ Wangechi Mutu
<The End of carrying All> 2015
Video still 3 screen animated video(color, sound) 10minutes 45seconds loop Edition of 3 Courtesy the Artist, Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York; Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects and Victoria Miro, London ⓒ Wangechi Mutu
Installation view of <All the Worlds Futures> at '56th Biennale di Venezia'(2015.5.9-11.22)
Courtesy the Artist, Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York; Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects and Victoria Miro, London ⓒ Wangechi Mutu. Photography: Roberto Marossi
<The End of eating Everything> 2013
Animated video(color, sound) 8minute loop Edition of 6 Courtesy the Artist, Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York and Victoria Miro, London ⓒ Wangechi Mutu
<Spider, Figures Series!> 2003
Ink, acrylic and collage on mylar 81.3×106.7cm Courtesy the Artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects ⓒ Wangechi Mutu
Born in Nairobi, Kenya in 1972, Wangechi Mutu is an artist who handles a wide range of subjects such as culture, colonial histories and the political situation in Africa. Especially, she expresses interest in issues regarding women. Mutu builds her unique style expressing such series of subjects by putting acrylic, watercolor, and ink drawings over a collage of images from different magazine. This is her interpretation of the inspiration she had from a Victorian medical diagram, which is the prototype of anthropology affected by bias against women, containing sexual repression. The works demonstrate her views on the form of women and in a way mentions the women of African descent represented in the media and violence generally committed against women. Mutu is now creating artworks in New York, emerging as one of notable artists after her exhibitions at the Victoria Miro Gallery in London, Barbara Gladstone Gallery in New York, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia in Sydney, and the Brooklyn Museum in New York.