"We categorize what we’re afraid of"
An encounter with Wangechi Mutu
In the spring of 2010, the Deutsche Guggenheim will introduce Wangechi Mutu in a one-person exhibition. Her hyper-aesthetic collages oscillate between beauty and horror; they quickly made the Kenyan-born artist one of the most interesting figures on the young American scene. Her show at the Deutsche Guggenheim, conceived by Deutsche Bank, is Mutu's first institutional solo presentation in Germany. Matthew Evans met the artist in New York for an interview.
||Upon entering Wangechi Mutu’s studio, one immediately feels that overwhelming sensation of opening a box with an impossible jigsaw puzzle. Cutouts from magazines, mostly of female body parts, litter the space like trading tickets on a stock exchange floor. Animal hides hang from the wall less than sportingly and an Affalo horn dangles from a hook, its sheen somehow rendered worn-out by the unrolled sheets of iridescent Mylar stretching along the tables and floors. It’s a veritable mess of images, objects, and materials. But then, one of Mutu’s near-finished works literally glares out from the wall where it is hung, and a consummation, although equally puzzling, occurs: a one-legged, contorted cyborg-woman, with arms for a nose and motorcycles for limbs, rivets out from a plastic “canvas.”
Kenyan-born, New York-based artist Wangechi Mutu (b. 1972) has been creating these figures, often on Mylar—a polyester film developed in the 1950s for the chemical industry—since she began her studies in the mid-1990s at Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York. They usually embody a female likeness, although their figuration remains otherworldly. "I always look at how women are represented [in the media]," Mutu tells me on a brisk October morning at her Bedford-Stuyvesant studio. "I look at how we are composed and where we sit and what we wear. I think it reflects not only how people feel about women, but [also] how society feels about itself … I’m obsessed with it." In the 2008 work titled This You Call Civilization?, for example, a self-cannibalizing Medusa apparition emerges from both a pair of flesh-pink legs and a botany-green plant stem with wheels for roots. At first harrowing and mysterious, the composition’s forms become familiar upon closer inspection. The sexed-up gesture of a woman midway through crossing her legs, heels and all, combined with another in a prostrated Salah prayer position reveals that venerable, yet endlessly effective psychoanalytic truth that our ideas of both seduction and fear are so intimately intertwined.
Mutu sources her work from a variety of media, including conventional fashion and lifestyle glossies, pornography, and automobile and motorcycle magazines, all of which, she calmly asserts, utilize similar aesthetic gimmicks to attract readers. "I used to do a lot of collage to prepare for my work [at Cooper Union], and a lot of the work would then turn out to be assemblage, or artifact things," Mutu explains. Not only fascinated by the contemporary media landscape, the artist also addresses historical events, mostly of unjust proportion. In 2001, after graduating from Yale with an M.F.A. in sculpture, she created a series of works on paper titled Pin-Up, a collection of twelve images of seemingly beautiful women in the form of "calendar girls" that, when looked in detail, actually reveal mutations and inflicted malformations. The series was provoked by the diamond trafficking in Sierra Leone, whose violent disputes resulted in countless disfigurements among civilians. In Mutu’s 2007 show The Cinderella Curse at ACA Gallery of SCAD, Atlanta, she directed attention to the genocide in Rwanda. A massive pile of clothes was laid on platforms that resembled those upon which murdered bodies were placed in the 1994 massacre. "Here, the bodies have ascended," Mutu remarks, implying that the viewer’s imagination will have to do the work in this show—perhaps some topics cannot be justly illustrated, even by Mutu’s uncanny visual vocabulary.
The plain truth that using collage to convey the contradictions, rifts, and inequalities of contemporary culture is unoriginal shouldn’t pigeonhole Mutu’s work; there’s more to it than Hannah Höch-referencing feminist readings, or Romare Bearden-referencing racial interpretations. Mutu further states: "People simplify my work and always see these figures as black women, when it could very well be a purple insect … So people confuse me for my work." It doesn’t help, either, that Mutu is a victim of the curatorial syndrome of brutal curtailment: recent group shows she’s participated in include Rebels, Art & Feminism 1969-2009 at the Museum voor Moderne Kunst, Arnhem, Netherlands, Black Womanhood that explored Images, Icons, and Ideologies of the African Body in 2009 at the San Diego Museum of Art, and of course the ubiquitously censured Global Feminisms exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. Although Mutu’s work is often explicitly about these human categories—women, blackness, Africa—she is always subverting them. Take, for example, her curiosity about science fiction and aliens. Mutu’s figures, although often portrayed in cliché positions of subordination, are invested with high-tech prosthetics that accord them more power than humanly possible. In the 2005 work titled I Put a Spell on You, the woman-creature seems to fly with her tail, and her legs—half bird-like, half cheetah—propel her forward faster than the rest of her body feels used to. "I use those machines," Mutu explains, "and place them back into my work, and give them surgery and extra strength." But even this future-thinking, almost utopian quality of technology is undermined in Mutu’s work. "What is utopia? What is idyllic?" she retorts. "It’s the same idea that we eroticize or create the same things we destroy." Perhaps Mutu’s Catholic upbringing is coming out here, about which she once commented in an interview with the American cultural journalist Robert Enright: "… the suffering, the passion and the drama that Catholic imagery is known for. I love it … in a way it’s this monster—lush, overabundant with imagery—and its dramatizations extend the body to the limit."
Mutu is without a doubt compelled by limits. "These are things one can work against, things one has to understand in order to develop further," she explains. One could regard her indefinable figures—and even, perhaps, her entire body of work—as a counter-reaction to our impulse to allocate even the things we do not understand into definite categories to make them easier to control. "Those are the kinds of things we have to work against, understand, and evolve through," she explains in response to the impulse to peg that which we don’t understand. Even Mutu’s unmitigated use of botany and zoology, which could be likened to the taxonomic illustrations of German biologist, naturalist, and artist Ernst Haeckel, are in fact intended to question our understanding of science. "I like to lean on the sciences," Mutu elaborates, "because it’s an instinct to categorize what we’re afraid of." In the 2007 work La Petite Mort, Mutu applies images of sea anemone, an octopus, grapes, and a chameleon, among others, to a kind of macabre and enigmatic post-coitus scenario. The skull that whisks turbulently in the upper part of the Mylar canvas seems to be winking at Darwin. Mutu, daughter to a businessman and a midwife, developed an interest in natural phenomena already in her youth, which she spent in the Kenyan capital Nairobi. "I’ve always gravitated to National Geographic," she muses, "because it’s something I grew up with, and it used to have this language of authority in it that seemed to purport to understand nature … I often use plant life from catalogues that try to represent the jungle, the unknown place, the "dark continent." Because what is that place? … It’s mystery, danger, doom, and I love messing around with what that is." In this way, Mutu’s use of nature is closer to the Italian Mannerist Giuseppe Arcimboldo, whose surreal portraits composed entirely of fruits, flowers, and fish, among other things, were never what they appeared to be. Just as much as Arcimboldo was a forerunning, sixteenth-century chapter in Surrealism, Mutu seems to be adding a twenty-first-century afterward to the erstwhile movement.
In recent years, Mutu has been moving from works on paper and Mylar to installations. In 2006, she collaborated with British architect David Adjaye to transform the elegant Upper East Side Salon 94 townhouse in New York into a subterraneous dinner party-setting titled Exhuming Gluttony: A Lover’s Requiem. Furs plastered one wall, bullet holes shone from another, and wine bottles dangled in a reckless chandelier-like form above the stained table, whose numerous legs resembled those of graceful ungulates: thick femurs with visibly delicate tibias. Apparently, the whole space had a pungent aroma, which reflects Mutu’s interest in making multi-sensory, near-synaesthetic work—again, a charge against the misspeak of representation. "I’m fascinated more with objects than I am with imagery," Mutu tells me. "There’s something about object-ness that excludes representation, that has a whole different resonance. Now, for me as an artist, the problem with that is, if the viewer doesn’t know what that object is or where it comes from, there’s no way to push it into a direction that’s recognizable for a lot of people." So how do you teach with objects? "It’s very difficult," she acknowledges, adding, "but it’s difficult with language and image as well. It’s all wonderful chaos."