This You Call Civilization? (review)
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reviews Wangechi Mutu This You Call Civilization? Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto February 24 – May 23, 2010 This You Call Civilization? was a midcareer retrospective of sorts for the New York – based artist Wangechi Mutu. Featuring sixteen bodies of work that included two video projections, three installations , and numerous collages, the exhibition marked the first large-­ scale mounting of the artist’s work in Canada and her first solo show in North America . None of the pieces in the exhibition was a new work, and although Mutu ’s 2001 Pin-­ Up series (her first body of work that received critical acclaim) was noticeably absent, the collection provided a cohesive overview of the artist’s oeuvre. Moving through the exhibit , I was struck not only by her deft handling of the collage medium (for which she is most widely known) and the way her clever and often humorous layerings simultaneously disarm and disrupt viewers’ expectations of the familiar , but also by the myriad ways in which her works interrogate the realm of black femininity and the violence that is visited upon the (black) female body, and by the extent to which all of her work engages the problems and transgressive possibilities of positing Africa as a “Third World space.” In Medical Collages (2006) Mutu addresses how disciplines such as anthropology and ethnology have sought to classify and categorize the black African female body under the guise of scientific objectivity. Beginning with found medical drawings of uterine tumors (a condition said to affect 75 percent of black women) and other “feminine” maladies, Mutu digitally reproduces the drawings, then overlays them with fragmented photographic images, such as disembodied eyes, mouths, legs, buttocks, and arms, that replicate the objectification of women’s bodies in both medical illustrations and fashion and pornographic magazines . The slicing and cutting implicit in the act of collaging also reference physical augmentation in the form of plastic surgery, as does the seemingly haphazard arrangement of the figures’ features in the work. Along with alluding to the stereotypes of black subjects as animalistic and subhuman, these images also reveal the disjuncture and self-­ alienation that can result when black women attempt to adhere to Eurocentric definitions of beauty. The 2006 installation The Ark Collection comprised thirty-­ two modified postcards placed in four vitrines. Each postcard is a collage that Mutu created by combining pornographic images of black women with postcards of indigenous sub-­ Saharan African women in “traditional” attire; these images were originally published under the title Women of the African Ark. Purporting to put forth “accurate” depictions of “Africanness,” the images are problematic on numerous counts: they conflate an entire continent to the representation of a few individuals and depict Africans as primitive, ahistorical, and Wangechi Mutu, Medical Collages 1 of 12, Complete Prolapsus of the Uterus, 2005. Glitter, collage, and ink on found medical illustration paper, 45 × 30 cm. Courtesy the artist, Susanne Vielmetter, Los Angeles Projects, and Sikkema Jenkins & Co.© 2010 by Nka Publications Journal of Contemporary African Art• 27• Fall 2010 126 • Nka removed from modernity. Both the pornographic images and the ethnographic postcards objectify black women, and yet another level of objectification gets added by having these images on display in the vitrines. We can see this work as an allusion to Saartje Baartman , the so-­ called Hottentot Venus, a Khoisan woman displayed at fairs and in museums in London and Paris during the 1800s because of her protruding buttocks and apparently enlarged labia. But although Mutu’s collaged postcards combine images such that they occasionally conflate the various universal ways in which African diasporic women are hypersexualized, she more often protects the depicted women from further objectification. By replacing sections of their bodies with images of fabric or another subject’s body, Mutu ultimately thwarts such objectification or consumption by the colonial gaze. With the other works in the exhibition we saw Mutu interrogating the politics of space. The gallery walls were painted white, with a dark color evocative of mold seeping through at the bottoms. Another work, The Wounded Wall, consisted of a light blue latex wall punctured by red markings. Mutu has stated that she first began to employ the trope of a punctured...


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