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Nairobi-born, New York-based artist WANGECHI MUTU makes fantastic worlds inhabited by mythological creatures and cyborgs. In her contribution to the 2015 Venice Biennale, curated by OKWUI ENWEZOR, Mutu presented three new works across a range of media—a three-channel animated video, a sculptural installation, and a large-scale collage—in a room entirely dedicated to the artist. In the three-screen video THE END OF CARRYING ALL, a barefoot black woman wearing a head wrap and a cotton print dress trudges across a dismal landscape of grasses, the sun in the background casting the lone human figure and foreground in soft silhouette. Flocks of birds migrate low across the sky. The basket balanced on her head grows bigger as she begins to stumble under its weight. Objects including a bicycle wheel, a small house, and a satellite dish crowd the basket, and items continue to multiply and pile on top of each other fantastically of their own accord. The basket woman’s back bends, her body bowed under the

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WANGECHI MUTU. Portrait, 2015. Photo Credit: Cynthia Edorh, Getty Images.

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basket’s multiplying weight as she slowly approaches the edge of the world, burdened by all she carries. At the end of the video, the earth rises up and swallows her. This final act of consumption sends a ripple through the bleak landscape, as if to suggest the possibility of renewal while at the same time stopping short of animating that renewal: the video fades to black once the earth settles, and the faint sound of birds is the last thing we hear. This video plays on conventional Eurocentric representations of racialized and gendered labor in spaces designated as “Third World” while also providing a strong critique of the exploitative logics of uneven capitalist accumulation and economic development. Thus the burden she carries is both the burden of representation and the weight of superfluous material consumption and waste.

In The End of carrying All, what gets accumulated is not wealth but junk. This strategy of material accumulation comes to bear in a very literal way on the sculptural installation at the Biennale, entitled She’s Got the Whole World in Her. The sculpture features a black, apparently mud-covered figure—half woman, half mermaid—peering into an earthen globe suspended before her. As Mutu notes in our interview with her, the figure is covered in pulp made from junk mail. The sculpture is positioned between the video and the collage, entitled Forbidden Fruit Picker. The subject of Forbidden Fruit Picker is also a female figure, perched atop a mound situated between a dark, foreboding tree and a pair of serpents. Instead of mud or pulp, though, the figure’s body is composed of photographic fragments of human, animal, and motorcycle parts cut from magazines. The sacred and profane come together in these works, whose titles reference a Christian song (“He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”) and the iconography of Eve in the garden. As these Biennale works indicate, issues of race, gender, sexuality, pornography, and religion are central to Mutu’s articulations of time, futurity, blackness, and the vicissitudes of the human. In all three, the transmuted female figures are frightening, mysterious, and powerful. The worlds they inhabit are at once marked by disorder, change, and excess—from the accumulation of the dense layers of images in her collage, to the amorphous globs of putrefying matter that grow and devour their surroundings. These Biennale works also exemplify her broader aesthetic concerns with fragmented existence, ongoing legacies of colonial violence, moments of upheaval under late [End Page 338] capitalism, and the affective tension between disgust and regeneration her work evokes. Her work thus captured one aim of the Biennale, titled All the World’s Futures: Enwezor had selected artists that “bring together publics in acts of looking, listening, responding, engaging, speaking in order to make sense of the current upheaval.”1 Mutu’s three works fit this vision by offering fresh insight into the relationship between art, artists, and the pervasive disorder that structures contemporary social life. This disorder is often allegorized in the figures that populate Mutu’s recent art, which features phantasmagoric spaces replete with nguva (the Kiswahili word for sirens and mermaids), serpents, and other otherworldly creatures. Notably, each piece depicts the black female body as the ground from which new conceptions of reproduction, futurity, and humanity spring.

The work presented at the Biennale encapsulates the representational strategies and image scavenging that have become signature markers of Mutu’s work of the past twenty years. Born in Nairobi, Kenya in 1972, Mutu took her International Baccalaureate from the United World College of the Atlantic in Wales before going on to earn her BFA at Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in 1996 and her MFA from Yale University in 2000. She has been hailed as one of the most important contemporary artists in the world, with solo exhibitions at major institutions and group exhibitions that include the 2015 Venice Biennale, the Dak’Art Biennial (2014); the Kochi-Muziris Biennial in Mumbai, India (2012); the Paris Triennial (2012); and the Moscow Biennale (2013). Her work is included in major museum collections throughout the world, and she has received the United States Artist Grant (2014), the Brooklyn Museum Artist of the Year (2013), and the first Deutsche Bank Artist of the Year award (2010).

Mutu’s art has received this attention not only for its stunning visual effects and vertiginous play of realistic and fantastic ontologies but also because it forces consideration of radical, democratic, and decolonial publics as they combust, regenerate, or undergo erasure. Archives of the colony and postcolony as well as avant-garde art practices are raw material for Mutu’s compositions, which provoke us to contend with the remains of history and the possible arcs of our future. In her use of contemporary mass-produced media for collage, including images from National Geographic and pornographic magazines—what she elsewhere has called the fecund “shit” of consumerist society—Mutu bears an [End Page 339] affinity with Romare Bearden, who described his own collage work as a political project and an aesthetic practice in which “distortion of scale and proportion, and abstract coloration” become “the very means through which [one tries] to achieve a more personal expression.”2 Mutu’s works similarly respond to contemporary concerns about the relationship between art and the idea of “the public,” no less than they spur modes of world-making that push at the limits of our very capacity to imagine publics.

We spoke with Mutu at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Greenville, SC, shortly before her plenary address at the ASAP/7 conference on “Arts & the Public,” hosted by Clemson University.3 What follows is a transcript of that conversation, subsequently expanded and edited for clarity, as well as edited excerpts from her plenary address on September 26, 2015, printed on the facing pages.

—Tiffany E. Barber and Angela Naimou
tb and an/

The first question we have is about the launch of “AFRICA’SOUT!,” which you’ve described elsewhere as a dynamic platform for generating and circulating radical ideas that change the way we all engage with Africa. The name of the initiative plays on the idea of “coming out”—of coming out sexually, but also of coming out to play, of coming out to “create radical space,” in the words of the initiative. Could you tell us more about this initiative and the potential for art and artists to generate or challenge new forms of public life?

wm/

The best way that I can talk about it is to rewind to the origins of AFRICA’SOUT! and the founding of it. This thing came out of two things. One was a conversation I was having with a friend of mine who decided to do a public coming out rolled into this other conversation about how we create instances of provocation and radical utterance. How do we do things where you cut through the bullshit and the noise of things that drown out the necessity for change, right? The second happened when Wanja Muguongo, founding executive director of UHAI EASHRI (East African Sexual Health and Rights Initiative), came by my studio through a very casual introduction. Now we’ve become good friends because she’s such an awesome woman, but also we began talking about what they’re doing with UHAI. At the time I didn’t know what UHAI EASHRI was. It’s an East African LGBTI granter, Africa’s first indigenous activist-led fund supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans* and intersex, and sex worker rights in Eastern Africa, and what that means is that unlike most charities and philanthropies I was raised around, this one doesn’t land from outside of the country from Europe or America and come in and help distribute funding, or aid, or food, or whatever expertise. [End Page 340] This is an organization that hires from within the communities it serves.

Figure 5. “AFRICA’SOUT!” logo.
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Figure 5.

“AFRICA’SOUT!” logo.

Courtesy of Wangechi Mutu studio. Website at http://africasout.com/

And when she was talking, it kind of blew my mind, because one of the things I’ve been thinking about for many years, as an artist, is how difficult it is to locate yourself in images and stories when you haven’t been considered part of a relevant, interesting narrative. So as an African woman, as a black woman, one of the things I’ve struggled with and at the same time been frustrated by is the lack of images, stories, nuances that discuss who I am, and who my people are, and who girls like me are. [End Page 341] In addition my work has been about creating those narratives—the heroic, the dismal, the esoteric.

I understand deeply the need for self-definition and self-emancipation. As a young immigrant, I came in with a new vessel ready to be filled because I had to create an identity; I had to create a space for myself in this new country. So what Wanja was saying, which was we serve and build a people that need us because we are them already—we know where the problems are, we know where the push points are, we know where the pain is, everything—was so poignant. We were on the same page but in different sides of the sphere. What she also said to me was that they were running out of ideas, and that’s when I said, well, I don’t have a lack of ideas so let’s see what we can do. How do we create new audiences by making bridges that connect young queer kids of New York to UHAI, an organization that they may have never heard of? I told her how I’d been meaning, and wanting, and hoping to start something that is a very celebratory space for speaking about, for creating, for emphasizing our existence. A space to pick people up and amp up the volume for urgency and necessary change.

AFRICA’SOUT! also started off with the image of the butterfly with Africa-shaped wings, and then it went on to an event, a fundraiser with art and a live concert. Because I feel like one of the things that I tend to enjoy the most is live art and going to museums and looking at people enjoying art. Something happens when I’m looking and I disappear into another space.

UHAI is the only organization of its kind that works the way it does. I always say, money is energy; it’s just about finding and redirecting it to the right hands and the most needed places. Wanja knows because she lives in Kenya, but I had to readjust to how discrete, how subtle UHAI EASHRI has to be not being in a position yet—because the laws are inhumane, Victorian, restrictive, and unfair—not being in a position to be visible in the same way that you can be in New York City. So I said, “I’ll take on that position, I’ll make it a visible platform, I’ll give you the solidarity and the kind of protection that you obviously don’t have right now. It’ll happen one day, things will change, but for now I want you to be able to step out of that shadow and speak out publicly.”

With AFRICA’SOUT! we’re going to actually create an opportunity and space for artists engineering ideas and give people the support to make things happen and connect in a truly unique meaningful way.

tb and an/

So the image of the butterfly comes out of the idea that metamorphosis produces beauty, highlighting the project not [End Page 342] only as an intervention in existing public discourse but also as an effort to generate new ways to think and live as collectivities, to spur the generation of radical publics.

wm/

Yes, it’s about bringing people, the public, into space that is creative and regenerative, that makes them a part of what’s happening to themselves and to those who are in greater need of meaningful change.

And one of the things about social media and the way images and words work is that it’s actually really powerful to record groups of people in a place, and groups of people from the diaspora who have a particular sense of who they are and what it means to congregate. For example, something like Afropunk (www.afropunk.com), which I’m also a big supporter of, they have the capacity to change how people see what is intelligent, hip, dynamic about black kids. Just by the fact that these kids know how to present themselves and with all of the coverage, before you know it, people are going, “wait a minute, these kids, they’re there, they’re powerful,” and yet they’re all over. And, you know, maybe corporations don’t think that they’re worth it or mainstream enough but other people do, and eventually you get to that point where you just keep pushing, beautifully and conscientiously and artistically, and you get incredible results. People also always love something new, something powerful, and something that’s meaningful. That’s the other point, that none of this is novelty, or image for the sake of image, because I think there are tons of people who have billions of likes on their this and that and the other. That’s not what AFRICA’SOUT! is about. It’s about pushing meaning, and opening up these deep, dirty closets that are all over the place—all kinds of different traditions that need to be examined and dealt with, not by blatantly attacking them but by leaving them in the dust and producing something else: by saying, “Let’s purge. There’s something new. It’s a new time.”

And that’s where the name AFRICA’SOUT! came out of, this kind of coming out, this fulfillment, this metamorphosis, this arrival, basically. Coming out for so many things.

an/

AFRICA’SOUT!, then, uncere moniously brushes aside the colonial and neo­colonial constructions of “Africa” to clear space for new engagements with Africa as a continent and as an idea. A core energy in your own art comes from subjecting these visual and textual discourses of Africa to the process of collage—to take up those very inventions or ideas of Africa (to borrow from V. Y. Mudimbe) and invoke them, cut them up, rip them apart, fragment them, and then force them into new joinings with other fragments, all sharing a new place of appearing out of place. In the process, these ideas of Africa serve as raw material for reinventing or constructing complex assemblages of Africa and significations of blackness. Could you say more about the potential you see in the collaboration between political activism and artistic creation?

wm/

Of course, at this point it’s not a secret that the lack of tolerance is not an African [End Page 343] thing. It’s all over. There’s a lack of tolerance in the United States for people who want to live their lives the way they want to, when it’s not in a heteronormative manner. But the anti-gay laws in Africa are new, and the laws that have been pushed through have very specific agendas. This is especially true in Uganda. We have shown the documentary God Loves Uganda for AFRICA’SOUT! because it is a well-researched film of how evangelism was introduced in Uganda in a very homophobic, racist manner, in tandem with the evangelism that was the presidency of George W. Bush. His administration started to push this rule of abstinence, and together with evangelism and all kinds of other things, created this complete explosion of awful things that also led to the criminalization of homosexuals in the middle of the night. Passed in a way where it’s illegal to pass a law in a democratic country without quorum, without proper due process. UHAI has been funding the lawyers who’ve been fighting the law, and it’s been a triumphant battle thus far. But it’s not over.

What I do is take full advantage of the space and agency I’ve created, which is a space that allows me to speak and say what I need to, when I need to, in ways that are either lyrical and poetic or pretty obviously radical and clear and political. I have a true belief that art sits in the place in our minds where it unifies people, and it opens up their capacity to understand things, and gives them maybe momentary but often long-term recognition of one another’s humanity.

an/

Yes, there’s maybe something we don’t want to lose in this idea of art’s capacity to generate democratic or even radically decolonial publics—but it’s not a stable or predictable process.

wm/

I don’t think anything is ever static. I think everything, even the most incredibly radical and evolved ideas, have to be held together by people’s beliefs, which continuously come back to renewable infrastructure and rethinking fundamental beliefs. You can’t just assume we’re always going to enjoy these freedoms. They’re being enjoyed because they’re alive, and the minute people don’t feed them or find them useful they can be obliterated. Because they’re just ideas; they’re something that we all push at and work at to keep massaging society along. I’m not absolutely sure how the LGBTI movement in Africa has survived all this time. But I do know that imaginative activism through art and music and poetic utterance can change the dialogue and create a greater impact.

tb/

I want to go back to some things you just said about utility, the idea of renewal, and these dirty spaces we have to open up. In your two recent video works, these concepts are all in play. In addition, they raise questions about ends and usefulness. They picture this kind of overwhelming burden, something that grows and grows to a point where it putrefies, implodes, or swallows up that which it’s trying to overcome. So I just wanted to hear you talk about that edge between disgust and regeneration. [End Page 344]

wm/

Right. I mean, that’s always my assumption, that there’s something about birth and death, and then as you said, regeneration and decay that are built into each other. There wouldn’t be a cycle if it was just one of them. But I also realize now that in traveling back and forth to Nairobi more often, how evident that is in my city. You know, it’s not a sanitized city. Once in a while you’ll be in a room like this and you’ll kind of forget that you’re in Nairobi. But chances are, the minute you walk out on the street, or you get into a car on the way to somewhere that is bourgeois or posh, if that’s the life you live, you never forget that disease and death and suffering are such a big part of the surroundings. And I say that because it doesn’t take one much to see the two together. You want less people suffering and more people living well and not people living well at the expense of others, or the expense of the environment, or the expense of the future, you know. Because we could also stall all our problems and put them on three generations from now, and say, ok they’ll clean it up. And they won’t be able to clean it up because we won’t be around for much longer at this rate. At least not in a manner that’s sustainable. So the earth will just clean itself of us.

tb/

Yes, it’ll reset itself.

wm/

It’s also that we are these little, emergent kind of unintelligent children of this bigger entity. And it is something I try to reiterate in the work again and again; this unhealthy planet is us being unhealthy. The planet didn’t create this for us; we have made it. And in many ways, you know, the wound on the skin behaves similarly; eventually it bursts open and all that festering stuff comes out, and then it’s back to normal. But, you know, when things go, when the earth decides to clean up, it’s not going to go, oh you’re the good ones, you’re alright, you stay and they go.

tb/

That’s interesting—the imagery of the wound bursting open and then going back to normal. But I think what happens at the end of The End of carrying All video . . .

wm/

I’ll show that today.

tb/

Yes, I’m looking forward to seeing it again. I actually went to the Venice Biennale this summer, and . . .

wm/

Oh, terrific!

tb/

The end of that video, and this idea about the future and upheaval, it’s not . . . I don’t get a sense that there’s a certain kind of corrective. [End Page 345] That’s not what you’re saying about art’s capacity in that video.

Figure 12. WANGECHI MUTU. Forbidden Fruit Picker, 2015. Collage Painting on linoleum 39-½ x 58-⅝ inches. <br/><br/>Courtesy of the Artist, Gladstone Gallery, Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, and Victoria Miro Gallery.
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Figure 12.

WANGECHI MUTU. Forbidden Fruit Picker, 2015. Collage Painting on linoleum 39-½ x 58-⅝ inches.

Courtesy of the Artist, Gladstone Gallery, Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, and Victoria Miro Gallery.

wm/

No.

tb/

But there is a sense of the new normal in this moment where we don’t know what’s going to happen.

an/

Which brings us to a question about futurity, receptivity, and excess.

tb/

Right, a lot of your work contains imagery of excess and this slow accumulation. There’s a durational quality to the work, like dripping bottles of wine or these very beautiful, sensuous moments that are also, when you walk into a space, repulsive. What I think is so compelling about your work is that’s it’s not a prescription. It doesn’t offer any kind of resolution. You’re kind of left sitting with your shit, or in your shit, or eating your shit.

wm/

Exactly. I try looking at how other species understand where we are in our present time in history, and one of the things I’m fascinated by is how animals react to natural catastrophes, for example, and how they know so early on. And I think that we actually have that same sense, but I think we’ve dumbed it down tremendously. [End Page 346]

tb/

Right, because we don’t want to confront this thing that we’ve created.

wm/

Precisely. Having that kind of sensitivity would put you in a position where you’d be kind of a mad person. You’d be constantly wiggling. There’s something going on miles away, and no one else can hear it but you. But anyway, my point is I think that there is actually an in-built sensitivity to what is happening in the earth. But I think it’s not going to be something that anyone can do anything about unless there’s some decision made. And it is this same philosophy that helps me generate ideas for something that’s seemingly different like AFRICA’SOUT! You know, I can think about this in my studio all the time in terms of my work, in terms of the things I read or constantly worry about.

It’s a drop-by-drop shifting of attitudes, sensitivities, and emotive capacities in each and every human being. I try to make art that gets us thinking about these things.

tb/

I think that’s a great place to end, hearing some last thoughts about medium as a choice. So much of your oeuvre is populated by collage, and that’s remained a vital medium for you over time. Can you talk about the arc of your practice? You’re starting to move into animation while also returning to sculpture, the medium in which you were initially trained in your MFA at Yale.

wm/

Right, yes, that’s true. The funny thing is I’m still really dedicated to this idea of dissecting things in order to understand them, sort of pulling them apart either gently, or kind of aggressively or violently. And then reconfiguring them into a new solution. But I harbor a fear of waste and a portion of living-in-America guilt, watching how much stuff I’m surrounded by, we’re all surrounded by, in comparison to where I was raised. I recycle because that’s what we do where I come from, reappropriate. It’s something that comes from deeply rooted traditional cultures, not just post-independence cultures. So right now, I’m continuing this thread with the film and trying to think about something longer. And then my sculptures; they are figurative like the one in my Venice Biennale installation, which was completely covered in a pulp that’s like a mud that actually comes from all my junk mail.

tb and an/

Ahhhhh!

an/

The best use I’ve ever heard!

wm/

Oh my gosh, how much junk mail do you get? So I get these mailings, and then some people send me double catalogs, and I want to say . . .

tb/

Like, please take me off of your call list.

wm/

. . . and then they send me one less, you know. But yes, it’s sort of like this faucet you can’t close. So I said you know what, I’ll just use it. The material is easy to grind down, so I’m using it as clay in a way. [End Page 347]

an/

Yes, that’s really, really great. It’s salvaging as a mode for reusing and reappropriating—a way of speaking back to the politics of consumerism with mail that is, from its very start, called “junk.”

wm/

And salve means to heal.

an/

Exactly! Right. Salve means to heal. It’s where we get our language of salvation, of saving.

wm/

Absolutely.

an/

I love the idea that this repurposing of junk mail into sculptural material transforms the fear of waste into the pleasure of reappropriating by breaking down mass mailings into this pulpy stuff as elemental as clay mud. There isn’t a promise of complete healing or saving but a visual commentary on the generative ends of junk, where the traces of devaluation are not erased by the revaluation of the junked object.

wm/

Yes, exactly.

Figure 13. WANGECHI MUTU. Installation View, Venice Biennale, 2015. All the World’s Futures, curated by Okwui Enwezor. Photo Credit: Piero Codato, Cameraphoto Venice, Italy.
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Figure 13.

WANGECHI MUTU. Installation View, Venice Biennale, 2015. All the World’s Futures, curated by Okwui Enwezor. Photo Credit: Piero Codato, Cameraphoto Venice, Italy.

[End Page 348]

an/

The sculpture becomes this female figure of the consumption that produces the junk mail that becomes the waste that becomes essential, the very stuff of which she is made. And you want all that to stay as part of this gesture that is also hopeful.

wm/

No, it’s in there, for sure.

tb/

Thank you so much, Wangechi. It’s been great talking with you!

  • Excerpts From Wangechi Mutu Plenary

I. NOTES ON FORM AND MATERIAL

Watercolor is a way of working that allows me to relax and sink into a piece of paper—line up my thoughts—because watercolor is hard to control, and watercolor allows me to create this fusion, this blend between the photographic material I use and my drawing, my dreamlike mark.

I started making drawings in school as unfinished ideas: not as assignments, but as a kind of subconscious doodle, a kind of a therapy. One good thing about “spontaneous” drawing is that things come out of you that you would not otherwise say or know, so I love pulling these early pictures out, because this is what I experienced in school. I went to Catholic school, and for all the years that I attended Catholic school, we learned so much about everything and so so much about Catholicism! One of the things that was wonderful about it is that the Catholic church is icon- and image-heavy, full of pictures, statues, saints, and iconographies. So there was always something that occupied my mind; I always had a picture to look at, the Virgin Mary in every single classroom. And, of course, she is the supposed icon for all these women who are nuns in the convent and all the young girls in the school. But the truth is that the Virgin Mary looks nothing like the girls in our school—the African girls and others were from many parts of the world, mostly from Kenya, with black and brown skin—and the Virgin Mary was this lily white perfect Madonna, with the baby blonde Jesus. One thing that I’ve always thought about was how heroic and conventional this figure of the Virgin Mary has always been: she stands still; she moves not; she often doesn’t have arms or legs showing. She stands with a snake underneath her. There is this earth mother that she has always [End Page 350] stood for: the narrative that the Virgin Mary comes out of, these pre-Christian, pagan earth mother goddesses. And almost every culture has an earth mother goddess, so I wanted my own provocative picture of what the creator earth goddess is.

Figures 1. WANGECHI MUTU. Silver Cup, Body Parts Series, 1997. Organic fabrics, silver cup, bells. 7 1/2 x 15 x 9 in. <br/><br/>Courtesy of the Artist.
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Figures 1.

WANGECHI MUTU. Silver Cup, Body Parts Series, 1997. Organic fabrics, silver cup, bells. 7 1/2 x 15 x 9 in.

Courtesy of the Artist.

Figure 2. WANGECHI MUTU. Silver Cup, Body Parts Series, 1997. Organic fabrics, silver cup, bells. 7 1/2 x 15 x 9 in. <br/><br/>Courtesy of the Artist.
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Figure 2.

WANGECHI MUTU. Silver Cup, Body Parts Series, 1997. Organic fabrics, silver cup, bells. 7 1/2 x 15 x 9 in.

Courtesy of the Artist.

I’m interested in disguise, in masks and possession, in female sexual energy and how misused female sexuality can be. That it can be so powerful, that it sometimes undoes all and sometimes does not. As I was returning to New York City from graduate school in 2000, as somebody who’d studied sculpture, I realized I didn’t have all the books I wanted around me or the facilities and materials, so I carried around my sketchbooks and my drawing stuff, [End Page 351] and I drew in cafes, on the train, in bars—anywhere I had a minute and some light. I started to pick up magazines just because, and also for drawing fodder. I drew all these pin-ups, from glamour magazines, some of them pornographic. Besides the fact that I liked to look at them and the women in them—I’ve collected a ton of them—I really wanted to think of what I was drawing next, and I had a lot of body and blood to carve out of me. But of course with drawing them, some things get painful and tedious and are technically difficult, so I chopped off an arm or some fingers, and I say this because I feel like now I have a great explanation as to why I did this: when we don’t want to deal with body parts, we eliminate them. I did this also because I was attuned to the bodies of war survivors: in New York City there were a ton more Africans visible, especially French Africans who spoke Afro-French, and sometimes Wolof and a very broken English, and I was very fascinated by it because I felt I hadn’t seen so many Africans when I arrived here in the early nineties. Of course, later I connected this to the fact that the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone created this influx of refugees and migrants, people who would come to the United States, people who would bypass Europe and come to this country of which they didn’t speak the [End Page 352] language. But these women braided hair well and inexpensively, like in my home, and when I found someone to braid my hair I realized that this new influx was going to change something about the city. We African immigrants are here in a different way, for different reasons. Hanging out with these women, watching my people from these countries being interviewed on TV—some of them with mutilated arms and children with mutilated limbs—made me connect the notion of wealth, war, gold, and the New York diamond industry, with Africanness, and beauty, and glamour, and rich countries and the “refugeeness” of New York.

Figures 3. WANGECHI MUTU. Silver Cup, Body Parts Series, 1997. Organic fabrics, silver cup, bells. 7 1/2 x 15 x 9 in. <br/><br/>Courtesy of the Artist.
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Figures 3.

WANGECHI MUTU. Silver Cup, Body Parts Series, 1997. Organic fabrics, silver cup, bells. 7 1/2 x 15 x 9 in.

Courtesy of the Artist.

Figure 4. WANGECHI MUTU. Silver Cup, Body Parts Series, 1997. Organic fabrics, silver cup, bells. 7 1/2 x 15 x 9 in. <br/><br/>Courtesy of the Artist.
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Figure 4.

WANGECHI MUTU. Silver Cup, Body Parts Series, 1997. Organic fabrics, silver cup, bells. 7 1/2 x 15 x 9 in.

Courtesy of the Artist.

The idea that a singular figure in the picture frame can hold such purpose, can speak for all the things that I have been trying to say, is not new; a lot of people have done this. In some ways my obsession with the female figure, in this particular way, comes from the search for myself in this country, in this space.

I’m constantly obsessed with old photos of African people, of course, because I’m always looking back at us. I’m interested in how the continent was, especially before the Europeans came; but I’m also interested in how we determine the idea of who we are as a people from different parts of the continent. What I find problematic and persistent is this kind of image that still relates to (false) scientific observation, as well as to crime photography, to forensics: this is the same kind of picture used to profile and criminalize the people who are not from the ruling tribe. There is a history of supposedly being able to look at someone’s face and tell what their moral and ethical inclinations are, to tell what they really are all about: in these cases, I wanted to pull out this subversive, charged, unsanctified kind of image, but at the same time also to put the drawing, and thinking, to paper—because I know that as an African, being recognizable is such a different science and such a different game.

Hanna Höch has been mentioned with my work. Originally I found this kind of disturbing because I never quite understood why she makes such simplistic racial correlations between Europeans and Africans, as if there is some kind of opposition, as if there is some kind of grand difference. [End Page 353]
But after researching and looking at what she was up to, and how she came about, I realized she was working in a time of deep upheaval and ethnic hatred, and so those pictures are actually quite radical, and the proposal she’s making is, perhaps, to bond together these racial types.
And so the face is another place I’ve been investigating in my own work: the face as I’ve played with and cut apart—put back together—these different thoughts I have about cutting and loss. Trying to understand race in America, as an adult . . . it’s a really peculiar thing, it’s a very difficult thing, because coming from a majority black nation you don’t think of people only as black, you think of people as varied: where their family was from, as tribal, as different nations, and eventually “we” as African. This massive homogenization of black people was something I had to learn and learn quickly.

Figure 6. WANGECHI MUTU, Mask (Yoruba), 2006. Contact paper and photo collage, 6 1/2 x 4 3/4 in. <br/><br/>Courtesy of the Artist and Sikkema Jenkins &amp; Co.
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Figure 6.

WANGECHI MUTU, Mask (Yoruba), 2006. Contact paper and photo collage, 6 1/2 x 4 3/4 in.

Courtesy of the Artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

There is a movement of Europeans to our continent, to its rich resources; and part of the movement is to remove parts of us out of the continent. A lot of specimens, a lot of useless/guiltless hunting going on, and of course: photography. Photography is one of the things that [End Page 354] I’ve enjoyed pointing at, looking at, working my way through, to understand what was this thing called Kenya, and why they hunted us this way, and where I came from before the big hunt. As much as you saw Europeans taking advantage of their perception of Africa, you also saw Africans both losing and taking control of how they wanted the pictures taken, how they wanted and often couldn’t control how they were portrayed, imaged, and photographed.

I brought together this graphic, photographic image of an African tribal (black) woman, cut it out of its origin, and cut out the parts that I thought were why she had been photographed, and I placed them on this surface of traditional African masks. All of these masks, especially the authentic ones found (now, ironically) in well-respected museums and collections, are actually functional works of ritual, philosophical and existentially intended. They were not to be looked at, or stared at, or still. There is something about their inert static dead nature now, when you see them in a museum, captured and imprisoned in glass cases, that is them refusing their new state of existence. They don’t belong there; “We don’t belong here!” The role they played, like the pictures of these women, is a fiction, and I wanted to combine some of these fictions and see what truths come out of it.

“Sometimes the mask is to hide and sometimes it’s to play at being something you’re not so you can watch the reactions of people who believe the mask is real.”1

Women are great at understanding masks and code switching. Africans . . . and now all black people . . . are incredible at understanding real masquerade; it’s an evolutionary and survival mechanism. I find that many (and especially the likes of Grace Jones) play with this ability to camouflage oneself, to shift and survive within these roles that one has to play. I can imagine a photograph of Grace to be lacking in power and authentic interest for me, but it still has that [End Page 355] real power of an African woman, and I have also been fascinated by the correlation that has been drawn for many years between African bodies and animals. Of course there is folklore and mythological correlation between any humans and animals and this is everywhere; but there is a specific thing that happens with Darwinian theory in the Victorian age and during the colonization of the continent, where the correlation between Africa and the primate becomes constant and rational. This correlation is deep and so problematic and still over-poweringly present.

Figures 7. WANGECHI MUTU. Antlers, Body Parts Series, 1997. Organic fabric and antlers. 18 1/2 x 21 1/2 x 8 in. <br/><br/>Courtesy of the Artist.
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Figures 7.

WANGECHI MUTU. Antlers, Body Parts Series, 1997. Organic fabric and antlers. 18 1/2 x 21 1/2 x 8 in.

Courtesy of the Artist.

Figures 8. WANGECHI MUTU. Antlers, Body Parts Series, 1997. Organic fabric and antlers. 18 1/2 x 21 1/2 x 8 in. <br/><br/>Courtesy of the Artist.
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Figures 8.

WANGECHI MUTU. Antlers, Body Parts Series, 1997. Organic fabric and antlers. 18 1/2 x 21 1/2 x 8 in.

Courtesy of the Artist.

[End Page 356]

Figures 9. WANGECHI MUTU. Antlers, Body Parts Series, 1997. Organic fabric and antlers. 18 1/2 x 21 1/2 x 8 in. <br/><br/>Courtesy of the Artist.
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Figures 9.

WANGECHI MUTU. Antlers, Body Parts Series, 1997. Organic fabric and antlers. 18 1/2 x 21 1/2 x 8 in.

Courtesy of the Artist.

Figures 10. WANGECHI MUTU. Antlers, Body Parts Series, 1997. Organic fabric and antlers. 18 1/2 x 21 1/2 x 8 in. <br/><br/>Courtesy of the Artist.
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Figures 10.

WANGECHI MUTU. Antlers, Body Parts Series, 1997. Organic fabric and antlers. 18 1/2 x 21 1/2 x 8 in.

Courtesy of the Artist.

Figures 11. WANGECHI MUTU. Antlers, Body Parts Series, 1997. Organic fabric and antlers. 18 1/2 x 21 1/2 x 8 in. <br/><br/>Courtesy of the Artist.
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Figures 11.

WANGECHI MUTU. Antlers, Body Parts Series, 1997. Organic fabric and antlers. 18 1/2 x 21 1/2 x 8 in.

Courtesy of the Artist.

So, here are the fat legs; they form a pillow. They are made to be sculptures and as support and comfort—as pillows—and they are soft, and they are fabric stitched together with coarse thread; and these pillows I used are from my friends, my acquaintances, etc. I would ask for them and create a soft form. I’d boil them in the hope to distress them a little, give them some new warmth, the skin’s feel. They’re not this color, quite, but they ended up with stains, and in fact, when you think about it, a pillow, or anything you sleep on [End Page 357] has all of your body, especially fluids, saliva, the tears, sweat, semen, dandruff. In boiling it had an awful smell, but in the end they left beautiful, big marks.

II. ON THE CULTURAL CONTEXT OF CUTTING / BODIES AND WAR

The colonial legacy was sort of implanted in an indirect way. Yes! We fought it, but it was toxic and new and sweetened . . . and cruel. We didn’t question it; we imbibed it, we prayed to it, drank it, without thinking too much about it. And after many years of thinking about “where do I get all these complexes from, and issues from, ideas of beauty and intelligence—ideas about what looks good, of what is real and what is true and a beautiful image”—a lot came back to these pictures I had seen and which I’ve researched. I had to reconfigure a history backwards, to come up with how we come up with these things before we even knew that they were things.

One of the things that happened living in NYC during September 11 is that we were witnesses. Any foreigner could understand how this was a new moment for everyone, in this country (United States) and all over the world. A new crossroads, and a place where these kinds of things will happen more often. I made a series about the spaces that people inhabit. One of them is called, “Show me your city, I’ll show you mines.” The title is a play on mine and minds, as it is about cities but also about actual minds that explode because things aren’t as they should be and never will be . . . and never were.

There is a picture I find interesting because of its juxtaposition between a teacher killed in the Rwandan genocide—horribly, brutally killed in his classroom—and the map behind him that is [End Page 358] obviously the geography of the continent of Africa: here you see the continent cut up into the pieces that Europeans wanted and desired, could afford, and here is the result, the legacy of colonization, lust, and greed. This picture interests me not only because it’s a memory, but also because it’s a way of provoking how distorted this unity is, and so a reminder never to forget. And there is always a relationship between wars and bodies; we wouldn’t fight them otherwise. There is no war that is an isolated incident without the graphic of a body; there is always a relationship with something that has hit flesh, somewhere there. And in that way I’m trying to make the relationship to all these past lives and our lives and bodies, all of us. We are all inadvertently and directly responsible for this history in some way, body, shape, and form.

I was gifted a beautiful set of prints: Victorian prints that were old, with some falling apart, and wonderful because of course there is a combination of great joy in the illustration of the dissected body and medical administration, especially those that were drawn and operated by hand. Also, the female body opened up is eternally fascinating. Here are these female reproductive organs, as well as their problems and diseases, which I turned into masks and faces, something we have to look straight at, and deal with face-front. I made a set of works and prints out of them. All of them different types of unhealthiness, examination-forensic forms shining black, skins, size of lips, portions of a nose, all these questions that go back to a fictional set of ideas, now fully realized, through race; and then this amazing correlation between tribal Africa, European identity and fiction, futurism. Something about the past reminds us of what the future might look like. So these pictures of heads and faces are really about trying to locate myself within this imposed idea of being alien, from another place, coming out of this desire to find myself and find ways to describe me, a foreign national, a female from upcountry but transplanted. [End Page 359]

Figure 14. WANGECHI MUTU, One Hundred Lavish Months of Bushwack, 2004. Cut-and-paste printed paper with watercolor, synthetic polymer paint, and pressure-sensitive stickers on Mylar, 68 ½ x 42 in. <br/><br/>Courtesy of the Artist. Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, NYC
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Figure 14.

WANGECHI MUTU, One Hundred Lavish Months of Bushwack, 2004. Cut-and-paste printed paper with watercolor, synthetic polymer paint, and pressure-sensitive stickers on Mylar, 68 ½ x 42 in.

Courtesy of the Artist. Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, NYC

[End Page 360]

III. ART AS PUBLIC PROTEST / ART AS RESPONSE TO CHAOS

One Hundred Lavish Months of Bushwhack is a collage and painting that uses all this material, these animal qualities, the mares, female protagonist, this dancing pose, moving body, it’s what I’ve been researching: how do you take the body in action and make it powerful—make it speak for those it doesn’t speak for?

For Romare Bearden, “The thing is that the artist confronts chaos. The whole thing of art is, how do you organize chaos?” I love his work. It’s part of art to think we can organize chaos, and in one of my sketchbooks, in which I try to work through the horrific images I think/ dream of, I don’t erase, I don’t change what I put down, for collage is simply the rearrangement of mutilated parts of the original.2

Figure 15. WANGECHI MUTU. Shoe Shoe, 2010. Digital Betacam, 3 minutes, 3 seconds. Edition of 6. <br/><br/>Courtesy of the Artist, Gladstone Gallery and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects.
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Figure 15.

WANGECHI MUTU. Shoe Shoe, 2010. Digital Betacam, 3 minutes, 3 seconds. Edition of 6.

Courtesy of the Artist, Gladstone Gallery and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects.

I did a performance piece, “Shoe Shoe,” in homage to the action of protest, and especially to that one journalist3 who took his shoes off and threw them at the then-president in 2007 [End Page 361] in response to the lives and deaths of Iraqis. What amazed me and inspired me about that moment—and also its similarity to the bodies of women in Nairobi, Kenya, who waited in defiance in front of the building before they disrobed—that we often think that we don’t have any power, any voice, any weapon, but in fact we do. There’s a way to speak up even when you feel thoroughly disempowered. I did a series on the kind of body that is not seen as particularly beautiful; it’s the kind of body that I missed when I came to the west, where it’s not seen as particularly beautiful, or interesting, or receptive—the kind of body of the woman who raised children. In this case these were mothers who were protesting. A lot of people were imprisoned without trial, being tortured, a lot of people “disappeared” and such, and so these women, family, and men are sitting outside of this building in the middle of the city, for days in fact. Professor Wangari Maathai, the winner of the Nobel prize, was one of these women, organizing this movement. I was there during this time as a teenager, and to watch something that I had never seen allowed or possible before did make me understand that protest comes in these very singular and creative ways. There is something about successful protest that is not contrived, you know, and is performative, and often when the body is utilized in a very specific way, the protest is that much more powerful because it changes the people’s imagination all over the world.

Notes

1. Jay-Z, Decoded. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2011. p55.

2. Myron Schwartzman, Romare Bearden: His Life and Art (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1950), 197.

3. The journalist was Muntazer al-Zaidi. [End Page 363]

Tiffany E. Barber

tiffany e. barber is a scholar, curator, and writer of twentieth and twenty-first century visual art and performance with a focus on artists of the black diaspora living and working in the United States. She is pursuing a PhD in Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester and is a 2016–18 Predoctoral Fellow at the University of Virginia’s Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies. Her writings on art, performance, and visual culture have appeared in Dance Research Journal, Afterimage, CAA reviews, Beautiful/Decay, Art Focus Oklahoma, and various online publications, exhibition catalogs, and anthologies, the most recent of which is Prospect.3: Notes for Now and Afrofuturism 2.0: The Rise of Astroblackness.

Angela Naimou

angela naimou is Associate Professor of English at Clemson University. She is the author of Salvage Work: U.S. and Caribbean Literatures amid the Debris of Legal Personhood (2015), winner of the 2016 ASAP Book Prize, and coeditor of “The Banalization of War,” a special issue of the journal College Literature (Winter 2016). She served on the organizing committee for ASAP/7 in Greenville, SC. She is an associate editor of College Literature and is on the editorial board for the journal Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development.

Wangechi Mutu

wangechi mutu has been hailed as one of the most important contemporary artists in the world. She has had solo exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia in Sydney (2013); Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in Durham, NC (2013); Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (2012); Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden, Germany (2012); Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin (2010); Art Gallery of Ontario (2010); Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego (2009); and Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna (2008). In addition to the 2015 Venice Biennale, she has participated in numerous group exhibitions, including the Dak’Art Biennial (2014); the Kochi-Muziris Biennial in Mumbai, India (2012); the Paris Triennial (2012); and the Moscow Bienniale (2013). Her work is included in such collections as the Art Gallery of Ontario; the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, NY; the Miami Art Museum; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, IL; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, CA; Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; the Nasher Museum; the Saatchi Gallery, London, UK; the San Francisco Museum of Contemporary Art; the Studio Museum in Harlem; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY.

Notes

1. Okwui Enwezor, “All the World’s Futures,” Introduction to the 56th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia (2015), http://www.labiennale.org/en/art/archive/56th-exhibition/enwezor/.

2. In an interview with Robert Enright, “Resonant Surgeries: The Collaged World of Wangechi Mutu,” Bordercrossings 105 (2008), Wangechi Mutu describes her use of print media as material for her collage: “You can tell what American mainstream culture is thinking by looking at a newsstand. For the most part, there’s a lot of misogynistic material, and a few things that have to do with sports and cars. If you want to know what an animal’s system is about, you look at its shit, like elephant dung. If you want to know where the animal has been and whether it’s healthy, you sift through its stool. That’s a little bit what it’s like when I look at media; it’s quickly processed, it’s not the most high-end knowledge but it definitely gives you a cross-section of what is going on.” (http://bordercrossingsmag.com/article/resonant-surgeries-the-collaged-world-of-wangechi-mutu). For Bearden’s discussion of distortion, see Myron Schwartzman, Romare Bearden: His Life and Art (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1950), 212–16.

3. ASAP/7: “Arts and the Public,” September 24–27, 2015, hosted by Clemson University in conjunction with the Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present, at the Hyatt Regency in Greenville, SC, http://www.clemson.edu/asap7/. [End Page 349]

Additional Information

ISSN
2381-4721
Print ISSN
2381-4705
Pages
337-363
Launched on MUSE
2016-09-27
Open Access
No
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