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  • Between Disgust And Regeneration:
  • Tiffany E. Barber (bio), Angela Naimou (bio), and Wangechi Mutu (bio)

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...