The fantastical art of Wangechi Mutu: from plant people to a 31-foot snake
The pair of sculptures look like fantastical beings that are part human, part plant. Gnarled limbs of bronze and soil seem to extend from their bodies into the floor of the Lobby Gallery of The New Museum in New York City.
The two works — "In Two Canoe" (2022) and "For Whom the Bell Tolls" (2019) — are a fitting metaphor for the artist who created them: Wangechi Mutu, known for her habit of branching out into various media and pulling inspiration from her environment.
"She has talked about having multiple roots," says Margot Norton, the museum's Allen and Lola Golding senior curator. Born in Kenya in 1972, Mutu moved to New York in the 1990s and now splits her time between studios in Brooklyn and Nairobi. It's a dichotomy that is explored in the exhibition "Wangechi Mutu: Intertwined," open through June 4 and featuring more than 100 of her works created over a span of 25 years, spread across multiple floors.
The show's title takes its name from a collage that Mutu created in 2003. The image — inspired by a photograph from National Geographic of two dogs fighting over a scrap of meat — places the animal heads on two women's bodies, who pose like a pair of fashion models, highlighting themes that Mutu has addressed repeatedly throughout her career, such as transmutation and sexuality.
"She returns and circles back to things," says curator Vivian Crockett, who curated the show with Norton. "Her interest in hybridity, animal life, biological life, microbial life — it's striking to see the work together."
For example, one room of the exhibit puts Mutu's collage series "Histology of Different Classes of Uterine Tumors" (2006) next to her pottery-like renderings of viruses, which she began in 2016. These round works, textured with spikes and raised grooves, represent mumps, measles, dengue, Zika and other sicknesses. In a conversation with Norton and Crockett printed in the exhibition catalog, Mutu explains that she views them as unifiers: "The history of many cultures is tied to disease. We discuss the entry of Europeans through marking the diseases that either killed them or killed us because they brought them. There's something about diseases that describes our humanity, vulnerability and susceptibility."
A nearby wall is gouged with red tinged markings so it resembles diseased or battered skin. Norton explains that Mutu first created such a wall in 2004 to express her frustration while waiting to become an American citizen. In the exhibition catalog, Mutu adds: "I wanted to find a way to resolve and understand what was happening to me and other people who come to the United States and who cross borders. I felt deep sadness and became obsessed with Rwandan genocide, which I felt had a lot to do with borders and confining or defining people through colonization and eugenics."
Around the same time, Mutu created the video "Amazing Grace," an homage to the power of the ocean, which brought forth life but also destroyed so many through the slave trade and migrant boats. It shows a woman played by Mutu walking into the waves. Norton notes that the beautiful voice on the soundtrack also belongs to Mutu, who sings the Christian hymn in her native language of Kikuyu.
It's by crossing borders that Mutu has found her muses. In an email interview for this article, she wrote, "Making art and traveling are my greatest teachers. Everyone should travel, not just to see new things but to see new things in themselves." She encourages anyone who can to examine their home countries from a different perspective and from a distance.
This practice is evident in Mutu's work, notes Crockett, who points to her video "The End of Carrying All" (2015). The camera follows a woman — again, played by Mutu — balancing a growing array of objects in a woven basket on her head through rocky terrain until she collapses and explodes into the earth. It's a reference to women's labor in Mutu's Kenyan culture, Crockett says, but because the basket is woven from palm fronds, it's also a bridge to other equatorial cultures throughout Africa, India and South America.
No one can possibly miss "Sleeping Serpent" (2014), a 31-foot mixed media figure with a blue ceramic face resting on a pillow that connects to a body wrapped in a scaly fabric. It's surrounded by a variety of mysterious bottles and vials. The large bulge in the middle references the modern problem of overconsumption. Mutu reveals that she made the stuffing from leftover magazines, printing paper and junk mail she had accumulated over the course of a decade. "I often discard or destroy things to make new mental and physical space so I can see the way to move forward and think clearly," she writes.
She gains valuable perspective bouncing between New York and Nairobi, two cities that share several traits. "They're not perfect, pristine places. They're messy, musky and aggregated. There's a charm and character to the kind of chaos they both possess," Mutu writes. "New York has an addictive potency that I'm so inspired by, which comes from the density of creative, entrepreneurial people, the vibrations of multitudes of voices and the cross-contamination of different intelligences."
But since 2016, Mutu has spent more time researching, daydreaming, and creating from her Nairobi studio. "Kenya is a distinctly multi-ethnic and multicultural place, and despite its anglophone trauma, is a very attractive country," writes Mutu, referring to the years when Kenya was a British colony. She is thankful for the work Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai did planting trees to green public spaces. "The city is layered, lush, and encourages a coexistence between humans and the natural world."
Living together in harmony is a theme Mutu plans to highlight with her next projects. She explains she wants to explore new techniques to tell stories "that will hopefully fight and cure our perpetual fear of one another."
To celebrate the closing of "Wangechi Mutu: Intertwined" the first weekend in June, the artist will join exhibition co-curators Vivian Crockett and Margot Norton for a public talk on June 1. More details here: https://www.newmuseum.org/calendar/view/1900/wangechi-mutu-in-conversation
Vicky Hallett is a freelance writer who regularly contributes to NPR.