Blog / The binary sort


by Alice Kim

The art of Wangechi Mutu is indefinable. It is unquantifiable.

After countless attempts to pigeonhole her works, they retain an elusive quality and fall under countless labels all with equal weight. This is precisely the characteristic that makes Mutu’s work so distinctive and noteworthy; every aspect of her work deals with slicing up reality and reconstructing the pieces in her own powerful way.

She takes definitions, examinations and categorizations, rips them apart to choose the pieces she likes the best and physically, psychologically, socially and culturally pushes these pieces together to construct something entirely her own. In a process rife with self-reflection and self-awareness, Mutu gives particular thought to traditional “clear-cut” categories like African/European, white/black, male/female, archaic/modern and religious/pornographic. She seems preoccupied with the binary, but instead of opting for one over the other, he splices together her own mutated view to create a “post-human” chimera.

Take, for example, Mutu’s Family Tree, a series of thirteen individually framed collages of varying sizes arranged on the wall like the genealogy of a female dominated creation myth. Mutu has taken old medical illustrations, clippings from Vogue and National Geographic, pornographic images, and many other sources to create these hybrids of ambiguous gender, race, age and even animal species. In the portrait of one grandchild, for instance, her eyes are gaudily shadowed by butterfly wings and where the rest of her face should be, instead are symbols of fertility and thus womanhood: a sliced papaya, flowers, even a fetus in a womb for her mouth.

One of the progenitors has a bulbous white head and the only facial features are exaggerated eyes and lips, traditional markers of femininity. Two useless arms dangle like hair behind her – telling, perhaps, of hair as another symbol of femininity but this time made by arms, usually symbolic of power and agency, often associated with men, that have lost their capability due to their unfortunate placement as feminine hair – and her own “real” arms are long, spindly and weak, like those of some insect. A hand, regally adorned with large rings, rests patronizingly on her head, like a father or a god, but also like a crown. Her chest is noticeably absent of breasts, clearly a man’s sinewy chest, and curiously, the shape of her legs – or stumps, rather, amputated as they are – seem to mimic the shape of two round breasts. It is just in this way that Mutu plays with notions of male and female, masculine and feminine, and the expectations and stereotypes a dominant society has superimposed on everyone else.

Images: Wangechi Mutu, Family Tree, 2012. Suite of 13, mixed-media collage on paper, 16.25 x 12.25 inches (41.28 x 31.12 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Museum purchase with additional funds provided by Trent Carmichael (T’88, P’17), Blake Byrne (T’57), Marjorie and Michael Levine (T’84, P’16, P’19, P’19), Stefanie and Douglas Kahn (P’11, P’13), and Christen and Derek Wilson (T’86, B’90, P’15). Image courtesy of Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. © Wangechi Mutu. Photo by Robert Wedemeyer.

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