As I walked into the Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey exhibition, the sounds of nature filled the air. Birds were chirping, waves crashed and a distant wind’s breeze permeated the room. My mind automatically thought of nature. I can just detect Amazing Grace in the background, a church song that I grew up on as a child. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,” I hummed as I walked through the gallery. I noticed it was being sung in a language that I never heard before. Mutu was signing in her native language, Kikuyu. I knew little to nothing about this exhibition, so I did not have any expectations. Before I looked at any of the art work, I figured I should read the bio about the artist. I learned the artist was an African woman born in 1972, Nairobi, Kenya, and then moved to Brooklyn, New York. She has been credited as the most inventive and sophisticated artist of her time.
After reading this I knew I was in for a treat.
The exhibition was very interesting, yet was a little spooky to me, especially the animated video of Mutu’s collages — The end of Eating Everything. As the video starts it seems peaceful and serene; there is a blue sky with bright white clouds, but after not too long the clouds turn black and floating heads of a black alien-looking lady begin to float across the screen. The lady then begins to scream and blood starts gushing from her huge, mystical body. I can say I was kind of freaked out because I was looking at the video in a non-metaphorical way. Metaphorically the video demonstrated the hurt and pain African women went through. They went through so much violence and war; she illustrated this brilliantly in her video. After all the chaos in the video the clouds became clear and there was a blue sky again. I thought this indicated peace and the storm finally being over. It made me think of a quote I have heard frequently “after the storm; the sun will shine.”
As I walked through the gallery I saw pictures that were dark and evil, which is a common, and unfortunate, perception of Africa. Mutu used many colors and combined readymade materials and magazine cutouts in her work. Her work created a mystical world and had mature images and themes. Through her work she showed the relationship between women and nature, which was very interesting. She emphasized the “eroticization” of women with the big buttocks and being nude. This reminded me so much of a discussion I had when I first started my Mass Communication classes. Black women were portrayed to have a big butt, full lips, and dark skin. There have been so many misconceptions of black women and she depicted this in her art.
All her works of art had similar themes, too numerous to exhaustively catalogue, but two that caught my eye was the use of red blotches in the background, which can be seen as wounds, and mushrooms that were capped with cut-outs of buttocks. All the women born of Mutu’s collage materials wore heels, some were clothed with animal print and some were nude, which symbolizes them being one with nature. My favorite picture was Riding Death in My Sleep, this picture depicted racial identity. The female figure was made of many different ethnicities. Her skin was white, eyes Asian, lips full (possibly symbolizing black). Her hair was removed entirely so one couldn’t tell what her ethnicity was. All of these elements create a feminine chimera. I have never seen any art like Wangechi’s; not only is she creative but she draws strongly from her culture and the African diaspora. Through her works of art she created a mythology of female-led world. A Fantastic Journey made me look at art in a different way.
Image: Wangechi Mutu, Riding Death in My Sleep, 2002. Ink and collage on paper, 60 x 44 inches (152.4 x 111.76 cm). Collection of Peter Norton, New York. © Wangechi Mutu.