Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey at Mary and Leigh Block Museum

This year has been unusually promising for the visibility of work by black female artists, even while that prominence has further highlighted racially problematic attitudes within the art world. The last ten months have marked the first in which an African American woman—Carrie Mae Weems—was given a retrospective at the Guggenheim, though her triumphant entry into that pantheon led to rebukes that the museum cut the original size of the show in half. Perhaps the most talked-about work of the year was Kara Walker’s giant sugar sphinx mammy, A Subtlety, which was widely praised, but also led to questions about the representation of stereotypes and the spectacle of black and brown bodies for a primarily white audience.

Wangechi Mutu. Your Story My Curse, 2006; Mixed-media collage on Mylar, overall: 101.5 x 109 inches. Collection of Susan Hancock, New York.

Wangechi Mutu. Your Story My Curse, 2006; mixed-media collage on Mylar; overall: 101.5 x 109 in. Collection of Susan Hancock, New York.

At the Mary and Leigh Block Museum at Northwestern University, the year ends with a major exhibition by Kenyan-born artist Wangechi Mutu titled Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey. With works spanning the last twenty years of Mutu’s career, the mini-retrospective includes her iconic collages that feature sexualized composite creatures in fantasy landscapes, as well as several early line drawings with collage elements. The drawings are seeds that exploded into tour-de-force images on Mylar; they demonstrate that the artist’s formal concerns and subject matter—exploring themes of identity, gender, racism, caricature, fable, exploitation, colonialism, and ethnographic history—were established early in her career.

Mutu’s collages have strong graphic features that come through in reproduction, yet they still can’t match the experience of seeing them in person. The textures and qualities of her materials reward close viewing; bits of glitter, collections of beads, and rough textures are all part of the lusciousness of the visual experience. And because the collages are packed with surface details, more information reveals itself to the patient viewer.

Hummingbird (2010) exemplifies her imagery. The collage features a female figure in a foggy thicket, contemplating the partial form of at least one other body, as well as a pink flower, out of which Medusa-like tendrils and a giant hybrid serpent/bird/cicada monster emerges. She appears passive in her looking even as the voluptuousness of her body—constructed out of animal prints, paint, glitter, and other nude bodies—draws the viewer’s focus. The bright pink flower spews forth life and death, supported by a knobby stock that transforms into the belly, hips, thighs, and soil-caked undercarriage of a dismembered figure. In this glitter-and-dirt clod lies the attitude of dualism between attraction and repulsion that is always part of the artist’s craft.

Wangechi Mutu. Hummingbird, 2010; Mixed media, ink, paint, glitter, fake pearls, and collage on Mylar; 94 x 70 inches. Bert Kreuk Collection, The Netherlands.

Wangechi Mutu. Hummingbird, 2010; mixed media, ink, paint, glitter, fake pearls, and collage on Mylar; 94 x 70 in. Bert Kreuk Collection, the Netherlands.

The figures in Hummingbird exist in a mysterious landscape like actors on a stage; only the bare essentials of place are suggested. This background as gesture is one device that Mutu often repeats in works such as Riding Death in My Sleep (2002) and Your Story My Curse (2006), lending the images a storybook feel–more a fantasy space than a tangible environment. The fantastical nature of the lush setting also conjures thoughts of that racially charged no-place, the jungle, which postcolonial critics like Chinua Achebe have identified as the primordial hellscape of the 19th-century European literary imagination.

Mutu takes dead aim at the legacy of representing the jungle as nightmare in Fallen Heads (2010). Here, severed heads dance around the picture, strung together by wispy blades of grass that also might be tentacles. Fleshy pinks and purples bruise the brown and yellow heads. Eyes and mouths are large and confrontational, cut from photographs that suggest violence in every expression. Histories of lynching and genocide–the true flowers of incivility in the forest–haunt the picture.

Wangechi Mutu. Suspended Playtime, 2008/2013; Packing blankets, twine, garbage bags, and gold string; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects.

Wangechi Mutu. Suspended Playtime, 2008/2013; packing blankets, twine, garbage bags, and gold string; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects.

Suspended Play Time (2008/2013) similarly suggests a gruesome collection of severed heads. In what might be the most effective piece in the show, dozens of head-sized spheres constructed out of garbage bags and twine are suspended just a foot or two off the floor. Similar in kind to the makeshift soccer balls used by destitute children across the world, the objects are emblematic of the myriad conflicts, diseases, and conditions that threaten the lives and futures of the young and impoverished. The sparse elegance of the display carries a palpable weight. In Mutu’s work, nothing is just one thing; each element serves a dual purpose.

Despite the beauty of the work on display, the show includes some distracting display choices. The use of felt to selectively cover certain gallery walls or evoke tree bark feels like an incomplete thought, neither immersive enough to fully alter the space nor a necessary addition for the contemplation of the rest of the art in the room. Warm Tree is billed as an installation, and on one hand the limited use of the felt in the gallery is consistent with the sparse forest backgrounds of Mutu’s pictures, but it also feels overdetermined[2], like there might be some question as to whether or not the work on display is experience enough.

Another questionable aspect of the show is the framing of the collages. Each is encapsulated by a white frame with glass, which makes for an elegant presentation, but it also creates problematic reflections over the images. Viewers can see themselves mirrored in the glass, which could be read either as an intentional provocation—implicating viewers into the postcolonial quagmire—or an ironic update on the gilded expositions of ethnographic fairs and 18th-century aristocratic art collections. More likely, it’s an unintended consequence of institutional display. It may seem to be a nitpicky gripe, but the glass reflections do affect the visibility of the images, and with pictures as rich as these, you really want nothing standing in the way.

Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey is organized by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University by Trevor Schoonmaker, Chief Curator and Patsy R. and Raymond D. Nasher Curator of Contemporary Art. The show is on view at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum at Northwestern University until December 7, 2014.

[1] The Block Museum is the final leg of the show’s traveling schedule. Last year, it opened at Duke University’s Nasher Museum. It then made its way to the Brooklyn Museum followed by the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami.

[2] This isn’t the first time mostly pictorial art has been displayed in a staged environment at a museum in/around Chicago in recent days. Last year, organizers of the Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago laid down kitschy AstroTurf in a gallery dedicated to paintings of picnic scenes and luncheon dresses. Is that a coincidence or a new trend in how artists and museums are thinking about displaying image-based artwork? Do viewers need to experience partial replicas of the pictures they are seeing in order to feel the art?