On ViewGladstone Gallery
January 27 – March 25, 2017
In our age of contradictions—with globalization, yet swelling xenophobia—transnational art challenges long-held cultural stereotypes. Born and raised in Nairobi, Wangechi Mutu is one of the most vital artists of her generation. An internationally acclaimed multi-media artist, she is best known for her kaleidoscopic collages and paintings that traverse geographical boundaries. However, here she expands her visual practice, and transforms Gladstone into an intimate, thematically unified universe of three-dimensional works.
With natural materials and a limited palette—branches, cow horns, and what appears to be sun-baked ochre collected from the brush and dirt surrounding her Nairobi studio—Mutu continues her explorations of gender, nature, spirituality, and politics. There is a timelessness in both narration and medium, in Mutu’s use of clay and bronze, both shaped by her hands.
Red soil, paper pulp, and wood glue agglutinate into rusty earth spheres, with the addition of acrylic shoes added to the mix, in her giant Prayer Beads (2017)—acting as a gateway to the exhibition and to other sculptures. Throughout the gallery, more than a dozen mounted globes echo traditional African art, with hand-molded embellishments of spiky protrusions or undulating coils.
As depictions of smallpox and other viruses, these roughly-textured biomorphic orbs continue the artist’s practice of using disease as metaphor. Previously, she incorporated medical illustrations of gynecological disorders and germs into her collages. This series of patterned and elegantly mounted globes, beautiful and lethal bombs, recall the work of the Makonde—a tribe famous for their sculpture and carvings, who just last year were granted Kenyan citizenship following over seventy years of residing there.
The large, bronze-cast Water Woman (2017) depicts an nguva, a mythological sea nymph of East African folklore. Arresting and sensual, the figure’s poised presence ends with an insouciant mermaid’s tail echoing her otherworldly breasts. This second Dreamer (2017) is a smoothly-polished bronze post-modern self portrait. Mutu’s refined interpretation of an African mask is a disembodied bust-less head, with powerful, serried braids.
Roughly speckled grey blankets, artfully pleated and draped, act as a stand for Virus (2016), and are shadowy amalgamations of humanoid mountains and giant morels. The common material, widely used throughout the Third World as rescue blankets, have been placed all around the gallery, even in ceiling corners. Mutu has explained, “They’re part of my visual memory [from] growing up, so when they arrived in my studio around this artwork that had been returned from somewhere, I remember being shocked. Using it to protect artwork says a lot.”r
Four more figurative pieces, made of the same rusty clay add a spiritual and humanistic presence. The unseeing gaze of Giver (2016) turns from the viewer, as she offers an open hand. Her peaceful supplication is crowned by a bromeliad sprouting from her skull. Dream Catcher (2016)—a more classic bust—wears an intricate headdress of architectural sticks. Embraced or lovingly caged by tree limbs, Tree Woman (2016) is a radiant warrior woman draped in bold black lines. Exploring cultural hybridity, these sculptures pose a genetic fluidity between plants and humans, subtly erotic depictions of women fused with nature.
Mutu’s nomadic creativity broadens definitions of contemporary art. Reflecting multiple traditions of an African childhood and a Western art education, her work draws inspiration from the natural and narrative worlds. Ecological awareness is interpreted with artistic elegance. The women depicted here—including the Brancusi-like self-portrait of Mutu—are strong, empowered, and mystically mysterious, all weaving a creative feminism that embraces an inclusive and necessary humanism.