Mutu, Wangechi 19(?)(?)–
Wangechi Mutu 19(?)(?)–
Los Angeles Gallery Mounted One-Woman Show
African artist Wangechi Mutu created a sensation in galleries on both coasts of the United States with her compelling and disturbing collages in the first years of the twenty-first century. Mutu’s works were portraits, in a way; she often began with a picture of a woman cut out from a magazine or coffee table book. But she distorted the image by cutting it into pieces, rearranging it, and adding other materials until the woman depicted looked freakish or surreal. The figures Mutu created seemed to tell a multitude of stories—of traditional African womanhood distorted by the influences of Western ideals of beauty, of exploitation and resistance, of human resilience in the face of dehumanizing forces. Los Angeles Times writer David Pagel called Mutu’s solo exhibition debut in that city “among the best in recent memory.”
Mutu was born in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, and much of her work has involved Kenyan or African themes to some degree. Her upbringing was a modern and urban one, and she was puzzled by the Western tendency to think of Africa in terms of its rural, traditional cultures. “There’s this constant movement toward historicizing Africa, turning it into this archaic place,” Mutu explained in an interview on the Africana Web site. “Being that I was raised there, and that I came from the city, it was really weird for me. I was like, ‘It’s actually a really modern place like everywhere else. It happened and is happening right now.’”
Mutu’s work was shaped by her observations of the African world. In a work called Show Me Your City, I’ll Show You Mines, Mutu wrote in her artist’s statement for an exhibition held at New York’s Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning (JCAL), “I probe the problematic issue of modern urban spaces that are the receiving ground for so much of the raw material that is stolen or extracted from the rural plantations and mines of the world.” Her images of distorted female bodies had similar roots. “Kenya’s unemployment rate has recently reached an alarming 51 percent,” Mutu pointed out in the same statement on the JCAL Web site. “A huge number of women from poor and/or rural backgrounds move to the city to find work, those who don’t often end up as street workers … their bodies tragically become their only legitimate connection with a possible freedom.”
Mutu came to art as a second career. At first she went to England and studied anthropology, receiving an international baccalaureate degree in 1991 from United World College of the Atlantic in the British region of Wales, a school that had a student body drawn from all over the world and fostered a philosophy of cross-cultural understanding. Studying anthropology influenced Mutu’s art in several ways, causing her to think in terms of the ways human relationships rest on large social structures and exposing her to the ways Europeans and Americans thought about Africans and African artistic expression. Mutu seemed to have a promising career as an anthropologist ahead of her; in 1994 she received the Richard Leakey merit award in that field.
At a Glance…
Born in Nairobi, Kenya. Education: United World College of the Atlantic, Wales, United Kingdom, International Baccalaureate, 1991; Cooper Union for the Advancement of the Arts and Sciences, BFA, 1996; Yale University School of Art, MFA, 2000.
Career: Visual artist, 1995-; illustrator, 2000-.
Selected awards: Fannie B. Pardee Fellowship, 2000; Jamaica Center for the Arts Fellowship, 2001; Cooper Union and Studio Museum of Harlem, artist-in-residence, 2003; ArtPace, San Antonio, TX, artist-in-residence, 2004.
Addresses: Gallery —Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, 5363 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90036.
Art proved to have a stronger pull over her energies, however, and Mutu came to the United States in the mid-1990s and enrolled at the Cooper Union, an arts-oriented school in New York City. She received a bachelor of fine arts degree there in 1996, already having had her first gallery showing (at New York’s Houghton Gallery) the previous year. Her art career developed rapidly, for by the following year she was receiving major attention. No fewer than five exhibitions featured Mutu’s work in 1997, the most prestigious of which was the Johannesburg Biennale in South Africa, an event of international scope held every two years. Mutu worked mostly in the medium of sculpture at this time, and her entry in the Biennale was a mixed-media work, called “Four Square Pillahs,” that featured a variety of objects—hanging light bulbs, a large flower-like bud superimposed on a diamond grid—spread around a room-sized space.
After this initial burst of activity, Mutu decided on further schooling and was admitted to Yale University’s School of Art. While she was a student at Yale, Mutu’s work was featured in two New York gallery shows, attracting the attention of the leading journal ArtForum, and she also helped pay the bills by illustrating a children’s book, Count on Your Fingers African Style. Mutu also worked with children in creating a Kenyan sculpture garden installation for the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s annual DanceAfrica festival. By the time she received her master’s degree from Yale in 2000, Mutu had switched mostly from sculpture to collage—and she was ready to bring together her insights about Africa and the West within a novel medium that could contain and express them.
Four New York galleries featured Mutu’s work in 2001. Her instantly riveting pieces began to attract the attention of major daily newspapers, and other gallery owners came calling. Mutu kicked off the following year with her participation in a show called Africaine at the Studio Museum of Harlem—the first time her work had been exhibited in a major museum. Mutu’s work coincided with a rising interest in a number of expatriate African artists, and a statement New York Times critic Holland Cotter made about the group as a whole applied to Mutu as well. These artists, wrote Cotter after a 2003 show that featured Mutu’s work, “regard themselves far less as disinherited ex-natives of Africa, or anywhere else, than as world citizens with manifold allegiances and preferences.”
Mutu spent parts of 2002 and 2003 on a scholarship at the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, located in the New York City borough of Queens. She also was named artist-in-residence at Cooper Union and at the Studio Museum. These positions freed Mutu from financial constraints, and her work took large steps forward. It was during this period that Mutu’s collage images of women began to appear. Quite large—several feet long on each side—they impressed reviewers who saw them at Mutu’s Creatures show at the Jamaica Center in early 2003 and soon at a host of other venues. “Wangechi’s work is angry, scary and passionate, but with a weird beauty and even a feral playfulness….” wrote Arlene McKanic of the New York Amsterdam News. “Wangechi’s women/creatures are … wild and dangerous, and happy to be so.”
In 2003, Mutu’s work was featured in well over a dozen exhibitions all over the United States, as well as one in Lisbon, Portugal. Museums, including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and New York’s Museum of Modern Art, began to acquire her works for their permanent collections. She seemed to be moving in several new directions; some of the women in the Creatures show were configured so as to evoke animals, while other Mutu portraits had a futuristic look that suggested science fiction cinema. Mutu’s first solo gallery exhibition, Pagan Poetry, was held at the Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects Gallery in the fall of 2003.
Pagel of the Los Angeles Times called Mutu’s work “as fresh, raw, and fascinating as it is harrowing, hallucinatory, and hard to swallow.” The New York Times’s Cotter again praised Mutu’s works that were displayed in New York at the same time. “Her graphic style has become virtuosic, and her Afro-futuristic figures of women, mingling Romare Bearden and Vogue, are fabulous.” A surrealist with an anthropologist’s eye, Mutu seemed to be on the verge of a major career. She became an artist-in-residence at San Antonio, Texas’s ArtPace contemporary art foundation in 2004.
(Illustrator) Zaslavsky, Claudia Count on Your Fingers African Style, Black Butterfly Children’s Books, 2000.
ArtForum, October 2000.
Daily News (New York), January 30, 2003, p. Suburban-4.
Grand Street, No. 72, Fall 2003.
Los Angeles Times, October 24, 2003, p. E28.
New York Amsterdam News, May 12, 1999, p. 26; March 13, 2003, p. 23.
New York Times, November 21, 2003, p. E34.
“The Africana QA: Artist Wangechi Mutu,” Africana, www.africana.com/articles/qa/ar20030305mutu.asp (February 12, 2004).
“Creatures by Wangechi Mutu,” Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, www.jcal.org/detail.asp?item=138 (February 18, 2004).
“Wangechi Mutu,” Momenta Art, www.momentaart.org/pas_pro/mutu.html (February 12, 2004).
“Wangechi Mutu,” Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, www.vielmetter.com (February 8, 2004).
—James M. Manheim