Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey
Organized by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University and the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum
Brooklyn Museum, October 11, 2013–March 9, 2014
Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey at the Brooklyn Museum exerts both push and pull: the exhibition display is at once engaging and disturbing, seductive and unsettling, Deep taupe walls with a hint of mauve warmly embrace large-scale collage paintings then merge with shadowy mosaics of dark gray felt, blanketing the space as one might wrap belongings for a move or buffer a space from noise. Structural columns become branchless trees made of felt and packing tape with hints of red oozing through crevices – metaphors of both wound and shroud – the internal oppositions of the artwork doubling into the external space of the viewer.
In constructing her large-scale collage paintings, Wangechi Mutu (b. Kenya, 1972) – who grew up in Nairobi and then studied in Wales and the United States, earning her BFA from Cooper Union and her MFA from Yale University – builds and unbuilds. This, for philosopher Jacques Derrida, is the etymological basis of deconstruction; as linguist and scholar Gerhard Richter explains: “The gesture involves taking something apart that heeds the logic of its own architectural plan and thereby exposes the internal tensions that both enable and vex it.” Derrida puts it more vividly: “What I do with words is to make them explode so that the nonverbal appears in the verbal…It’s when words start to go crazy…and no longer behave properly in regard to discourse that they have more rapport with the other arts…”
The artist’s colors grow on paper or transparent Mylar base as if cultures in a petri dish. These accretions shape into lyrically sweeping humanoid figures while blotches, drips, and splatters bleed as disjunctive explosions across an otherwise neutral ground. Meticulous application of collage materials – faux wood-grain shelf papers, synthetic snakeskin fabrics, pearls, glitter, and beads but also images from a wide range of fashion, pornography, travel, automotive and other trade magazines – saturates the image while loosening the metaphorical content of the work. The excising of a small figure from magazines and textbooks – its slicing, cutting, and removal from context and its eventual juxtaposition in seemingly incongruous arrangements – is analogous to the mutation of identity attendant with the pressures of globalization, postcolonial nationalism, and migration.
Within any given work, what first appears as a tight composition – exquisitely elegant – suddenly bursts into a myriad of fragments that refuse to settle down and no longer behave properly within visual compositional language. Instead, small mischievous entities seemingly dart across the surface of the paintings, threatening to disintegrate what, on close inspection, is a volatile and tenuous relationship between (principal) Figure, (component) figures, and ground. In Misguided Little Unforgiveable Hierarchies (2005), the artist stacks three figures like animals in a folktale, totem statuary, or bodies entangled in a bacchanalian orgy.
Contortions recur across the artist’s oeuvre in reference to both pornographic posing and the display of naked bodies in the pseudo-scientific specimen capture that was emblematic of colonial expansion (e.g., Sarah Baartman of the Khoikhoi people). Here multiple black silhouetted breasts cascade cape-like, front and back, while small segments of hips, arms, and buttocks sliced from porn rags (like Baartman’s body upon her death) form fleshy nose, cheeks, lips, and ears of a figure whose arms are barely discernible from legs tenuously planted on prosthetic appendages of shiny motorcycle parts. The topmost creature – a composite of flesh, fur, mask, and machine – reveals the thin line between beauty and beast as the (dis)ease of wearing the projected attitudes of others. But the artist refuses to concede to stereotypes: these figures are neither victim nor perpetrator and there is no discernible redemption narrative.
Cutting and piecing together paper fragments dates to the invention of paper in 2nd century China BCE. Related to Byzantine and medieval mosaic, inlay crafts use semi-precious stones, gems, and precious metals as a palette of coloration. Paper cutting and pasting techniques were familiar to European ladies in the 18th century, particularly Mary Delany who created precise botanical renditions of flower specimens from myriad bits of colored paper, while 19th century scrapbooks were filled with whimsical arrangements of memorabilia. And the assemblage of disparate materials into an integrated aesthetic expression of spiritual, natural, and familial realms was pervasive throughout Africa long before these techniques were adopted by early 20th century avant-garde artists.
Wangechi Mutu’s own collage practice begins with small sketches and works its way into sculpture, painting, video, and installation pieces. A recent work in the exhibition attests to Mutu’s understanding of composite influences. Family Tree (2012) arranges thirteen small collages on the wall as if representing the genealogical branches of a family. In one, an 18th century gentleman’s portrait merges with the eyes and brow of an African tribal woman; crowned by a spikey aureole of faux wood grain and topped by a parrot, it hints at the dubious legacy of Enlightenment philosophy that considered children a blank slate for indoctrination and non-Europeans as noble savages, childlike and in communion with nature. Family Tree implies that identity is a mosaic comprised equally of external representations as internal self-determination.
As suggested in the novel by Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe, things fall apart but, in Mutu’s collages, this obdurate threat resurges into a syncretic spirit at once mythical, mechanical, natural, and historical. Her android figures are warriors born of the apocalypse, fused of disparate elements by which the past is not so much erased as re-visioned and the present contemplates a future that recognizes all sources as resource. Identity becomes a collective event – disdainful of influence, full of attitude for ambiguity – not so much fusion as complexity on the move, ever morphing out of what you thought you knew into what you may never understand… neither mirrored nor fixed…
“What do you mean by that? That the other will have been only an invention, the invention of the other?”
“No, that the other is what is never inventable and will never have waited for your invention. The call of the other is a call to come, and that happens only in multiple voices.”
Thus spoke Derrida; and, similarly, Wangechi Mutu invokes multiple identities within the idea: Identity. What she does with images is to make them explode so that the nonvisual appears in the visual… when images start to go crazy… transforming representation into a groundswell!
 Gerhard Richter, “Between Translation and Invention” in Jacques Derrida, Copy Archive, Signature, A Conversation on Photography, ed. and intro. by Gerhard Richter, trans. Jeff Fort (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), x.
 Jacques Derrida, “The Spatial Arts: An Interview with Jacques Derrida,” trans. Laurie Volpe, in Deconstruction and the Visual Arts, Media, Architecture, ed. Peter Brunette and David Wills (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 9-32, here 19-20.
 Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (1958).
 Jacques Derrida, “Psyche: Invention of the Other,” trans. Catherine Porter, in Psyche: Inventions of the Other, ed. Peggy Kamuf and Elizabeth Rottenberg (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), 1:1-47, here 1.