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The Artistry of Wangechi Mutu: From Enchanting Plant People to a Towering 31-Foot Serpent

Updated: May 20, 2023


Image credit: / Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Dario Lasagni/Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Dario Lasagni

As you enter the Lobby Gallery of The New Museum in New York City, your eyes will be immediately drawn to a pair of striking sculptures that seem to defy explanation. The fantastical beings before you appear to be part human, part plant, their gnarled limbs of bronze and soil extending from their bodies and firmly rooted in the gallery's floor.


These incredible works, entitled "In Two Canoes" (2022) and "For Whom the Bell Tolls" (2019), are the brainchild of artist Wangechi Mutu. They perfectly represent Mutu's unique style, characterized by an unwavering willingness to explore different media and draw inspiration from the world around her.


Wangechi Mutu 


Wangechi Mutu Image courtesy of photographer Khadijah Farah

Wangechi Mutu is a Kenyan contemporary artist whose work blends gender, race, personal identity, and art history. She makes complicated collages, movies, sculptures, and performances with reoccurring themes like masked ladies and snake-like tendrils. Mutu's art explores consumerism and excess by combining diverse textures and source materials, and her nearly science-fiction-like imagery positions her in the world of Afrofuturism. Mutu is highly concerned about Western commercialism, which she claims has had a significant impact on current African culture.


Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Dario Lasagni "In Two Canoes" (2022)

Her work has been exhibited internationally, including a major retrospective at the Nasher Museum of Art in North Carolina in 2013, and she was commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2019 to construct The NewOnes, Will Free Us, a four-bronze sculptural installation. Mutu obtained her BFA from Cooper Union and her MFA from Yale University in sculpting. She now lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.


Wangechi Mutu. Image Credit: Khadijah M. Farah. @farahkhad

The Kenyan-born artist splits her time between studios in Brooklyn and Nairobi. Her exhibition, "Wangechi Mutu: Intertwined," features more than 100 of her works created over 25 years and is on display at the New Museum in New York City until June 4. Mutu's art explores themes of transmutation, sexuality, hybridity, and marginalization of female patients, using various media such as collage, sculpture, video, and performance.


The title of the exhibition is derived from a collage Mutu created in 2003 in response to a National Geographic photograph of two dogs fighting over a crumb of meat. The artwork features animal heads on the bodies of two ladies who pose like fashion models. Mutu has explored similar topics throughout her career and frequently returns to them.

Image Credit: Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Dario Lasagni/Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Dario Lasagni

The collage series "Histology of Different Classes of Uterine Tumors" 


"Histology of Different Classes of Uterine Tumors," one of Mutu's most stunning series in the exhibition, uses characters created from medical images to highlight how marginalized female patients are. The circular pieces in this series, which are textured with spikes and elevated grooves, depict a variety of illnesses like measles, dengue, zika, and mumps. Mutu started the collection in 2016 and believes the viral spheres' textures are similar to ceramics.


Image Credit: Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Dario Lasagni/Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Dario Lasagni

These works, textured with spikes and raised grooves, represent mumps, measles, dengue, Zika, and other diseases.


Mutu's work explores the dichotomy between her Kenyan roots and her life in New York. Her practice combines a variety of source materials and textures to explore consumerism and excess, and her almost science-fiction-like imagery places her within the realm of Afrofuturism. Mutu is deeply concerned with Western commercialism, which she says has had an incredible influence on contemporary African culture.


The exhibition "Wangechi Mutu: Intertwined" highlights her interest in hybridity, animal life, biological life, and microbial life. Norton and Crockett, the curators of the exhibition, note that Mutu returns and circles back to her interests. Mutu's work challenges the boundaries of conventional art and explores the intersectionality of identities.


Image Credit: Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Dario Lasagni/Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Dario Lasagni

Mutu's artistic process involves the layering of various materials and images, and her pieces convey a sense of mystery and mysticism. Her work often features recurring motifs such as masked women and snake-like tendrils. Her art is complex, and the exhibition "Wangechi Mutu: Intertwined" showcases the breadth of her artistic output.


Overall, "Wangechi Mutu: Intertwined" is a retrospective exhibition that displays the artist's wide-ranging and impressive artistic output over the past 25 years. The exhibition highlights Mutu's unique artistic style and explores the intersectionality of identities, transmutation, and marginalization. Mutu's art is both visually stunning and thought-provoking, challenging viewers to question and re-evaluate their perceptions of identity, art, and society.


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