Afro – Alien Exquisite Corpses

The carefully designed futuristic drawings and collages of Wangechi Mutu, who recently exhibited in Cape Town, have earned the Kenyan-born artist a cult following internationally. By Tracy Murinik

Wangechi Mutu has shown work in South Africa on two occasions. Thefirst was at the time of the second Johannesburg Biennale, in 1997, on Life’s Little Necessities, curated by Kellie Jones at the Castle of Good Hope. Mutu presented a work titled Four SquarePillahs, a multimedia installation of hanging sculptures incorporatingvellum, gourds and horns. More recently she exhibited on the group show Distant Relatives/Relative Distance, hosted by Michael Stevenson (in Cape Town). Here she was represented by a video work titled Cutting.This latter inclusion was a major coup for South African audiences,particularly considering Mutu’s current international status, demandand covetability. “I mine stereotypes for their weakfoundations and produce figures that are distillations of my ownissues, beliefs, perceptions, and personal stereotypes,” she tellsLauri Firstenberg in an interview reprinted in the catalogue to theexhibition Looking Both Ways (2003). It is a useful key toengaging Mutu’s production over this past decade. Her works read as atype of deconstructive anthropology – of the history of women’srepresentation, of cultural migration, global identity; of a litany ofhistorical violence and destruction; of colonial legacies, exoticismand voyeuristic fascination. But her works also, intrinsically,function at the level of mythmaking, anticipating and devising theirown myths in the face of others’.Mutu was born in Kenya, andcurrently lives and works in New York. She has held solo exhibitions atArtPace, San Antonio; at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; MiamiArt Museum; Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, in 2005; and, mostrecently, at Sikkema Jenkins & Co., in New York. Her work has beenincluded on numerous group shows, including Africa Remix and SITE Santa Fe Biennial 2006. Mutuis best known for her darkly fantastical collages and multimediadrawings, the latter previously exhibited at MoMA in New York andLondon’s Tate Modern. Her drawings are elaborate studies andconstructions pieced together from all that she “mines” of variouslyexcavated resource materials, examples of which have previouslyincluded National Geographic, Vogue, western books on Africanart, lifestyle magazines, porn, as well as her personal biography.Using such resources, Mutu has over the years conjured and assembledher own futuristic army of cyborg women. These “warrior girls”, as shecalls them, are hybrid, mutated/mutating, strong adaptive beings who ina single breath appear to both confirm and dispel any or allstereotypes that they infer and (literally) embody. National Geographic, Vogue, western books on Africanart, lifestyle magazines, porn, as well as her personal biography.Using such resources, Mutu has over the years conjured and assembledher own futuristic army of cyborg women. These “warrior girls”, as shecalls them, are hybrid, mutated/mutating, strong adaptive beings who ina single breath appear to both confirm and dispel any or allstereotypes that they infer and (literally) embody. Theypossess an air of the surreal, like Afro-alien exquisite corpses: sexy,sultry, beautiful, freaky, dangerous and terrifying. There is always anelement of rot or decay in amongst their survivalist ingenuity: thesewomen are strong, but scarred. Sinuous and spindly, with every attemptat elegance, they don their prosthetic limbs (their acts of collage)like weaponry and armour. Many appear to have developed exoskeletons:hard glittery gemmed skins that decorate and conceal their damagedtorsos. They are carefully designed futuristic organisms, women thathave evolved in every way required to preserve and protect themselves, physically, sexually, culturally. They are characters made up of the multiple sources they represent,overrule and reconfigure – each potential weakness these sources inferonto the role of woman is integrated into a show of strength andrevision. Mutu’s creations may bare the scarred evidence of theirvictim selves, but they seem to declare that they can beat anything atits own game, like an antidote. They use what is potentially harmful -to aid and protect them, to develop immunity – and like a type ofProspero, use that which is taught through hostile experience by theaggressor, against the aggressor. Their entire makeup is necessarilysubversive. Mutu’s are powerful entities; they are the face and fragileskin of the most delectable and the most repugnant. Grown from a glutof media corpses, out of the emaciated body image of the west, Mutuembeds perceptions of female sexuality and ideals of beauty onto herfigures – as imagined by the west. In all that they envision ofdestruction and loss, they are also deeply ambivalent, occasionallybloated in greedy excess and a quest for power. But that is also theirstereotype. Beyond that, they seem to promise possibilities of mappingtheir own heroic paths.”There’s this constant movementtowards historicising Africa, turning it into this archaic place,” sheis quoted as saying on the Saatchi Gallery website, where her work isrepresented. “Part of my challenge … is to envision, not so muchblackness as a race, but the existence of African elements in culturein the future and how is that possible.”Tracy Murinik is an independent art critic based in Cape Town All images courtesy of the artist and/or their Gallery
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