Writing Art History Since 2002

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Amanda M. Maples delves into thematic continuities, outdoor installations, and the influence of African myths in Mutu’s sculptural work

Wangechi Mutu, Yo Mama, 2003. Ink, mica flakes, acrylic, pressure-sensitive film, cut-and-pasted printed paper, and painted paper on paper, diptych, overall 150.2 × 215.9cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Judith Rothschild Foundation Contemporary Drawings Collection Gift, 2005. Courtesy of the artist and Vielmetter Los Angeles. Photo by Robert Edemeyer.

Welcome to an illuminating discussion with Amanda M. Maples, the Françoise Billion Richardson Curator of African Art at the New Orleans Museum of Art. In this interview, Amanda sheds light on the multifaceted artistry of Wangechi Mutu, whose sculptures are currently featured in the exhibition ‘Intertwined’. Amanda delves into the thematic continuities between Mutu’s renowned collage work and her sculptural pieces, examining how these mediums intertwine to explore complex socio-political issues. Additionally, she discusses the transformative experience of viewing Mutu’s sculptures in the outdoor setting of the Besthoff Sculpture Garden and the influence of African myths and folklore in her art. Join us as we explore the profound narratives and cultural heritage that inform Mutu’s dynamic and evocative body of work.

Could you elaborate on how the thematic links between Wangechi Mutu’s sculptures in ‘Intertwined’ relate to her previous works, particularly those based on collage?

Amanda M. Maples: Mutu has been creating sculpture as part of her multidisciplinary practice for a long time, and some of her earliest three-dimensional works are included in the exhibition. Her first large-scale bronze was made in 2017, and this exhibition includes several examples, installed inside the museum and outside in the Besthoff Sculpture Garden.

Mutu first gained acclaim in the early 2000s for her collage-based practice, with the years 2003 and 2004 marking a pivotal moment, when she participated in the Studio Museum in Harlem’s Artist-in-Residence program and received early commissions for exhibitions at the New Museum and former Museum for African Art in New York. During this period, her works increased in scale, and she began experimenting with Mylar paper to achieve a kaleidoscopic, marbled texture that has become a staple of her practice.

The themes found in her collages are also found in her sculptural works, which continue the artist’s process of blending divergent materials into fluid, fantastical forms: hybridity, the fusing of animal with human and human-made machines; the interconnectedness of humans with nature and the environment; our responsibilities to one another and the planet; and especially the experiences of women. Mutu is also concerned with how women are unevenly affected by violence, conflicts, and the media, and disease, ailments, and medical treatments.

Wangechi Mutu, The Seated III, 2019, Bronze. New Orleans Museum of Art, Gift of Sydney and Walda Besthoff, 2021.1. Copyright Wangechi Mutu, Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

How does the outdoor placement of Mutu’s sculptures impact or change the experience for viewers, as opposed to exhibiting them in a gallery setting?

In the Besthoff Sculpture Garden, works like In Two Canoe are experienced as the artist intended: outdoors in the natural world. A space like NOMA’s sculpture garden, which incorporates natural and built elements, is a perfect parallel to Mutu’s practice of fusing human-made forms with earth, water, and the environment in general. Installing them outdoors reminds the viewer of that interconnectedness—of our dependence on nature and one another for survival, and on the impacts that humans have had, and continue to exert, on the natural world.

For In Two Canoe, humanoid feminine creatures are placed both inside of and draping outside of a canoe, with their limbs cascading into mangrove roots—like those seen here in Louisiana and also in coastal areas of Africa. This again reminds us of our connection to Africa throughout time and from humans’ earliest existence.

The fact that the water is inside rather than outside of the canoe also reminds us of our precarious relationship with nature, and water specifically, which can both connect us in meaningful ways, and disconnect us (as in the Transatlantic slave trade), drown us, or destroy what has been built (as in floods). Water is also a controlled commodity, and shortages are known to complicate human lives in Africa and the US.

Wangechi Mutu, Crocodylus, 2020. Bronze. Gift of Sydney and Walda Besthoff, 2021.33. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery.

In this exhibition how do the narratives of myth and folklore in Mutu’s artwork contribute to her exploration of complex socio-political issues like colonialism and globalisation?

While Mutu’s works are alluringly beautiful, they also contain strikingly complex commentaries that are not necessarily immediately apparent. The works often draw you in through beauty, making it that much more difficult to turn away from the realities of colonialism, globalisation, and violent conflicts.

Many of her series comment on the protracted Sierra Leonean civil war, and the bloody dismemberments that characterised it; on the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda; on 9/11, and so on. Mutu thinks deeply about the myths that we as humans tell ourselves, and the ‘folklore’ evident in stereotyping that allowed the carving up of the African continent, the colonial project, and the portrayal of Africans as “primitive” and in need of “civilising” and “saving.”

This is also partially the reason for collages including African artworks you see throughout Mutu’s practice–and within the extractive processes that characterise colonial, postcolonial, and globalised worlds. Over time, art, natural resources, and even humans have been continuously extracted from the African continent to feed the voracious consumerism of the West. This narrative is especially evident in her film works in the exhibition, such as The End of eating Everything and The End of carrying All.

Another example of mythology is in the film My Cave Call. Filmed in a holy cave known as the “cradle of humankind” in the Great Rift Valley in Kenya, Mutu draws on traditional storytelling techniques and African mythology to convey a unique and evocative visual language.

Finally, mythological hybrid creatures–especially feminine ones–play into Mutu’s sculpture oeuvre. For example, Water Woman, Mutu’s first large-scale work in bronze, draws from folkloric concepts that cross cultures. With her mermaid-like tail and webbed fingers, she evokes a range of water spirits and deities, including Njuzu (Zimbabwe), Yemoja and Oshun (Yoruba), Mami Wata (pan-African), Nguva (coastal Kenya and Tanzania), and Gabaray Maanyo (Somalia), among others. Such myths of feminine water-dwelling deities developed alongside the spread of trade and colonisation across the African continent, fusing local folklore with imported imagery and ideas.

Wangechi Mutu, Maria, 1997. Plastic, string, paint, shells, and found object, 27.3 × 11.4 × 10.2cm. Courtesy of the artist.

As a multidisciplinary artist, Mutu enriches the comprehension of her thematic and conceptual interests by employing a variety of media. Could you elaborate?

No matter the medium or material, Mutu’s themes and concerns are clear: women, women’s experiences, and the portrayal and treatment of women in the world; the predatory nature of colonialism and its lasting and visual impacts; the dangers of commodification and excessive consumerism; the interdependency of humans and the environment; and the necessity of humans to recognise this interdependency and responsibility to one another to overcome our precarious situation in terms of conflict, extraction, exploitation, and the environment.

As a Kenyan artist, Mutu’s life and work straddling Nairobi and New York undoubtedly shaped her artistic outlook. How does her cultural heritage influence the themes and imagery in her artwork?

Mutu first gained acclaim in the early 2000s for her collage-based practice. The evolution of Mutu’s sculptural practice shifted following her return to Nairobi in 2015 after years of living and working in New York. In Nairobi, she began to experiment with natural and organic materials sourced from the areas surrounding her home and studio, such as wood, soil, horn, shell, and bone–all of which are found outside.

The earth-based works employ a technique that involves shredding, pulverising, and pulping paper before combining it with Kenyan soil, water, tea, ink, and pigments to create a muddy mixture–an aggregate “porridge,” as the artist calls it.

Through these materials, Mutu comments on memories and nostalgias of home, on displacement, and again, on the generative force that is Africa and African women. The strength, resilience, care, and knowledge of African women have shaped Mutu, and works like the sentinels were created to look like her mother, grandmothers, great-grandmothers—all the African women that guided her and looked like her, like her body—rooted to the soil with big firm feet, standing guard, protecting, and guiding.

Africa produced the first humans and the first artists, and we all to some degree come from that. As in the other areas of her work regarding nature and the environment, we are all intertwined and our survival depends on recognising and honouring this connectivity.

The exhibition will be on view until the 14th of July, 2024. For more information, please visit the New Orleans Museum of Art.

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