In A Fantastic Journey, Wangechi Mutu’s solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, exoticism becomes the vehicle of transformation. Mutu’s large Mylar collages of watercolour and magazine clippings spanning images from nature, fashion, medical journals, pornography, history, auto parts, and the animal world, lure the viewer in only to subvert expectations. Stereotypical conceptions of aesthetics, portrayal of black women, and western associations with the third world are shaken and destroyed.
The use of exoticism is a popular idiom, especially in the works of marginalised artists such as Mickalene Thomas and Rina Banerjee. Thomas’ rhinestone-studded canvases, and Banerjee’s hyper-decorated sculptures and installations serve an important purpose of communicating deeper messages that startle and linger. Likewise, in Mutu’s Suspended Playtime (2012) numerous felt balls wrapped in recycled black plastic grocery bags are tied with gold strings and suspended from the ceiling. Resembling Chris Ofili’s use of elephant dung in his art that is at once alluring and repugnant, this aesthetically questionable installation sets the tone for the surrounding works of Mutu’s cyborgian women who stridently evade categorisation.
Mutu’s invented malleable female figures take on the traditional portrayal of black women as sexualised and infantilised. The artist vandalises contemporary images to create macabre, grotesque forms that present visually new and challenging ideas. The central figure in Riding Death in My Sleep (2002) belongs to no specific race, colour, or creed. Thick protruding lips, slanting eyes, bald white head, and animal print skin tone that could well be a body suit mark a glaring sci-fi hybridity. The figure stares out of the canvas nonchalantly, unfazed, daring the viewer to ask her who she is. Much like Mickalene Thomas’ black modern-day odalisques, Mutu’s women are imbued with a newfound power and dignity.
The lingering notion of the third world as a pre-industrial, lost Arcadia is addressed through the eerie brown felt trees that cling to the walls of her lair. Here in her seemingly subterranean territory, Mutu confronts the viewer head on by transforming the image of the exotic, fearful, and uncivilised noble savage. In Once upon a time she said, I’m not afraid and her enemies began to fear her The End (2013), the part female, part animal-like figure with a long protruding body, mechanical face, and skates for feet upends the concept of a new woman who can be anything she wants to be. Vulnerable yet endlessly interpretable, this transmogrified image clashes with preconceived ideas of femininity and beauty. Mutu’s transformed woman – empowered, ugly and feminine – begins to initiate a new way of looking. It unravels an undefined territory where the notion of womanhood includes Mutu’s strange and fabulous configurations.
Similarly, Mutu’s video animation The End of eating Everything (2013) portrays a female head crowned with undulating tentacles and an oversized inverted tortoise shell for a body that is equipped with numerous hands and wheels. Spewing chimney smoke and blood from either end, this powerful, gargantuan creature engages in a new kind of vernacular that communicates the artist’s deeply personal yet archetypal image of a strong female.
Snakes and creatures with slithering tentacles long associated with the Freudian phallic symbol abound in Mutu’s art. InYo Mama (2003), a cyborgian female stabs a snake with her stiletto heel while she holds up its severed bleeding neck.
And in The Bride who Married a Camel’s Head (2009), the protagonist seems at ease with a headgear teeming with protruding snakes. Mutu combines exotic and evil, gorgeous and ugly as she mines the notions of femaleness and femininity through her endless sci-fi narratives. No different than Rina Banerjee’s hyper- ornamented installations that combine rarities with bric- à-brac, and high with low art, Mutu’s compilations of the primitive with the modern, and animal with human parts are emblematic of culture in a constant state of flux.
Ultimately, lured by her beguiling exoticism, a viewer must suspend judgments based on traditional notions of beauty, and consider her idiosyncratic inventions beyond conventional problematising of race, gender, or religion.
By Bansie Vasvani
Bansie Vasvani is an independent art critic and writer. She lives in New York City.