Art historians, like emissaries of pretty much any other discipline, love to box people in, and part of the joy of Wangechi Mutu’s art is that it is virtually impossible to categorize—a fact that her otherworldly survey at New York’s New Museum only seems to underline.
What might you call Moth Collection (2010): a painting, a sculpture, an installation, or some combination of the three? It’s a piece comprising pairs of small porcelain legs affixed to the wall, each with oversize wings for a body. Some are arranged in uneven grids; others drift apart from those grids to float freely in space. The wall itself is thinly painted in cerulean that’s left to drip down toward the floor.
And what might you say is depicted in Sleeping Serpent (2014), the 78-foot-long work that currently traverses much of the New Museum’s third floor? As you walk along the snake-like form, following its curlicuing body, passing by its pregnant belly, you may be shocked to see the creature culminate in a sculpted human head that rests peacefully on a plush pillow.
Countless other objects in Mutu’s show attest to an artist who, in the past two decades, has built a universe that’s all her own, replete with her own set of artistic rules.
Her excellent New Museum show, curated by Margot Norton and Vivian Crockett with Ian Wallace, arrives at a time when many younger artists are envisioning realms far removed from our own, populated by hybrid humans and bewitching animals. Few can hold a candle to the epic project that Mutu has undertaken, however. She is the rare artist whose work has grown only more convincing as it’s become increasingly surreal over the years.
Things start off in style on the first floor, with In Two Canoe (2022), the newest work in the show. Here, a pair of giant creatures, each with cabbage-like forms for faces, crouch in a low boat filled with water. Their arms split outward like the roots of mangrove trees, a plant that has “moved everywhere, has made journeys like those who were kidnapped from Africa and taken to the Americas,” as Mutu once noted.
This is not just a foray into fantasy. A Kenyan who studied art in the United States, Mutu is now based between New York and Nairobi. Her work, with its mashed-together mediums and cultural intermingling, is born of the same diasporic sensibility that has guided her life. Drawing on unreality is, for Mutu, a means of processing her reality.
The earliest works in the show evince that. Her 1997 “Bottle People” series, made while Mutu was still a student at New York’s Cooper Union art school and had few resources, features discarded beer bottles that she painted black and turned corporeal by way of cowrie shells that look like eyes. That Mutu could summon alien beings with such an economy of means is a testament to her talent from a young age. That she could incorporate references to so much history using so little—cowrie shells were employed as currency between Africans who traded enslaved people, and the bottles look back to the altered found objects culled from urban detritus of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg—is nothing short of astounding.
But it’s the collages of the mid-2000s that made Mutu famous, and it’s the collages many viewers will be here to see.
Some of the most provocative ones feature pornographic images of Black women. Her “MUD” works (2003) turn these sexualized pictures, in which little is left to the imagination, into something a lot more mysterious, with splotches of dried brown grime covering the more revealing bits. In one, a mass of filth appears to pour forth from one woman’s genitals, hiding nearly all but one leg with a strappy high-heeled shoe on its foot.
The “MUD” works prove so striking because they undermine the piercing male gaze that has historically been cast upon models like these. Later collages grew in scale and ambition, and furthered that theme, similarly enlisting grotesquerie as a means of empowerment.
There’s the more-than-7-foot-wide Non, je ne regrette rien (2007), in which a busty woman kisses a snake, her head spraying red-brown blood as she does so; even grander ones feature beings with skin composed of blooms of yellow-green that look like pustules.
Mutu’s beautiful body horror reaches its climax with Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tumors (2006), a quiet shocker that features 12 images of Black faces comprising anatomical diagrams and pornography. Implicitly, the work alludes to the long history of medical experimentation performed on Black women, while also subverting it.
Similar works were the main focus of Mutu’s last major New York survey, at the Brooklyn Museum, a decade ago. It’s rare for an artist to have one big New York museum show during their lifetime, and rarer still to have two. One could argue that the second one is premature, given that Mutu only just turned 50 last year. The New Museum show is amply justified, however, because it affords so much space to her work in other mediums.
Hats off to Crockett and Norton for placing such emphasis on Mutu’s videos, a part of her practice that doesn’t get enough attention. Some take the form of private performances done only for her camera. There’s Cleaning Earth (2006), in which Mutu, working on her hands and knees, scrubs away at a patch of land behind her Brooklyn brownstone. In the course of 25 minutes, the ground remains just as dirty as before. We observe Mutu’s labor acutely, but it would go unrecognized by anyone looking at the land. What a shame this video is relegated to the museum’s basement.
At least The End of carrying All (2015), which premiered at the 2015 Venice Biennale, is presented front and center, its sounds allowed to rumble throughout the sizable gallery that houses Sleeping Serpent. The animation follows a woman (Mutu) who ascends a hill. She bends over slightly as she carries a building, a giant wheel, and other objects on her back—the weight of the world. When she finally makes it to the peak, she transmutes into a gelatinous blob that glows red and pink. In the end, this creature slides off the cliffside, leaving behind a slimy trail.
Moving from one place to another and becoming something else in between: this is the central theme that guides many of Mutu’s gorgeous sculptures from the past decade.
Some from recent years underscore the spirituality that has long hung in the background of Mutu’s art. There are large bronze sculptures that feature beings inside oversize Kikapú baskets, smaller versions of which artisans regularly sell in Kenya. One features a serpentine form that would appear threatening were it not so gorgeous; its name is Nyoka (2022), the Swahili word for snake.
The Seated I (2019), a kneeling figure with a plate in its mouth, has traveled downtown from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which commissioned the piece for a niche within its facade. It loses some of its mystique at the New Museum, whose clinical galleries unfortunately seem to tame and diminish it, but even so, the sculpture feels as though it has opened a portal to another world.
For my money, the timeliest series of work in a New York museum right now is one in this exhibition: a grouping of eight sculptures that depict blown-up versions of viruses that have ravaged the global populace. Covid isn’t represented, but pathogens like Zika, named after the Ugandan forest where it was first isolated, are. Some of these sculptures were made before the pandemic, while others—like one depicting the common cold—came along during Covid.
As diseases continue to smash through the immune systems of many, these sculptures hit a nerve. The reason, however, is not that they evoke so much death and destruction, but rather that they are such attractive objects. Covered in an admixture of reddish Kenyan soil and paper pulp that Mutu has termed “porridge,” they exude an aesthetic charm that’s infectious.
Mutu’s work has never provided direct statements, and the virus sculptures place among her most challenging efforts to date. They propose these diseases as something transcendent—something that can bind peoples across the globe. After all, what’s disgusting can be beautiful, and what’s alluring can be abject. It’s never one or the other for Mutu.