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 composed of pairs of small porcelain legs affixed to the wall, each with oversized wings for a body. Some are arranged into uneven grids; others drift apart from the others, left 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? True to its title, the work depicts a snake-like form. But as you walk across the work, following its curlicuing body and passing by its pregnant belly, you may find yourself shocked to see this 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 with hybrid humans and bewitching animals. Few can hold a candle to the epic project that Mutu has been undertaking, however. She is the rare artist whose work has only grown 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. In it, a pair of giant creatures, each with cabbage-like forms for faces, are crouched 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 US, Mutu is now based between New York and Nairobi. Her work, with its mashed-together mediums and cultural intermingling, is borne 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 Cooper Union student with few resources, features tossed-out 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 used 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-seven-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 whose skin is 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 composed of anatomical diagrams and porn. Implicitly, the work alludes to the long history of medical experimentation done 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 wasn’t necessary for Mutu, who only just turned 50 last year. The New Museum show necessitates its existence, however, because it affords so much space to Mutu’s work in other mediums.
Hats off to Crockett and Norton for placing such an emphasis on Mutu’s videos, a part of her practice that doesn’t get talked about enough. 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 it once was. Mutu’s labor can be acutely observed by us, but it would be unknowable to anyone looking at the land. What a shame it is that this video is relegated to the museum’s basement.
At least The End of carrying All (2015) is presented front and center, with its sounds allowed to rumble throughout the sizable gallery that houses Sleeping Serpent. The animation follows a woman (also Mutu) who ascends a hill. She bends over slightly as she is forced to carry a building, a giant wheel, and more 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 oversized kikapu baskets, smaller versions of which are regularly sold by artisans 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 been journeyed downtown from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which had commissioned the piece for a niche within its facade. It loses some of its mystique at the New Museum, whose clinical galleries have unfortunately tamed it and made it seem small, but even still, the sculpture feels as though it has opened a portal to another world.
For my money, the timeliest body 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 population. Covid isn’t present, but pathogens like Zika, which was named after the Ugandan forest where it was first recorded, are. Some of these sculptures were made before the pandemic, while others—like one depicting the common cold—came 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 its viewers with direct statements, and the virus works 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.