Feminine Mystique

Lauren Kaplan
Jan 20, 2014 12:49AM

I don't consider myself an ardent feminist, but I’ve spent the last few months thinking about how gender affects one’s identity, particularly when it comes to power relations. Perhaps my favorite show of the winter attempts to answer this question, albeit from a very specific perspective. 

Wangechi Mutu: Fantastic Journey is on view at the Brooklyn Museum through March 9. Mutu, a female artist, was born in Kenya in 1972 and is now based in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. Mutu identifies not only as a woman, but as an African woman living in the United States. She grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in suburban Nairobi; her father, a paper importer, supplied her with drawing materials from an early age, and her mother was a midwife. At seventeen, she left Africa for international adventures: she journeyed first to Wales for high school, then Cooper Union for college, and finally, Yale for graduate school. Now, having been in New York for roughly twenty years, she feels that she belongs in neither Kenya nor the United States, but somewhere in between. Ultimately, the boundaries we use to define places and cultures--boundaries that Mutu interrogates--have become so slippery as to be nearly irrelevant. "These conservative demarcations of nation and state and culture are soon going to be archaic," she argues, and she uses her art to prove this point. 

In her large-scale collages constructed out of clippings that she "harvests" from sources as diverse as National Geographic, Vogue, Cycle World, medical texts, and pornographic magazines, she creates ultimate hybrids. Her figures are part woman, part animal, and part machine, with glistening multi-colored skin. Each character titillates the viewer with sex-appeal--they have large lips and breasts, and are often adorned with glitter--but upon closer inspection, they become monstrous and blood-splattered. In Yo Mama (2003), one of the earliest works in the show, a squatting woman has decapitated a snake and punctured its head with her stiletto. This female may be a stand-in for Eve, and in Mutu's version of the biblical tale, she destroys the snake rather than falling for its chicanery. Far from responsible for the spiritual downfall of mankind, Mutu's Eve is strong, seductive, formidable.  The snake that she holds connects two continents across a pink ocean, perhaps representing the African diaspora. 

In this work and others, Mutu aims to challenge and (literally) deconstruct prevailing notions of both femininity and "Africanness." She explains "When I say I'm an African artist, I mean it's a part of my practice, part of who I am because I was born and raised there. But often, when people say I'm an African artist, it's reductive--it's exotic, it comes from a world that's in the past. Even broaching the idea of race is very complicated because Africans have a different historical experience to those who were abducted and brought here to the U.S.A. ... I always say I was racialised in America...We don't break things down in terms of black and white, but we do have the colonial issue. My work relates to the forced creation story that the colonialists invented for us." These constructed power dynamics are explored in Misguided Little Unforgivable Hierarchies (2005), in which three composite creatures form a totem, and it's difficult to ascertain who dominates whom. 

Sometimes Mutu and the viewer become part of this complicated power play. In Eat Cake (2012), the artist squats like a predator gorging herself. Though the film is a metaphor for excessive consumption in Western society, it also generates an uncomfortable voyeuristic experience. Viewers stare down at the film--which is projected onto a packing crate on the floor--and watch Mutu as she uses long, acrylic nails to devour an ungodly amount of chocolate cake. Race relations are hinted at in the contrast of the dark cake with the bright, white dress she wears, and as in her collages, the female figure (in this case Mutu herself) is both attractive and repulsive.  

Here I must break in to state that Wangechi Mutu is gorgeous. Willowy and stylish, she looks like many of the models in the magazines that she cuts to bits. This makes one wonder: How would the work-- and Mutu's own view of the world as a woman--be different if she herself were not so attractive?  

In a class I recently taught on this exhibition, one of the participants disputed the notion that Mutu critiques gender stereotypes at all; rather, he contended, she presents them yet again, and in some cases, she even embodies them. I don't completely disagree: Mutu often uses the traditional markers of feminine beauty to draw us into her work, then she shows us the danger of trusting those markers. In the end, her oeuvre doesn't have one unified message (even if it does have consistent overarching themes). Her visual stunners affect each of us differently depending upon our own ideas about sex, identity, gender, race, and relationships. She raises more questions than she answers, not only about herself, but also about her audience. 

To learn more about Wangechi Mutu's retrospective, contact me to set up a private tour: http://laurenakaplan.com

Lauren Kaplan