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Cabinet of curiosities

June 2013

  • Suzanne Fraser

Wangechi Mutu at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney

Everything about Wangechi Mutu, the artist, is a revelation of contrasts. Her education, her career, her methods, her subjects – all stand as tribute to the value of multiplicity and synthesis. Showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney from May until August, Mutu’s latest exhibition represents a 10-year survey of her career so far, laying bare a carnivalesque artistic practice in which the black female body takes centre stage.

Using a combination of collage, drawing, installation, and video, the artist offers a series of visual musings on the functioning of race, gender and consumerism in contemporary western society. This disparate subject matter is tied together – and lent serious heft – through the artist’s ongoing references to the history and legacy of colonialism, a topic in which the artist has a vested, ancestral interest.

The embrace of variety in Wangechi Mutu’s body of art might at first seem a little bewildering. Yet her use of what might best be described as a “hybrid” aesthetic is not superficial or arbitrary, but the informed product of a sweeping set of life experiences. Born in Kenya and educated in Nairobi, Mutu relocated to study in a twelfth-century castle in Wales at the age 17, before taking degrees at Cooper Union in New York and finally Yale University, where she earned her MFA under the tutelage of William Kentridge and Jeff Wall. Each of these chapters has in turn been folded into her art, making the current survey exhibition a veritable labyrinth of identity prompts and cultural insignia.

Included in the exhibition are two installations featuring banqueting tables, a motif that might initially prompt the viewer to consider either the biblical iconography of Leonardo’s fifteenth-century masterwork The Last Supper or the early feminist imagery of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party. Both of these spheres of reference, religion and feminism, have pertinence in Mutu’s practice. But these table-based installations are, in the first instance, fantastical explorations of excess; three-dimensional, multisensory reinterpretations of the seventeenth-century vanitas painting. In Exhuming Gluttony: Another Requiem (2006), Mutu presents the setting of a ruinous feast, in which wine bottles drip their contents from the ceiling, rotting and staining the solid wooden table below. In her 2010 work entitled My Dirty Little Heaven, the central structure is instead comprised of a series of slatted tables onto which a combination of wine and milk trickle; in the mixture of these liquids we witness a contrast between vice and innocence. The use of slatted tables in this work makes references to the benches on which bodies were stacked during the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

Throughout this exhibition there is a tussle between festivity and threat. The artist harnesses her multipoint cultural perspective to disorient the viewer, inundating their senses with an array of colours, shapes, subjects, and sounds. Mutu draws upon the legacy of Italian modernist Lucio Fontana in her creation of spatial environments, in which the viewer must, however momentarily, exist and reflect. In reference to Mutu’s employment of eroticism in the work The Ark Collection (2006), senior curator at the MCA Rachel Kent makes an observation that extends across the exhibition: the artist “suggests all, but reveals nothing”. These are sensory works, tactile and evocative, yet never explicit.

Mutu’s body of work is partly driven by a challenge to western historical discourse, as is evident in the aforementioned collage series The Ark Collection, which features assorted images of women arranged in neat display cabinets. Here the artist reimagines existing quasi anthropological texts of the twentieth century as ridiculous fantasies of exoticism. In the mixed-media sculptural work Moth Collection (2010), the artist mimics the western tradition of taxonomic display – often associated with nineteenth-century imperial expansion – by exhibiting a collection of 52 ceramic “moth girls” split across two gallery walls. Mutu situates the female figures around four large gouges in the gallery walls, representative of four east African lakes that were also the sites of massacres.  The moth figures are presented as interesting hybrid specimens that, nevertheless, deny scientific classification and display.

For the MCA’s Rachel Kent, who has been “a great admirer of Wangechi Mutu’s work for many years”, the current exhibition is clearly a labour of great interest. Amongst Kent’s other curatorial badges is the massively successful 2008 survey exhibition of British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, the catalogue for which is shortly to be reissued with a new essay written by Kent. It is interesting to contrast the current exhibition with that of Shonibare, who also explores issues of colonial legacy and hybridity in his practice. Yet whereas Shonibare alludes to West African history in his work, Mutu positions her art through her East African heritage. The curious forms and creatures imagined by Mutu are expressions of her starkly contrasting life experiences to date – from Kenya, to Wales, to Brooklyn, and several places in-between. As the current exhibition in Sydney shows, it is all across these locations and cultures that Wangechi Mutu has located her oeuvre.


Wangechi Mutu shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, until August 14.



1. Wangechi Mutu. Exhuming Gluttony: Another Requiem (2006) installation view, MCA, 2013. Courtesy the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia © the artist. Photograph: Alex Davies
2. Wangechi Mutu. Moth Collectin (detail)(2010). Installation view, MCA, 2013. Courtesy the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia © the artist. Photograph: Alex Davies
3. Wangechi Mutu. Moth Collection 2010. Porcelain, chalk, leather, feathers, paint, paper dimensions variable. Sender Collection, New York. Courtesy and © the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels
4. Wangechi Mutu. Harenet (2012). Installation view, MCA, 2013. Courtesy the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia © the artist. Photograph: Alex Davies




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