Wangechi Mutu at the New Museum

By Peggy Roalf   Friday March 3, 2023

Wangechi Mutu, an artist who divides her time between New York and her native Nairobi, has made her presence felt here since the late 1990s. Once moved in to study at the New School, then earning her BA at Cooper Union School of Art and later an MFA at Yale, she began making art that went against the grain of prevailing trends. She made collaged figurative paintings, sculpture and installations, and both live and video performances exploring what it is to be a woman of color working in a male dominated art world. Representing the full breadth of her practice, Wangechi Mutu: Intertwined, a museum-wide exhibition, presents collaged paintings and drawings, sculpture, film, and performance that combine the beautiful and the grotesque in scenarios that recall the artist's fascination with science fiction and dystopia. Photo below courtesy of the New Museum

Mutu first gained acclaim for her collage-based practice exploring camouflage, transformation, and mutation. She extends these strategies to her work across various media, developing hybrid, fantastical forms that fuse mythical and folkloric narratives with layered sociohistorical references. Wangechi Mutu: Intertwined traces connections between recent developments in the artist’s sculptural practice and her decades-long exploration of the legacies of colonialism, globalization, and African and diasporic cultural traditions. At once culturally specific and transnational in scope, Mutu’s work grapples with contemporary realities, while proffering new models for a radically changed future informed by feminism, Afrofuturism, and interspecies symbiosis. 

It makes sense to view the show starting from the 7th floor installation of a recent bronze work (above) whose delicacy of form is at war with the violence evoked by the presumably dead woman beneath a woven textile. This is a powerful reminder of the violence and misrepresentation that women, particularly Black women, experience in the contemporary world. 

In a 2017 magazine interview she said, “Like all other things that inform my work, good sci-fi is always about contrasting extremes. You’ve got dystopia, and then you have utopia. I was raised a city girl in an African city and I grew up watching the same shows as children in Europe and America, but my world looked completely different from what I saw on TV. When I go back to Nairobi today, I see traditional markets coexisting with shops where second-hand Western goods are sold, and there are gorgeous landscapes with the ugliest slums situated right next to them. These juxtapositions have actually given me a lot of comfort. I don’t have to justify the way my work marries the beautiful and the grotesque, because a lot of these mixtures are what my country is about.” 


In a mural-size work called Moth Collection (2010, above) Mutu has created seventy-five human-insect hybrids in an installation that evokes a classroom chalkboard, geographical terrain, and a Victorian hobbyist’s insect collection. The gouges in the wall (below left) are formed in the shape of Kenyan lakes, suggesting the connection between bodily wounds and these particular sites, historically exploited by colonial empires.

Mutu is one of the few woman artists who has taken on pornography as a vehicle to re-define gender and identity; she explores cultural constructs about the role of women in society in collaged paintings and animated performance videos that seamlessly blend notions about beauty, power and colonialism with the far-reaching effects of environmental destruction, one of which is on view here. 

In recent sculptural works Mutu combines earth matter such as mud and tree branches, with objects of symbolic importance in African culture. Seeing Cowries (2020), a piece that combines cowry shells, which are used as currency in both a literal and spiritual way, with black mud to evoke what has been called a fictional vision of African realities. 

Public programs: As part of the exhibition “Wangechi Mutu: Intertwined,” New Museum will present the artist’s films Amazing Grace (2005), Eat Cake (2012), The End of eating Everything(2013), and My Cave Call (2021) in the New Museum Theater on select Sundays. Screenings will take place every 45 minutes beginning at 12 p.m. Access to the New Museum Theater is included with general admission. Info Photos © copyright and courtesy of Peggy Roalf

New Museum, 235 Bowery,New York, NY Info Tickets