In her new exhibition in San Francisco, the artist creates a strange new world
W angechi Mutu’s intervention at the Legion of Honor museum, part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, claims space among artefacts spanning 4,000 years. The Kenyan-American artist’s practice challenges the canon and the narratives that support it. Using mythical and art historical references she reveals suppressed narratives and uncovers hidden meanings.
“I would like to emphasise her ability to turn the contemporary thirst for new myths inside out,” says Claudia Schmuckli, the museum’s curator-in-charge of contemporary art and programming. “By decoupling binaries and pulverising stereotypes within her work she creates visual fields where the distinction between human, animal, plant and machine are disintegrated.”
“[Mutu's] imagination is at once seductive, ferocious and voracious”
I Am Speaking, Are You Listening? comprises works spanning painting, sculpture, collage and more – including Mutu’s new film, My Cave Call, 2020.
In the Court of Honor, the museum’s grand neoclassical forecourt, lying beside Rodin’s The Thinker are Shavasana I and II, 2019 – two prone, anonymous female figures covered by blankets. “You see this conjunction that it is a muscular white man up on a pedestal and these two sculptures that are a reminder of the countless unnamed victims of European colonial success,” says Thomas Campbell, the museum’s director.
Female figures inspired by non-western myths act as guides, custodians and sentinels throughout the exhibition. Mutu tackles race, gender and colonisation formally but also through her materials. Rich, fluid bronze speaks to classical African sculpture and the mixing of stone, grasses, soil and ink evoke Kenyan traditional artistic practices.
“Her imagination is at once seductive, ferocious and voracious, and as such is a forward-thinking force that has a unique understanding of art as a technique of archiving and remembering,” says Schmuckli.
I Am Speaking, Are You Listening? is on view until 7 November
1999Mutu’s first solo exhibition of mixed-media works on paper, Surely it Cannot Burn so Long, at the Rush Arts Gallery, New York.
2005First solo institutional showing of the film Amazing Grace, in which a young woman dressed in white walks along a shoreline before submerging herself in water, at the Miami Art Museum.
2007First work sold at auction at Sotheby’s, an untitled collage of a provocatively posed woman, for £33,600, far exceeding its high estimate of £18,000.
2017At Sotheby’s, A Dragon Kiss Always Ends in Ashes, a large-scale mixed-media painting of a reclining nude being consumed by a dragon, exceeds its high estimate of $200,000 to sell for $287,500.
2019-20Completed the inaugural Façade Commission for New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The NewOnes, will free Us, consists of four huge bronze female figures that filled the museum’s long-empty niches.