The Mythical Power of Wangechi Mutu

The Mythical Power of Wangechi Mutu

In her new exhibition in San Francisco, the artist creates a strange new world

Above: Wangechi Mutu with Outstretched, 2019 installed in I Am Speaking, Are You Listening? at the Legion of Honor museum, San Francisco. (Randy Dodson / Wangechi Mutu / Gladstone Gallery / Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco); Cover Image: Wangechi Mutu, A Dragon Kiss Always Ends in Ashes, 2007, which sold at Sotheby’s for $287,500.

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 Using mythical and art historical references she reveals suppressed narratives and uncovers hidden meanings.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.”

Close-up of Wangechi Mutu's Outstretched, 2019, at the Legion of Honor museum, San Francisco (Randy Dodson / Wangechi Mutu / Gladstone Gallery / Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco) Gary Sexton

“[Mutu's] imagination is at once seductive, ferocious and voracious”
Claudia Schmuckli, curator of contemporary art and programming, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

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.

From left: Installation view of I Am Speaking, Are You Listening? featuring Shavasana I, 2019, Shavasana II, 2019; MamaRay, 2020 (Randy Dodson / Wangechi Mutu / Gladstone Gallery / Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco) Gary Sexton

“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

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