- Wangechi Mutu
Histology of the different classes of uterine tumors
glitter, ink, adhesive tape, fur and collage on found medical illustration paper
Susanne Vielmetter, Los Angeles
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 2005
St. Petersburg, The State Hermitage Museum, USA Today: New American Art from The Saatchi Gallery, 2007-08, pp. 120-124, illustrated in colour
Edward Booth-Clibborn, Ed., The History of the Saatchi Gallery, London 2011, pp. 679-81, illustrated in colour
Executed in 2005, Wangechi Mutu's remarkable series of twelve collages entitled Histology of the different classes of uterine tumors collectively explore the contradictions of female and cultural identity in relation to colonial history, African politics and Western commodification. Inventively wielding collage as a means of both physically and conceptually bringing layered depth to her work, Mutu culls pages from fashion magazines, National Geographic, and books about African art, to piece together figures which are both elegant and perverse. Individual body parts comprised of found 'objects' are made to seem like odd prosthetics, spawning a bizarre corporeal cogency of torsos, limbs, and facial features glued and drawn over in ink. In the present series, nineteenth-century medical diagrams form the basis for Mutu's invented portraiture. The original illustrations, symbolic of colonial power, suggest a wide range of cultural pre-conceptions: from the 'superiority' of European 'knowledge' to the classification of nature (and consequently race) into genealogical hierarchies. Her pastiched characters engender aberrant amalgamations of physical and cultural 'ideals'. A composite of physical 'perfection' derived from lifestyle magazines, clippings of media proliferated archetypal beauty coalesce with anatomical diagrams of disease and infection to deliver a model of contamination and female augmentation, explicated by the respective titles of the individual works: 'Adult Female Sexual Organs'; 'Cancer Of The Uterus'; 'Complete Prolapsus of the Uterus'; 'Ectopic Pregnancy'; 'Uterine Catarrh'; 'Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tumours'; 'Tumours of the Uterus'; 'Indurated Ulcers of the Cervix'; 'Fibroid Tumors of the Uterus'; 'Cervical Hypertrophy'; 'Primary Syphilitic Ulcers of the Cervix'; and 'Ovarian Cysts'.
Born in Kenya, Mutu initially trained as both a sculptor and anthropologist; and these collages illustrate the marriage of these formative interests. In using antiquated medical diagrams, her collages carry the authenticity of artifact and appointed cultural value. Sutchered and bonded onto these antique torn pages Mutu manipulates ideal embodiment using appropriated and dismembered bodily ideals. Under Mutu's scalpel, female physiognomy becomes racial distortion and corporeal mutilation; Mutu forges ethnic bricolage, juxtaposing and amalgamating black and white facial features into a monstrous cogency. Fused body parts and anatomical diagrams examine how ideology is implicitly tied to corporeal form. This process mimics amputation, transplant operations and torturous prosthetics. Her figures become parody mutilations, their forms grotesquely marred through perverse modification, echoing the atrocities of war or self-inflicted improvements of plastic surgery. Mutu converts schematic diagrams of anatomical infection, and even reproductive malfunction into stillborn expression; the mouth/vagina bloodied and empty, her scarred figures struggle to voice her identity. Incongruous organs and body parts are transposed and recapitulated as facial features to propagate a freakish pastiche of feminine beauty.
Conflicting textures draw a wide range of connotations: from glamour models, to dyed fabrics, diseased skin, and science fiction special effects, her female physiognomies become an embodiment of the disjointed facets of modern Africa, caught in the flux of Western preconception, internal turmoil, and ancient tradition. As observed by the artist: "Females carry the marks, language and nuances of their culture more than the male. Anything that is desired or despised is always placed on the female body." Pasting images taken from porn and fashion magazines over diagrams of vaginal infections, Mutu capitalises on the contradictions of female role expectations: as western media ideal, sex goddess, and mother. Mutu's figures are both victim and warrior, allusions to encompassing female exploitation in both Africa and the West.
Simultaneously ancient and futuristic, shaman and cyborg, her figures shift between totem and technological invention, an aspiring super-race and by-product of a troubled and imposed evolution: they represent ominous and disconcerting icons, goddesses of pasted over diagrams of biological disease. Mutu satirically identifies her diseased femininity as a sub/post-human monster, an equally primitive and prophetically alien species. Ostensibly repellent and ludicrous, these figures are also controversially attractive. They also embody an identity crisis; origination and ownership of cultural signifiers are transformed into an unsettling and disputed terrain. Here, Mutu manipulates materials which make reference to African identity and political strife: her dazzling black glitter is an abyss of western desire and allusion to the illegal diamond trade and its consequences of oppression and war. Nonetheless, from corruption and violence, Mutu engenders glamorous beauty; empowered by their survivalist adjustment to atrocity, her figures are made immune and provocatively enhanced by horror and victimization.