WRITTEN BY JACQUELINE MARINO
“A Fantastic Journey” is the first U.S. museum survey of Kenyan-born artist Wangechi Mutu.
Mutu moved to Brooklyn in the mid 1990s and has become a dominating presence in feminist art conversation. This traveling exhibition opens to the public Oct. 11 at the Brooklyn Museum in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.
“A Fantastic Journey” was curated by Chief Curator of Contemporary Art Trevor Schoonmaker at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.
Mutu is regarded for her provocative collage-based depictions of deconstructed yet stunning women among scenery that recalls her native Africa.
Sexually charged and animal-like, these works reflect the artist’s own reconciliation between the two identities that she has embodied.
Fittingly, many of the paintings in the space are diptychs. ‘People in Glass Towers Should Not Imagine Us’ is one of many that compares the representation of women in media.
The left panel shows a white woman adorned with jewels and a crown of golden-blond hair slumped against a bare tree. A black string wraps through to the right panel, which depicts an erotically posed black woman in white gloves and a skintight leopard jumpsuit. Both appear uncomfortable and distant.
The space that fills the Feminist Center of the Brooklyn Museum has seen many remarkable exhibitions, but ‘A Fantastic Journey’ takes viewers away from traditional whitewashed museum walls to a minimalist jungle that captures Mutu’s color palette, and is framed by soaring synthetic tree growths from ground to ceiling.
Upon entering, the audience is hauled into her world, while a video installation with Mutu singing the salvation song, ‘Amazing Grace’ in her native tongue, Kikuyu, plays from the other side.
While the words are indecipherable to the average person, the meaning is not lost. The video itself is a lovely shot of Mutu wading her way into the Atlantic Ocean, representing not only her own journey but the Diaspora of her people who were dragged as slaves to the Americas.
The exhibit’s female images cross borders between beautiful warriors to frightening, aesthetically displeasing forces–an amalgamation of woman, nature, and machine.
Mutu herself is the obvious source of inspiration for these images. Born in Nairobi, Kenya in 1972, her past 15 years in Brooklyn have planted a series of questions and commentary about colonialism, the Western idea of a primitive Africa, and the ways both cultures react to the natural feminine form.
While Mutu’s paintings are not specifically politically motivated, her work is easily recognizable by arbitrary blood-red paint splatters that call to mind the years of conflict and wars in Africa that resulted from colonialism and displacement.
Mutu also dissects Western social structures through her Afro-feminist lens. Though this label likely generates eye-rolls from jaded art world critics, her style and innovation are undeniably crisp and fresh for a wider audience.
She has even expanded on this style by collaborating with the exceptional talent of musical artist Santigold.
In Mutu’s first animated video, “The End of Eating Everything,” which depicts an insatiable flying form (played by Santigold) gluttonously consuming all in her path, as writhing limbs that cover her surface grab at whatever is left behind.
Overall, the show is transfixing. However, Mutu’s message remains unclear.
Perhaps that is the “Fantastic Journey” she intends. She seems constantly at odds with her present and her past, yet those aspects of the human experience are often some of the most captivating.
“A Fantastic Journey” will be on view at the Brooklyn Museum through March 9, 2014.