In the immediate wake of 2013, a critical survey of Wangechi Mutu’s artistic career in the past year reveals the long awaited fruits from over a decade of labor. Although she has been courted internationally by both large and small institutions, the prophet is finally being honored in her own country and by her own kin. The Brooklyn based artist heralded by many as a luminary in the progressive Afropolitan movement, uses her collages to engage in conversations on globalization, race, colonialism and the hyper-sexualized and often dehumanizing representations of black women we encounter every day. She along with contemporaries like Chris Ofili and Yinka Shonibare have carved out a space in the continuum of art history where Africa is no longer depicted in one dimensional narratives of extreme poverty and warfare, cliché caricatures of a Utopian past or ungrounded assumptions of heathen barbarianism. The continent has been reborn into the fantastical leaving its future limited only by the restraints of the imagination.
The Kenyan born Mutu conjures a cosmic eddy of hybrid animal, human and cyborg subjects who are pieced together from images harvested out of hunting, fashion and pornography magazines. It can be assumed that at the root of many of these images are her childhood experiences in Kenya, but they seem to be warped. Perhaps symbolic of the disillusionment many women like herself face as they mature, venturing out of their own communities only to become aware of their disparate identities in the larger world. Her disaffected heroines constitute a gruesome yet enchanting army of magazine fragments in a sea of water color. Proud full bellies are composedly tucked between fleshy legs and buttocks’ with in a provocative squat. They fall somewhere along the lines of offensive, political and a bit blush worthy all without losing their initial mesmerizing charm and thought evoking qualities. In a promotional video produced for her exhibition at the Nasher Museum, Mutu states “The power for me in this is to keep the figure−the story of the female in the center… to keep discussing and talking about women as active, as protagonists. Good, bad, whatever it is that they are, that they are part of the reason that we here.” In every act the “triumphant warrior female” of Ms. Mutu’s fantasia is shamelessly defiant and all the more delicious for it.
Her talent has been validated multiple times in the past year. In October, the artist opened her first major solo exhibition in the U.S. at the Nasher in North Carolina which has since travelled to her home town to be housed at The Brooklyn Museum. The well received Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey, is a selective survey of her work spanning from the 1990’s to present day featuring 50 pieces including previously unseen sketches from her private notebooks. She also presented her first short animated film entitled The End of Eating Everything, an unsettling and foretelling collaboration with musical artist Santigold which will be screened this year at the Sundance Film Festival. Themes of war, violence and death can be found woven throughout the story of her work in the form of bullet wound like splatters and amputated characters. Even more key is her return to sexuality, rebirth, and re-genesis as evidenced even in her medium of choice; collage and repurposed sculpture. This obsession with the fluidity of time (and an object’s present state within time) surfaced in her Artnet Artist Talk where she speaks elegantly about the difficulty of capturing a single moment because of how intimately it is related to both the future and the past.
Following the debut of the survey, a fanfare has erupted in her honor. In November, Huffington Post named Mutu number one of 10 Women Artists of the New Millennium You Should Know. She was also listed among Forbes’ 20 Young Power Women of Africa 2013 and included as one of the 15 Must-See Artists of Art Basel Miami Beach by Details Magazine. In addition to the media attention she has been getting as of late, she was also awarded “Creative Artist of the Year” at the African Diaspora Awards; Mutu’s comment is definitive; "I've waited a long time to be applauded in a room full of Africans." While her future has yet to be imagined, one can only believe that whatever Mutu has dreamed up next will not fail to enchant audiences.