Wangechi Mutu explores the relationship between humans and the natural environment through new organic materials sourced from different parts of East Africa.
In this solo exhibition at Lehmann Maupin in Hong Kong, Wangechi Mutu’s sculptures and paintings parallel the notion of human evolution from biological to societal construct that shape our understanding of nature and one another.
This is the first solo gallery exhibition of Kenyan-American artist Wangechi Mutu in Hong Kong. Held at Lehmann Maupin Gallery’s Rem Koolhas-designed space in the Pedder Building, Hong Kong, the exhibition is on view from 18 May to 8 July 2017.
In this show, Mutu’s sculptures and paintings are made from organic matter, featuring humanoid and spherical virus-like forms. The materials include rocks and minerals, iron-rich soil, roots, and branches sourced from different parts of East Africa.
Born in 1972 in Nairobi, Kenya, Wangechi Mutu received her BFA from Cooper Union in 1996 and MFA in Sculpture from Yale University School of Art in 2000. She is known for her collages, paintings, sculpture, and video works that recontextualise the relationships between the body and nature. They are a mixture of biology, folklore, pop culture, science fiction, spirituality, and philosophy, which explore the representation of the African female body.
By creating collages out of magazine images with found materials and paint, Mutu is known for exploring the fragmented construct of cultural identity, referencing colonial history, fashion and contemporary African politics. However, in the current show, her new works are a departure point from her futuristic and sci-fi collages earlier on. Sculptures are grouped together in the form of sculptural installations, shown alongside her paintings.
Her works have been exhibited internationally, including at institutions such as the Whitney Museum of Modern Art and The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; Guggenheim Bilbao, Spain; Camden Arts Centre, London; Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney; the 56th Venice Biennale (2015) and the 11th Dak’Art Biennale, Dakar, Senegal (2014). She has also won awards such as the first Deutsche Guggenheim Artist of the Year Award (2010) and Anderson Ranch Arts Center’s National Artist Award (2017).
Exploring materiality and nature
Mutu continues to work with found materials. To reference nature, the artist incorporates red soil from her garden into her sculptural work, which is reminiscent of the Nairobi landscape. Roots and branches sourced from different parts of East Africa are part of the artwork. These raw natural elements serve as the basis for the dialogue between nature and humans.
In “The Sticks”, tree branches intertwine with the head of the three dimensional figure made from soil. The features of her work resonate with Kenya’s agriculture, economy, land, topography and its identity as the cradle of mankind.
In an interview, Mutu speaks about the cultural identity of Kenya:
It is rapidly developing its industry and manufacturing, and its cultural identity as a new country. We had a humongous history pre-British, and when we were colonized and violently reshuffled, we had to decide who we were again. We couldn’t rest on the stories and the cultures of our great-grandparents. A lot of it had been torn out and thrown away.
Organic forms, hybridity and the body
The humanoid forms capture the state of hybridity amidst the transformation or mutation from soil to living creature, combining plant, animal and human. These sculptural forms are exhibited alongside paintings in the exhibition, highlighting the biological, environmental and spiritual aspects of the creation myth embedded within her art.
In her work, the artist explores the notions of self-image, gender constructs, cultural trauma and environmental destruction. To Mutu, the body is a space of contestation and a testing ground for both the creation and the reimagining our relationship with the natural world and with social forces.
Her work presents an alternative to the traditional and dominant modes of representation, proposing the fluid position of identity as performative.
Metaphor of disease
On the other hand, several spherical virus-like sculptures are showcased in this exhibition. The three-dimensional structures resemble magnified versions of viruses under the microscope, indicating the potential threat of disease by an alien object. Metaphorically, viruses represent unwelcomed foreign intruders, much like immigrant artists in a xenophobic society. As a Nairobi-born Brooklyn-based artist, Mutu has first-hand experience with issues of borders, migration, colonialism and African diaspora herself. The works invoke a sense of alienation and struggle.
In an interview, Mutu speaks about how her family sparked her interest in the topics of indigenous trees and tropical diseases. Her father used to share his enthusiasm about trees in Kenya with the family, whereas Mutu’s mother, who was a nurse, showed her medical books on tropical diseases. Mutu remarks:
There is nothing more insanely visually interesting and repulsive than a body infected with tropical disease; these are diseases that grow and fester and become larger than the being that they have infected, almost. It’s different from temperate diseases, which seem to happen inside of the body. Tropical diseases—elephantiasis, polio, and worms that grow in people—create new worlds and universes on your body. That’s what has always fascinated me.
Art as resistance
Commenting on her work in a press release (PDF download), the artist says:
Art is my way of speaking about things that are unspeakable, it is my truest voice and my strongest form of resistance. It is such a privilege to be recognized in these times for doing what I most love doing, it gives my work more urgency. I know we can do better for one another and for our earth, and I am deeply committed to using creative means to bring attention to violence and inequality against women and to the parallel destruction of our Earth.
- Talking about art and love: Kenyan artist Syowia Kyambi at Serpentine Gallery – interview – November 2016 – Kenyan born artist Syowia Kyambi was recently nominated as runner-up for the FT/Oppenheimer Award 2016
- Wangechi Mutu’s “surreal cosmos”: Kenyan contemporary art – picture feast – August 2013 – Australia’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) holds Wangechi Mutu’s first solo survey exhibition of mixed media collage, installation and sculpture
- Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise at SculptureCenter, New York – March 2017 – CAPTC is a union of Congolese plantation workers who harvest primary raw materials for international export companies
- Photo Gallery: emerging Hong Kong artist Frank Tang’s new media ink art – January 2017 – The Hong Kong-based artist’s work is on show at chi art space until 8 January 2017, in the fourth exhibition in the “As Far As Near” series presented by K11 Art Foundation
- Anxieties of a shifting geopolitical order: Para Site and KADIST Art Foundation co-present “Soil and Stones, Souls and Songs” in Hong Kong – May 2017 – the group exhibition explores issues brought by the forces that have transformed the world over the past decades
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