Wangechi Mutu, Once upon a time she said, I’m not afraid and her enemies became afraid of her The End (2013), mixed-media installation; courtesy The Brooklyn Museum
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There is something misguided about Once upon a time she said, I’m not afraid and her enemies became afraid of her The End (2013), the first piece viewers encounter upon entering “Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey” now at the Brooklyn Museum, and it’s not the verbose title. It’s the work itself: a wall-sized diorama that combines ancient myth and post-apocalyptic spectacle, high-flown allusions and discount materials, image-mongering and set-design. The depicted scene—a centaur-like creature fleeing a squadron of pelt-covered robotic insects—is rendered all but negligible by an array of competing, ungainly, and ill-conceived materials; these include strapping tape, moving pads, faux snakeskin, wood veneer, animal fur, snippets from magazines, and paint. Once upon a time is shockingly literal in its construction. Talk about inertia: None of the materials are in the least animated. This is an opening gambit for a museum exhibition? You’d never know that the Nairobi-born, U.S.–educated, and Brooklyn-based Mutu is an artist of finely tuned precision.
That is, when she’s making collages. When devoting herself to sculptural flourishes, theatrical devices, and cinematic experiments, Mutu is as hapless as any traditional artist made antsy by a technology-besotted mixed-media culture. The aforementioned moving pads, especially, are given some kind of workout, having been installed along walls, exit doors, and columns to form a pseudo-junglescape—which is punctuated by fiery-red panties. Mutu doesn’t fare much better with Suspended Playtime (2008), a Beuysian installation of wadded-up garbage bags that is less environmental agitprop than traffic obstacle. You’d think an encompassing imagination might lend itself to video and computer-generated imagery, but the sci-fi moralism of The End of eating Everything (2013) and Eat Cake (2012), wherein an elaborately costumed Mutu squats on the forest floor consuming and tromping on a chocolate cake, are hampered by oh-so-political import. The best thing about the video Amazing Grace (2005) is the soundtrack: the artist singing the title song in her native Kikuyu. Hearing it drift through the galleries provides some respite from the surrounding galumphery.
Wangechi Mutu, Family Tree (2012), mixed-media collage, 20″ x 14-1/2″; courtesy The Brooklyn Museum
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Given the intrusive nature of such gimmickry, Mutu’s collages seem almost beside the point. It’s as if she were mortified to be considered a maker of mere pictures. Mutu wouldn’t be the first artist intent on proving her PoMo credentials. More than a few traditionalists have mixed media in the grand pursuit of “contemporaneity.” Perhaps the allusions to Hannah Höch and Romare Bearden, artists without whom Mutu’s work is inconceivable, have been too steady and clear, too redolent of precedents confirmed rather than of precedents transformed. Certainly, convention hampers Mutu’s smaller works on paper, wherein the cut-and-paste aesthetic coasts too readily on Dada-esque disjunction. Anyone with a soft spot for the art of collage will derive some pleasure from the cobbled portraits of Family Tree (2003), a suite of thirteen meditations on the “cleavages in our humanity.” But Mutu’s elisions of imagery and reference are too automatic in their cleaving. The verbiage surrounding the pieces—talk of “uncoupling from imperialist modernity” and the “inchoate noumena of history”—struggles mightily to elevate them above the status of handsome contrivances.
Wangechi Mutu, Le Noble Savage (2006), ink and collage on Mylar, 91-3/4″ x 54″; courtesy The Brooklyn Museum
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A shift in format size results in an upturn in ambition and artistic worth. When working on a scale not commonly associated with collage—in other words: big—Mutu’s knack for ornament and abundance overpowers received tropes, thereby enlivening her vision. The accumulation of bits-and-pieces culled from National Geographic, art-history texts, catalogues of industrial machinery, and, less overtly, pornography endows her iconography with symbolic heft and aesthetic necessity. Mutu’s characters, though somewhat ambiguous in gender, are Amazonian. The sinuous title figure in Noble Savage (2006) strikes a pose reminiscent of both a model on the catwalk and the Statue of Liberty. Sinuously cobbled together from myriad collage elements, Mutu’s “savage” is set against an atmospheric expanse of painterly incident and engulfed within a meticulously cut field of paper fauna. Here the combination of fairy tale ambiance, steam-punk grit, and an oleaginous Surrealism gains elegance and clarity through sheer material accumulation. Surface area, as it turns out, counts for a lot. Granted, the work is slick to a fault, but its opulence impresses all the same. Would that Mutu risked outright vulgarity. Anything that makes an artist as self-conscious as this one reach beyond the strictures of self is a good thing.
The most telling facet of “A Fantastic Journey” is its overriding, unapologetic professionalism. Say what you will of the “Cullud Grrl from Out of Space,” as the essayist Greg Tate dubs her, Mutu is nothing if not assured in her approach to artist-hood. She has her bases covered—politically, artistically, theoretically, and as a public persona. The canniness of the oeuvre as a cultural marker is inseparable from an art world that rewards tidy packaging. In that regard, Mutu is less a Postcolonial artist than a post-MFA phenomenon. Any controversy that might have once been generated—about, say, the often tragic confluence of sex, race, and culture—has been rendered mainstream and all but toothless. This says as much about our society’s ability to absorb pretty much anything as it does about Mutu’s studied art. But would there be any doubts if Mutu brought to her work the humanistic gravitas of Romare Bearden, the idiosyncratic perspicacity of Hannah Höch, or the out-of-left field absurdity of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, another pivotal influence? Instead, she cruises on expertise and platitudes. Mutu is only forty-one; she has time to broaden and deepen her art. Perhaps the success she’s currently experiencing will allow the freedom to do just that.
© 2014 Mario Naves
This review originally appeared in the February 2014 edition of The New Criterion.