WANGECHI MUTU: AN AFROFUTURIST PUNK AT THE MET
By Piotr Orlov
October 1, 2019
For a few weeks in mid-September, if you were to visit Wangechi Mutu’s newly installed bronze sculptures on the facade of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, there was a chance that the visual juxtaposition on display conveyed a more meaningful message about the contemporary human world’s potential than anything you’d come across in your feed or IRL. Foremost was the primary presence of four caryatids, metallic holy warrior female manifestations with mirrored discs on their heads, which make up the Kenyan artist’s groundbreaking exhibition, “The NewOnes, will free Us,” a historic commission that fills the previously empty niches on the museum’s Fifth Avenue face. Their simultaneous synchronicity with, and opposition to, the classical European architecture creates a vision transcending the usually accepted constraints of time.
Yet during that brief period, two of Wangechi’s figures also appeared either side of an oversized rendering of the famed image depicting Neil Armstrong’s 1969 walk on the moon, beneath the words “Apollo’s Muse.” That title of a Met photo show celebrating the 50-year anniversary of the (supposed) landing, seemed to be bowing to Mutu’s work — the muse being one of the primary traditional functions of an architectural pediment, while the Greek god of truth and prophecy was acknowledging surrounding powers that were greater than his own. Meanwhile, the retro sci-fi image of visored man in a white space suit with the literal universal as his backdrop, was being usurped by physically present figures of strength whose existence used the earthly expression of intergalactic mysteries as building blocks for self-made realities. The conversation between the eras, the elements and ideas about our world was… is stunning.
It is the power of the conversations that Wangechi Mutu’s work incites which makes simply walking by the Met an invitation to be transported. “The NewOnes” is only the latest instance of that power. The connective line through the various forms of her works — sculptures, videos, mixed-media collages and paintings — is the creation of a unique, visionary world, often marked as “Afrofuturist,” but which may be better described as defiantly personal. This world is the creation of an artist born in Kenya, who left for a global art education at a young age, winding up in Brooklyn at the turn of the century where her visions began to take root, growing in as many directions as she had creative sources and strong ideas. Which is a lot.
Some of these directional identities became an evocative, insightful, sometimes hilarious list in the opening graph of Greg Tate’s essay, “The Gikuyu Mythos vs. the Cullud Grrrl from Out of Space,” featured in the catalog Wangechi Mutu, A Fantastic Journey, which accompanied her 2013 mid-career retrospective of the same name at the Nasher Museum of Art (Durham, NC) and the Brooklyn Museum: Here, she is “A Gikuyu gal gone rogue. A Riot Grrrl turned back to Africa. A gender dysphoric witch in hiding. Somebody’s mama. A natural-born feminist. A cultural anomaly.” And then later: “A self-avowed artist from the age of four. A goddess in Bed-Stuy. A shout in street.” There are more — many more.
At AFROPUNK, we are also proud as hell to call Wangechi Mutu a friend and confidant. So, on the occasion of her new work’s triumphant debut in New York — where in addition to the Met sculptures, she was also featured in this summer’s 2019 Whitney Biennial — we asked Wangechi for some thoughts. We’ve never known Wangechi to be anything less than forthright, who suffers no fools. And so it was with our correspondence, which touched upon on “The NewOnes” and on how this work — and the heightened attention that this first-of-its-kind installation at one of the world’s most famous, and, often, historically problematic, art institutions — reflects the times we live in. The exchange, which took place by email, is lightly edited for flow.
How do you go about starting to think about a commission such as this, one that is so specific yet also carries so much contextual weight behind it? Was there any trepidation because of all these factors? Talk a little bit about what you wanted to bring to The Met’s facade? How much was it about making sure the work fit in — and how much was about taking a chance and making a statement?
When I first got the call from [Met Museum Chairman for Modern and Contemporary Art] Sheena Wagstaff, I admit I was surprised, but I’ve known her for years and she and I have always had very real, good interactions. Hearing about the ambitious project that the Metropolitan Museum of Art was undertaking and their larger vision where they planned to highlight Contemporary Artists and Art within underused spaces like the Facade, was all very exciting. I was very engaged and interested in her explanation and not assuming I would be offered the Commission.
Had I thought about it as an idea I was “responsible” to everyone for, I would have been extremely self-conscious and nervous. I approached it as a formal and creative challenge. I envisioned an idea that was relevant and current with a clear nod towards the past or history. I wanted to bind the idea to Art-histories that are emotionally and philosophically from my mother-brain and my mother-land.
The idea of interactivity and audience involvement is also important to me. I love when my work can speak to people from a distance and also is clear from close up and encourages them to move around.
These four seated figures are incarnations of many ideas and hopes that I’ve worked on for some time now, but they are manifested as four unencumbered, self-assured, distinguished, singular female characters. They are carrying themselves and what they have to say as artworks and as communicators with their reflective circular mirrored disks.
I find the mirror to be an incredible object and a powerful tool. Mirrors have been used by humans for thousands of years; the ancient Egyptians used them, and many other civilizations and cultures. Shamans, medicine-men, astronauts, doctors, pilots, artists, dancers and many other professions and specialists wouldn’t be able to do what they do without them.
Is there a historic significance to the figures — or a historic significance you want them to bring? You have likened them to caryatids. What kind of support do you think they give to the Met?
These figures (like most of my work) began, from a small set of drawings in my sketchbook that had been in there, waiting for the right moment. I draw so I won’t forget the many ideas I have; I draw to develop the ideas and may push thoughts forward so I can actually get the idea realized and completed. I’ve been drawing seated figures for a while and many of these figures are holding or carrying or lifting things. I see them as powerful and active protagonists. They are doing something to move things or hold up or lift something that is heavy and important to greater heights. As a structural form, caryatids (which are often, but not always women) hold up buildings or the seats of a throne, or a royal staff, or balconies or the weight of a king’s power. I wanted to take the work of carrying and weight bearing away, because these women deserve to be leaders and representatives in their own right. These four structures are carrying the hope and desire for equality and visibility of all women, including myself. They have mirrored disks that are meant to show us who we are and shine back powerful sun rays on us. They are carrying history, culture, memory with their strong, protective coils of garment/armor.
The title of the work is The NewOnes, will free Us — can you unpack that title a bit?
I’ve made these works during this time of deep existential crisis here in the United States and many other countries. There is such despise and violence and hatred within the leadership. There is such a lack of compassion for humanity and the earth. There is a rise in brutal behavior, that is racist, misogynist, xenophobic, homophobic, anti-intellectual and uncultured. There is little regard for sick or elderly people who aren’t wealthy.
The NewOnes are in my opinion, new ideas, fearless new voices, young people, new immigrants, new ideas, engaged new art, new gestures of rebellion, the new that will enlighten and bring forth change. The new migrant populations who are able to survive the long journey over sea or land, those who are making it to the borders and crossing, carrying with them children and trauma and the truth and stories of their survival; these people, these places are the boiling cauldron of change and these voices will be part of the solution to the terrible problems we are in. They all will play a role in changing and freeing all of us.
You are a prominent African artist at a moment when contemporary art from the continent is receiving more attention globally from curators and audiences, but also building out infrastructural a though the value of art for the national communities seems to have been more accepted. Can you talk about how that moment feels from the inside? Do young artist you meet and the artists you are around in Kenya feel like there is more opportunity? Or do you feel like this too shall pass in the art world, and it will try to move on?
If African people are receiving attention, then it did not start recently. The African continent has been a place of deep interest for centuries; for economic and cultural reasons, for its resources, its raw materials, trade-routes and more. Since before the Berlin Conference of 1884, since before the explorers of the 17th Century, since before the exchange and wars with vast kingdoms in the 16th century, since before the theft and trade of humans into the Americas, since before Vasco Da Gama tried to sail to India in the 1500’s. This moment is a continuum and part of many others. There has been of a long relationship with Europe, with Asia, with the Americas and many other parts of the world from both an economic, cultural, religious and social perspective. Africans have been in the United States since 1619 and even before that, and today we are excelling as artists, as astronomers, as actors, neurologists, pastors, writers, athletes and more. Our countries of origin are more involved and alert to our presence abroad. These opportunities didn’t begin with the Art-world nor are they separate from it. If anything, Artists are telling the truth by letting everyone know what’s really going on and signaling what is soon to happen. For that very reason I’m very proud to be an active voice and an Artist.