Wangechi Mutu and the revolt of the female form

The Pacific Northwest premiere of Mutu's work introduces a powerful post-colonial, feminist voice


 Wangechi Mutu: The Hybrid Human at PNCA’s 511 Gallery is a succinct presentation of Mutu’s works, borrowed from the collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer. Anchored by two series, Histology of Different Classes of Uterine Tumors and The Original Nine Daughters, the exhibition highlights Mutu’s continued exploration of a visual language associated with femaleness and blackness. Mutu’s first solo exhibition in the Pacific Northwest—she was born in Nairobi and has lived in New York since the 1990s—is also the inaugural exhibition of the annual Jordan D. Schnitzer Exhibition and Visiting Artist Series, and will feature her talk on March 10.

Twelve works from Histology of Different Classes of Uterine Tumors, a direct reference to a historical medical textbook of the same name, occupy one wall of the gallery. Mutu distorts the medical illustrations of ovarian cysts, tumors of the uterus, and ectopic pregnancy with a collage of grotesque and disproportioned faces. In Histology of Different Classes of Uterine Tumors: Cancer of the Uterus, wide set eyes and luscious red lips shape a face covered in black glitter, reminiscent of astronomic images of the sky speckled in stars and planets. Small tufts of white fur frame the face, creating a tactile collage that is at once visually alluring and malformed.

The Original Nine Daughters is a series of nine prints—etching with aquatint, linocut, and collage. A figure is embodied in each print, silhouetted, each seemingly standing on a variation of a platform structure. Intimate in scale, one figure is vastly different from the next. This series alludes not only to the nine muses in Greek mythology but also to the creation story of the nine Kikuyu clans—the largest ethnic group in Kenya. Though the figures are iconic and repetitive in form—like the Virgin of Guadalupe, or the relief of muses on a Roman sarcophagus—each one is highly distorted upon closer observation.

Wangechi Mutu, "Histology of Different Classes of Uterine Tumors"/Courtesy of PNCA

Wangechi Mutu, “Histology of Different Classes of Uterine Tumors”/Courtesy of PNCA

In fact, Mutu’s figures are quite the opposite of Western icons; they challenge previous traditional imagery (like 19th-century, colonial illustrations of the “Hottentot Venus”) and upend assumptions of the gaze. Mutu’s women are distorted figures, hybrids of animals and natural elements, bodies that are capable of great force. In her insightful and concise essay, curator and writer Ashley Stull Meyers writes: “In a world where pictures of blackness and womanhood are pictures of otherness, Mutu’s figures present themselves as othered with violent contention. Her confounding hybrids are exceptional in both senses of the word—they’ve been excluded from our current aesthetic economy, but they’re made more valuable for it.”

Louise Bourgeois’ Femme Maison series (1946-47) comes to mind when viewing The Original Nine Daughters. They share similarities of a hybrid female form and surreal imagery, but the figures take on different struggles. Whereas Femme Maison is a defeated imagery of an exposed woman’s identity tied to domesticity, Mutu’s Original Nine Daughters seem to purposefully reveal sexuality and strength. All are figures in a moment of resistance.

Wangechi Mutu, "The Original Nine Daughters"/Courtesy of PNCA

Wangechi Mutu, “The Original Nine Daughters”/Courtesy of PNCA

Second Born and Homeward Bound are larger works outside the two series in the exhibition, but they inhabit Mutu’s imagery of the complex hybrid exploring femaleness and blackness. Mutu uses the gaze as confrontation. This strategy is well described in bell hooks’ Black Looks: Race and Representation: “The gaze has been and is a site of resistance for colonized black people globally. Subordinates in relations of power learn experientially that there is a critical gaze, one that “looks” to document, one that is oppositional. In resistance struggle, the power of the dominated to assert agency by claiming and cultivating “awareness” politicizes “looking” relations—one learns to look a certain way in order to resist.”

Mutu’s imagery reveals the body as if turned inside-out, becoming many things—the alluring shimmer of glitter, the stunning blood-like splatter, the viscous texture offset by soft fur, machine parts merged with animal anatomies. In Mutu’s visual language, these mythological siren figures disarm us, and we can consider femaleness and blackness beyond the confines of the historical gaze.

Wangechi Mutu: The Hybrid Human continues at PNCA’s 511 Gallery, 511 NW Broadway, through March 12. Mutu’s artist talk is at 6:30 pm March 10. 

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