The Modern Myth: Drawing Mythologies in Modern Times, a new exhibition organized by my colleagues Geaninne Gutiérrez-Guimarães and Luis Pérez-Oramas, opened in the Drawings Galleries last week, bringing together a stunning display of works from MoMA’s collection that draw on the motif of mythology. One eye-catching work in the contemporary section of the exhibition is a large-scale collage by Wangechi Mutu titled One Hundred Lavish Months of Bushwhack. She made this work in 2004 during her artist-in-residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem, and it was acquired by MoMA directly from her soon after our curators saw it on view in the Studio Museum’s exhibition Figuratively.
Though she has also worked in video, sculpture, installation, and, most recently, performance (as part of Performa in 2009), for the past several years Mutu has produced stunning collages of fantastically ornate hybrid women, composed of cut-out images culled from magazines ranging from Vogue to National Geographic, outdated ethnographic surveys, pornography, and botanical illustrations. Mutu is interested in how stereotypes become ingrained into the public conscious, and through her art she investigates gender and racial stereotypes, in particular those pertaining to black women, formulating a distinctly personal position on feminism, postcolonial continental Africa, and globalization.
Mutu makes her collages on Mylar instead of paper, because it’s plastic surface allows paint to pool rather than absorb into the sheet. This gives a glittering—at times almost grotesquely leprous—sheen to the figures she renders. The figure in One Hundred Lavish Months of Bushwhack appears dressed in festive garments and with an aggressively stance, her stiletto-clad left foot poised to kick. However, if you look closer you will notice blood hemorrhaging from her head and mangled right foot. Mutilated and unstable, she is being held up at her ankle by a small, sinister-looking figure. Mutu has described women as “barometers,” innately vulnerable to the fluctuation of social and cultural norms. Here the vestiges of combat (political, cultural, and perhaps literal) have actually scarred and broken her. Yet Mutu has reconstructed this woman into something elegantly disordered, mythical and powerful, rising up, leaving the viewer to reconsider the notion of the feminine ideal.
On January 27, 2007, Mutu participated in the symposium The Feminist Future: Theory and Practice in the Visual Arts at MoMA; visit MoMA’s Think Modern Audio Archives to listen to the artist speak about her art.