“The idea of having many roots...is extremely empowering for me.”
“I create as a way of reinvigorating myself by replacing and reworking images and ideas that never fully represented me and the women and the people I was born from and who made me,” Wangechi Mutu has said. Born in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1972, the artist relocated to the US in the mid-1990s to study fine art. Her experience of migration and her diasporic identity have infused the artist’s creations with an expansive philosophy of belonging: “If a plant has just one root that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to stand straight and strong. The idea of having many roots, of having your feet really grounded in different places, is extremely empowering for me.”
Renowned for her figurative work across mediums, Mutu is committed to reshaping the narratives of womanhood; by doing so, she challenges Western culture’s racist and misogynistic tenets. In her collages, sculptures, videos, and performances the figure of the woman is depicted with the complexity and profundity of a timeless archetype. Clichéd images of mothers, virgins, and goddesses provide Mutu with potent source material that she reconfigures to make space for agency, multitude, and contradictions. As the artist explained the origin of her collage-making practice, “I took these idealized stereotyped images of women and Eden-like ‘tropical’ images of Africa to create other images, tension-charged, potent, because they were full of my own emotional upset at the original ones…I was taking apart the images of a world that refused to acknowledge me.” Her characters, however, do not merely stand in defiance of the confines of normative visions of Black femininity; for Mutu, it’s important that her figures carry “balance and a feeling of belonging within them” as they establish imaginary worlds of their own.
In Yo Mama (2006), the heroine—modeled after Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti, the Nigerian feminist and mother of the legendary Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti—embodies the role of Eve, the biblical first woman. She stands atop a beheaded snake, piercing its severed head with the stiletto heel of her boot. The serpent’s coiling body unravels placidly through the pink outer space, holding the two panels of the collage together as its tail wraps around a distant planet. Mutu’s cosmic composition utilizes the potent symbol of the snake in all its richness: the cunning creature associated with Eve’s damnation morphs into a mythical, celestial being whose dead body bridges two planets, while its wounded phallic form evokes oppressive masculinity. In Mutu’s retelling of this foundational tale, Eve defeats the snake and emerges victorious, taking control of her own story.
In Mutu’s practice, mixing materials through collage, bricolage, and montage is not a mere formal choice but a guiding principle of resilience and regeneration. Fictional characters merge with historical figures, animals, and plants in a tantalizing cycle of metamorphosis, which unleashes their empowering and healing abilities. Mutu speaks about her transformations in terms of rebirth and reincarnation: through fusing with other materials, her subjects emerge renewed and “return to their potential and their power.” In shedding the skin of familiarity and morphing into fantastical chimeras, Mutu’s figures eclipse preconceived notions of race and gender.
The monumental bronze MamaRay (2020) appears as an otherworldly female guardian deity. Her body echoes the appearance of aquatic creatures, especially the giant manta ray, with broad cape-like wings stretching from the top of the figure’s head to its serpentine tail. Embodying the vast symbolic potential of the ocean, which for Mutu is “a portal from which all living beings first arrived,” MamaRay follows other mythic beings inhabiting Mutu’s work: divine female warriors, goddesses, and supernatural creatures such as Nguvas, or Kenyan water-women. She belongs neither to the past nor the future, although her zoomorphic form and otherworldly, elongated head point toward ancient history and science-fiction, respectively.
The sculpture partakes in the lineage of Afrofuturist visions of the underwater world, famously imagined by the Detroit-based techno duo Dreixiya (active 1992–2002), who drew on the African myth of the water spirit Mami Wata to propose an alternative future, where those lost to the violence of the slave trade founded a civilization at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Mutu’s MamaRay points to that history and the hypothetical world while providing a model of empowerment through an intimate entwining with nature. The visionary hybrids populating Mutu’s work usher in a world where diverse species and peoples exist in a harmony rooted in interconnectedness.
Dominika Tylcz, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture, 2023