New York City and Kenya-based Wangechi Mutu is an artist who works in a variety of media: acrylic painting, ink drawings, sculpture, collage, video art, performance art, and installations. Mutu deals with feminist issues, sexuality, ecology, politics, and violence perpetrated against women, especially black women through a surrealistic style of art.
Mutu, a member of the Kikuyu, one of the original precolonial nations of Kenya, was born in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. She attended an all girls Catholic school through high school. At 17 she attended an international school, the United World College of the Atlantic in Wales for one year. She spent one year at Parsons School of Design in New York and then attended Cooper Union where she studied under pioneering activists, one of whom was the artist Faith Wilding. She received her B.F.A. from Cooper Union in 1996. At that time she was making sketches and creating collages and videos about the female body. In 2000, she received her M.F.A. in sculpture from Yale University.
The female body, more specifically, the black female body is the subject of her art. Mutu uses the female form to explore the interplay between the real and the imagined. She combines ideas found in literature, history, legends, and in her own personal mythology to portray female identity and power. She said in an interview, “I was always interested in the power of the body, both as an image and as an actual mechanism . . . The body became the mechanism with which I was able to move my mind around all these issues of otherness, of transplanted-ness . . . as an African-raised black woman in New York City.”
Her female forms are hybrid humans, often writhing, dancing, or swirling in space. She combines painterly techniques with constructions of images made from cut-paper and collage, using untraditional materials of tea, hair, soil, feathers, and sand. She mixes ink and acrylic paint and applies this color to surfaces of pictures, taken from medical diagrams, fashion magazines, botany and anthropology textbooks, and pictures of traditional African art.
Mutu’s exhibition ‘Nguva na Nyoka” (Sirens and Serpents) was based on a sea mammal that Kenyans call ‘nguva’. It is a large creature related to a manatee and has been combined with stories of mermaids by fishermen. This exhibition consisted of video art, a large sculpture, and 15 paintings which have serpentine imagery visible in blue and purple water worlds. The detailing is intricate and seductive, appropriate for the theme of sirens and mermaids. There is an abundance of tendrils, tentacles, and snakes as forms, that oscillate between plant and animal life, swirl and proliferate.
Her hauntingly beautiful “Throw” 2016 is a spray of fermented black paper pulp against a wall and floor. It has the delicate ephemeral quality of a water-soluble medium in its fragmentation and dispersal.
Mutu received the Deutsche Bank Artist of the Year Award in 2010. Her Afrofuturist sculptures were featured at the 56th International Exhibition of Contemporary Art, Venice Biennale in 2015. She received an Artist-in-Residency from the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, North Carolina which traveled globally.
Her sculptures of four bronze caryatids were installed through January 12, 2020 in the niches in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s classical, foursquare facade, which flank the museum’s front doors. Each sculpture is some seven feet high, with sloping eyes and long fingers and could be from an Afrofuturist otherworld. This was the first time that the Met’s grand Beaux-Arts exterior was used for the display of art. Recently the museum acquired two of the sculptures for its permanent collection: “The Seated I” and “The Seated III.”
Mutu is showing a pair of standing figures made of wood, concrete, and bone at the current 2019 Whitney Biennial. She has exhibited in solo shows at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Brooklyn Museum of Art; MOCA North Miami; Sydney MOCA; Studio Museum in Harlem; Tel Aviv Museum of Art; Yale University School of Art; Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco; the Grand Palais, Paris; Smithsonian National Museum of African Art; Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin; and museums in India, Tokyo, United Kingdom, Brazil, and Canada.
In addition to the recent acquisition of two of her caryatids, her work was in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art when the museum acquired her 2006 monumental diptych “My Strength Lies,” 2006.