Wangechi Mutu’s ‘Intertwined’:
An Exhibition Review

A Review on Intent and Impact
As someone who had never heard of Wangechi Mutu prior to this assignment, I was excited to explore a new artist and compare-contrast her perspective to my own. I avoided doing any preliminary research because I wanted a chance to confront her art without the stains of other people's opinions or critiques. When I arrived at the New Museum I asked the staff where they suggested viewers begin their journey through Mutu’s work, “Well, the collection is sprawled throughout the whole museum so you can start anywhere you want!”, she replied. I began on the top floor where I was met with Mutu’s Shavasana II (2019)  mixed media sculpture. There lay a woman whose arms and legs lay exposed while the rest of her body was covered by a worn-out tapestry. She wore half-on pink open-toe slingback pumps. She looked like a body found at a crime scene. Kind of disheveled and unidentified. “I felt that! '', I immediately expressed, agreeing with the figure’s worn-out disposition. This sculpture set the tone for the rest of the impressive collection which features collages, sculptures, paintings and a film. Collectively, Wangechi Mutu’s work explores the beauty and burdens of being a woman through the lens of Afro-futurism, African folklore, American popular culture, disease, pornography and nature. She did an impressive job at weaving those themes together to present a unique approach to expressing Black femininity and sexuality.

What I appreciated most about Wangechi's work is that it requires viewers to slow down and process what they are actually viewing. When I first approached her collages, I remember feeling frustrated at what I perceived as being off-putting and discordant. For example, her earlier collage work, This You Call Civilization? (2010),  is made up of ink, watercolor, glitter, dirt, and collaged paper on polyester film. At first glance, the image looks like a dark cacophony of shapes mimicking a microscopic view of a skin cell. My short attention span urged me to give up on making out the story the image was trying to tell, but I ignored it and took a step closer to look at the collage bit by bit. In the bits, I found body parts of monsters, motorcycles, cheetah print, a woman's legs and heels, wheels, fruit, and feathers. Still, I couldn't figure out what these objects meant all together. So I stepped back and realized that both the image itself and the process of confronting her work call into question the codependent and entangled relationship between man, nature, and machines. We are so accustomed to the instant gratification provided by the technology and systems we've created to make our lives easier. Yet, somehow, these same creations are beginning to make our lives more difficult in several ways. Overall, Mutu's thought-provoking collage work challenges viewers to consider the deeper implications of how our actions might affect each other and the world around us. They invite us to be more liberal, critical  and cautious.

I thoroughly enjoyed and connected with the majority of Wangechi’s statues  but my most favorite was  her bronze cast statue, In Two Canoe (2022). The piece features two femme plant-people who are sitting at either side of a canoe filled with flowing water. Mutu masterfully employs textures and patterns to add depth to the figures and spaces she created in this fixture. The figures' bodies, fashioned after tree roots and leaves, seamlessly meld into the vessel and the ground beneath them. Their dignified and poised postures exude power and sensuality, and they have a mysterious yet familiar quality. I found myself drawn to the piece and even felt compelled to join the plant-people  in the water.

After processing Intertwined, I came to realize that the overarching theme reflects a concept that I have been grappling with in my personal life - the persistent tension between the roles women choose, assume, and are assigned versus our ability to sustain and fulfill these roles. Her film The End of carrying All (2015)  perfectly embodies this tension. In it we see a woman walking across a post-apocalyptic landscape carrying various objects that grow from consumer objects like a bike wheel and satellite dishes into very large structures like oil rigs and eventually a city. This woman never stops her journey despite her fatigue and the growing weight of her load. At the end of the short-film the mass the woman is carrying fully engulfs her turning her into a monstrous glob. Mutu's poignant commentary on the weight of societal expectations and the limitations they impose on women is a powerful reminder for us all to question and dismantle  these constructs.

In her Cultural Cutouts Interview with Louisiana Channel  she attributed her dedication to showing the devotion and strength of women to the “remarkable humility and hardwork” of the women in her family who had the grave responsibility of raising families during trivial times. Her grandmother , in particular, raised ten children in Kenya during the Mau Mau Uprisings between 1952 and 1960. Her work highlights the all-consuming nature of the burdens imposed upon us by society, family, relationships, and even ourselves. Yet, as women, we also possess a remarkable strength to rise above these challenges and transform them into something beautiful.

Wangechi used her strength and the eminent presence of feminine energy found throughout humanity to create profound artworks that challenge the concepts of race, gender and identity.  I walked into this exhibition not expecting to be impacted as greatly as I was when I left. Her collection offered viewers the chance to look at Black womanhood through an objective lens by “questioning our invisibility” and expanding the ways we see images of women by creating obscure, subversive, extraterrestrial, god-like, dynamic versions of the images we encounter regularly in popular culture. Each piece scrutinized the image of Black womanhood by drawing attention to the fact that society glorifies the image of the woman but denigrates her actual existence. 

A Few of the Works on View

A Note on Curatorial Design
Although I enjoyed Wangechi's work, I was not impressed by the curatorial choices made by The New Museum. As an artist who subversively explores race and identity, her work requires more contextual support than what was provided by the curatorial team. Wangechi's work draws from a wide range of references, including American popular culture and African folklore and tribal culture. I can't help but wonder how much more impactful the exhibition might have been if the curators and exhibition designers had carried out more contextual legwork for the viewers. The lack of context made it difficult for me to understand the pieces. I only formulated an opinion on their meaning and was able to fully appreciate the collection after researching Wangechi on my own.

Curators hold the important responsibility of also being experiential designers, guiding attendees' to truly interact and relate to collections in a creative and thought-provoking way. This team , however, did not. The collection could have been more impactful if it had been categorized by theme. For instance, Wangechi's clay sculptures intentionally involve a lot of embellishment, and she often talks about how she adorns the forms she makes in ways that replicate the way African women embellish themselves in real life (Wangechi Mutu Interview, n.d.). Wangechi believes the ways we dress tell important stories about ourselves, our families, our cultures, and our histories. Perhaps the team could have highlighted this facet of her work by grouping the pieces that illustrate this theme.

To be frank, Wangechi’s work deserves a more thoughtfully designed exhibition space that can better complement her pieces. I couldn't help but notice that Shavasana II and In Two Canoe were loans from the Gladstone Gallery, known for showcasing artworks in outdoor spaces. Given how closely her work is tethered to nature, it would have been more effective if the exhibition spaces themselves embodied the natural elements present in her work. Unfortunately, these two works had the worst placements in the whole exhibition, with Shavasana II (2015)  secluded on the top floor and In Two Canoe (2022)  tucked away in a side gallery on the first floor. This leads me to wonder why The New Museum selected these works only to display them in such an unflattering way.

Overall, I don't think the museum did a good job of showcasing Wangechi's art compellingly or coherently. I think the exhibition lacked objective and organization, unless the objective was simply to house Mutu's works under one roof.
Currently available for collaborations, clients and commissions. 📨