Merging fantasy and horror, dreams and desire, Wangechi Mutu’s sculpture, collages, and videos meditate on themes surrounding colonialism, pornography, and the appropriation of the black female body. Mutu typically culls material from fashion magazines, beauty advertisements, and pornographic images, and then expertly gathers each fragment into new figural forms, which belong simultaneously to science fiction and ancient mythology. Her earliest collages were more compositionally sparse. Empty white backgrounds surrounded awkward, disproportionate female figures composed of fragmented body parts and fashion accessories. The artist would often combine models of different races in order to form ethnically ambiguous or “global” hybrids.
As Mutu’s female figures grew more dynamic over time, they came to appear frightening, powerful, and strangely provocative. The bodies extend and writhe through compositions filled with ever more collaged elements: metallic paper, raffia, glitter, and images of engines; masks and animals float throughout luscious backgrounds of washed or sprayed paint set onto Mylar.
To be sure, there is a clear Dadaist precedent for Mutu’s work, which informs her shifts in scale and anatomical fragmentation, and her use of mechanical cognates for organic or biological forms. Into this framework she integrates new concerns applicable to the globalized world in which she operates, providing commentary on themes such as hybridity, cultural appropriation, and the ongoing exoticization of African bodies in both colonial and postcolonial contexts. Her collages attest to a fragmented, global subjectivity, one that is both beautiful and violent in its sheer multiplicity.
For her 2013 retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, Mutu presented her first animated short film, The End of Eating Everything, which featured the American recording artist Santigold as a Medusa-like character who explores a bleak, polluted landscape. The piece focuses on consumption: of the earth, of global economic resources, and perhaps also of culture in today’s market-driven art world. A new three-channel video, The End of Carrying the Whole World (2015), will premiere at the Biennale di Venezia alongside the related sculpture She’s Got the Whole World in Her Hands (2015). Here, Mutu marshals Sisyphean iconography, extending themes of incessant and futile striving into the postapocalyptic fantasies of past films.