Wangechi Mutu

A force within the Afrofuturism movement, discover the work of Wangechi Mutu

By Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University

Wangechi Mutu poses with model of MamaRay by LaToya Ruby FrazierNasher Museum of Art at Duke University

Meet the artist

Wangechi Mutu was born in Nairobi, Kenya, and currently works between Brooklyn, New York and Nairobi. Mutu’s work is fundamentally about the condition of being a human, especially from the perspective of an African woman.

Visitors in the gallery (2013) by J CaldwellNasher Museum of Art at Duke University

In the artist’s words: "How we experience, perceive and reproduce images of ourselves, as well as how we view and create images of others."

In her experimentation with figuration, Mutu’s work looks at the value systems that sit beneath these ideas of representation. Using volcanic red-soil, inks, bronze, photography, ash, bones, driftwood as well as film and performance, the figure is always present.

The Seated I at Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2019) by Wangechi MutuNasher Museum of Art at Duke University

Mutu earned a master’s degree in fine art from Yale University. In 2019, she inaugurated The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Facade Commission with an exhibition entitled The NewOnes, will free Us.

In fall 2021, her work was included in Prospect New Orleans’ fifth edition, “Yesterday we said tomorrow.” She is the recipient of Deutsche Bank’s “Artist of the Year” award, the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Grant, the Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters & Sculptors Award, and the American Federation of Arts’ Leadership Award.

Family Tree Family Tree (2012) by Wangechi MutuNasher Museum of Art at Duke University

In this work, Wangechi Mutu constructs a female-dominated creation mythology, as if to explain the origin of the universe and life as we know it. The group of thirteen composite figures presents the original ancestral pair, their three children, the two spouses of their children, and six grandchildren.

"My work is to understand how we can all co-exist on this planet. So when I'm creating I find tranquility with my surroundings and within myself. It's all about putting into the work all of the best of what I've inherited and learned, so that I can understand how to exist with others as well as reveal how the misery, the crisis and the chaos we created are the oldest way we unfortunately learn what peace and equality really are. Like working on collages, or with the idea of fusions and hybridization, and creating harmony from fragments, it's a much tougher proposition than it seems.” — Wangechi Mutu, born in Nairobi, Kenya

MamaRay (2020) by Wangechi MutuNasher Museum of Art at Duke University

Mutu at the Nasher

Three years in the making, a monumental bronze sculpture by Wangechi Mutu has arrived inside the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University—our first sculpture commission.

Fifteen feet long and with a wingspan of 12 feet, MamaRay is part human, part manta ray and part supernatural creature.

MamaRay (2020) by Wangechi MutuNasher Museum of Art at Duke University

Students in Duke’s Master of Engineering Management program look at MamaRay.

MamaRay (2020) by Wangechi MutuNasher Museum of Art at Duke University

The new sculpture anchors the museum’s 13,000-square-foot Mary D.B.T. Semans Great Hall. 

According to the artist, MamaRay envelops and emerges from the space around her, demonstrating a harmony of balance and strength, as well as a tenderness encapsulated by the sheer force of nature.

A short video of the installation of MamaRay, which took a team of four about six hours.

Trevor Schoonmaker (-2020) by J CaldwellNasher Museum of Art at Duke University

“It’s exciting to welcome a sculpture of this magnitude into our space. MamaRay is a triumphant goddess figure, a protective guardian who will further connect our building to the surrounding green landscape and the sky above our glass-and-steel roof. Wangechi’s work is of course an expression of Black feminine power, but it is also a response to the natural world around us and an embodiment of our interconnectedness. It’s an iconic work that will no doubt become part of the museum’s identity.” — Trevor Schoonmaker, Mary D.B.T. and James H. Semans Director of the Nasher Museum

Wangechi Mutu (2013) by J CaldwellNasher Museum of Art at Duke University

The Nasher Museum has a long history and strong relationship with Mutu, an internationally renowned, multidisciplinary artist whose work is part of the museum’s collection.

Wangechi Mutu (2013) by J CaldwellNasher Museum of Art at Duke University

In 2013, the Nasher organized Wangechi Mutu’s first survey in the United States, Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey, which presented more than 50 works, including collage, drawing, sculpture, installation and video. The exhibition traveled to the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, and the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University.

Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic JourneyNasher Museum of Art at Duke University

A richly illustrated 176-page, full-color catalogue was published by the Nasher Museum on the occasion of the exhibition. The catalogue includes an interview with the artist conducted by the exhibition’s curator, Trevor Schoonmaker. Essays by Schoonmaker, art historian Kristine Stiles and critic and musician Greg Tate are paired with an illustrated chronology of Mutu’s work.

Family Tree Family Tree (2012) by Wangechi MutuNasher Museum of Art at Duke University

In this work, Wangechi Mutu constructs a female-dominated creation mythology, as if to explain the origin of the universe and life as we know it. The group of thirteen composite figures presents the original ancestral pair, their three children, the two spouses of their children

Family TreeNasher Museum of Art at Duke University

Most of the figures in Family Tree are composed partly of illustrations of human organs from old medical journals. By using these images, Mutu equates early medical advancements, and specifically dissection of the human body, with the colonization and carving up of the African continent.

Man-eating lizard (2012) by Wangechi MutuNasher Museum of Art at Duke University

The composite women who inhabit her work, like the one here, are both beautifully grotesque and unnervingly alluring, pieced together with parts human, animal, plant, machine and monster. In this work, a lizard-woman sits on a tree branch and appears to consume the historical image of a white male. Magazine cutouts of a motorcycle, African beading, leaves and a skull with pelt address the conflicting cultural projections related to race and gender found so often in her art.

Family TreeNasher Museum of Art at Duke University

More broadly, Family Tree demonstrates Mutu’s long-standing interest in transformation and adaptation as necessary means of survival.

Wangechi Mutu and Greg Tate by J CaldwellNasher Museum of Art at Duke University

“The fact that Wangechi is an internationally renowned Kenyan artist born of Gikuyu muckety-muck bloodline who has lived and worked in a Bed-Stuy Brooklyn Brownstone for nearly a decade, should be, by itself, enough to qualify her as an ‘Afro-Futurist.’ If only you, or anyone else, actually knew what an Afro-Futurist really is. We could hazard to say that Afro-Futurism, like Afro-Punk, Afro-Surrealism, and Neo-HooDooism are the default Black cultural nationalist imaginaries of this historical moment.”  Greg Tate, the late cultural critic, musician and producer, in an essay for the 2013 catalogue Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey

The End of eating Everything (2013) by Wangechi MutuNasher Museum of Art at Duke University

Mutu’s first-ever animated video The End of eating Everything critiques society’s gluttonous consumption and over-indulgence. The central character is a magical, destructive, mothership creature, played by the musical performer and recording artist Santigold.

Credits: Story

MamaRay was commissioned by the Nasher Museum with funds provided by Joan Kahn.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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