Wangechi Mutu observes: “Females carry the marks, language and nuances of their culture more than the male. Anything that is desired or despised is always placed on the female body.” Piecing together magazine imagery with painted surfaces and found materials, Mutu’s collages explore the split nature of cultural identity, referencing colonial history, fashion and contemporary African politics. In Adult Female Sexual Organs, Mutu uses a Victorian medical diagram as a base: an archetype of biased anthropology and sexual repression. The head is a caricatured mask – made of packing tape, its material makes reference to bandages, migration, and cheap ‘quick-fix’ solutions. Mutu portrays the inner and outer ideals of self with physical attributes clipped from lifestyle magazines: the woman’s face being a racial distortion, her mind occupied by a prototypical white model. Drawing from the aesthetics of traditional African crafts, Mutu engages in her own form of story telling; her works document the contemporary myth-making of endangered cultural heritage.
Quote from: Merrily Kerr, Wangechi Mutu's Extreme Makeovers, Art On Paper, Vol.8, No. 6, July/August 2004. posted on:
Wangechi Mutu’s collages seem both ancient and futuristic; her figures aspire as a super-race, by-products of a troubled and imposed evolution. In Cancer of the Uterus, her figure is an ominous goddess; pasted over a pathology diagram, her portrait is diseased at the core. Mutu uses materials which make reference to African identity and political strife: her dazzling black glitter is an abyss of western desire, which allude to the illegal diamond trade and its consequences of oppression and war. From corruption and violence, Mutu creates a glamorous beauty; her figures empowered by their survivalist adjustment to atrocity, made immune and ‘improved’ by horror and being victims.
Wangechi Mutu trained as both a sculptor and anthropologist. Complete Prolapsus of the Uterus illustrates the marriage of these interests. Through collage, Mutu capitalised on the two-sided nature of her materials, conveying both the content and physicality of their sources. In using old medical diagrams, her collages carry the authenticity of artefact, as well as an appointed cultural value. In Complete Prolapsus of the Uterus Mutu contrives a racial hybrid: a puckered, prudish white face masks an ancient tribal wisdom. Mutu examines how ideology is implicitly tied to corporeal form. She cites a European preference of physique, inflicted on and adapted by Africans, resulting in hierarchical difference and genocide.
Wangechi Mutu’s collage process mimics amputation, transplant operations and torturous prosthetics. Her figures become parody mutilations, their forms grotesquely marred through perverse modification, echoing the atrocities of war or self-inflicted improvements of plastic surgery. In Ectopic Pregnancy, Mutu converts an image of reproductive malfunction into a stillborn expression; the mouth/vagina bloodied and empty, her scarred figure struggling to voice her identity. Mutu designs this portrait with sex-organs as face, dressed up with glistening hair and lip-gloss: a freakish pastiche of feminine ideals.
“There's this constant movement towards historicising Africa, turning it into this archaic place.” Wangechi Mutu explains, “… Part of my challenge…is to envision, not so much blackness as a race, but the existence of African elements in culture in the future and how is that possible.” The figure in Mutu’s Uterine Catarrh is both shaman and cyborg. Composed on antique paper, her figure shifts between totem and technological invention, the yellowed ground giving an aura of historical reverence to the modern gleen of shiny magazine cartridge. Mutu wittily positions the figure over her found medical illustration, rendering it with a ‘third eye’; a speculum portal of wisdom and vision.
In Histology of Different Classes of Uterine Tumors, Wangechi Mutu readily confuses epidemiology with anthropological classification. Mutu satirically identifies her ‘disease’ as a sub/post-human monster, an equally primitive and prophetically alien species. Repulsive and ludicrous, Mutu’s figure is also controversially attractive: its fur face and stardust afro an epitome of funkadelic chic. Histology… embodies a notion of identity crisis, where origination and ownership of cultural signifiers becomes an unsettling and disputed terrain.
In her series Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tumour, Wangechi Mutu uses 19th century medical diagrams as a basis for invented portraiture. The original illustrations, symbolic of colonial power, suggest a wide range of cultural pre-conceptions: from the ‘superiority’ of European ‘knowledge’ to the classification of nature (and consequently race) into genealogical hierarchies. In Uterine Tumor, Mutu challenges these imposed values, using physical disease as a metaphor for social corruption.
Pasting images taken from porn and fashion magazines over a prudish diagram of vaginal infections, Wangechi Mutu examines the perception of female sexuality. Her amalgamated portrait capitalises on the contradictions of role expectations: as western media ideal, sex goddess, and mother. Contorted in anger and crowned by black diamond dust, Mutu’s figure becomes both victim and warrior, alluding to the repercussions of female exploitation in both Africa and the west: from prostitution to sexual war crimes.
Encapsulating the shifting identity of African culture, Wangechi Mutu draws upon existing stereotypes to construct a ‘new and improved’ race reflective of traditional values, survival of historical oppression, and thriving participation in global trend. Her Uterine Tumour portrays a figure derived of cross-cultural sources: sensuous too-big lips, suntanned gam, funky glitter, and too-cool shades pasted over a found medical diagram creates a strong and tres chic character, master of his own endemiology.
Wangechi Mutu’s collages confront with brutal aggression; her pastiched characters become perverse amalgamations of physical and cultural ‘ideals’. In Uterine Tumour, Mutu’s male figure is assembled of mismatched body parts clipped from magazines, each an isolated feature of epitomised beauty: chiselled cheekbones, kiss-me lips, petite ears, and smouldering eyes. Together, they become a grotesque mask of racial parody. Centred over a medical illustration, her composite of physical ‘perfection’ becomes a model of contamination.
Wangechi Mutu harnesses the fear of the unfamiliar as a tool of power. Formed from cut and paste, Mutu’s creations are hybrids of multiple sources referencing the scars of cultural imposition. Placed atop medical diagrams, they feed off their cancerous classifications, directly confronting cultural preconception and bias. Set around image of an invasive gynaecological procedure, the woman in Primary Syphilitic Ulcers of the Cervix garners her strength from the source of her molestation. Disaffected and immune, Mutu’s distressing figure is comprised of the horrific myths of our own making.
Wangechi Mutu uses collage as a metaphor for the shifting concepts of global identity. In Ovarian Cysts Mutu unites a medical diagram, an archaeological photograph, and kitsch advertisement within a glittery death-head; each element conveying disjointed and dislocated associations of Africa. Drawing from colonialism, ancient history, contemporary politics, and lifestyle ideals, Mutu creates an emblem of tribute, encompassing both a tormented past and powerful future.
Painted on mylar, Wangechi Mutu’s Backlash Blues conveys an otherworldly quality: the paint and ink suspends on the plasticy vellum-like surface with an unnatural luminosity. Using a variety of techniques from airbrush to stencilling, controlled spills, and detailed brushwork, Mutu’s image poses as a composite of gesture; collaged photographic elements merge seamlessly into the painterly aesthetic. Incorporating both the organic patterns of dyed fabric and the exaggerated flourish of fashion illustration, Mutu’s wild figure exudes an apocalyptic glamour, fusing tribal ‘primitivism’ with the exotica of radical chic.
Wangechi Mutu’s Mask draws provocative comparison between archaeology and sexual fetishism. Pasted over the photo of a museum relic, her saucy model becomes a temptress of caricatured exotica. Encasing the woman’s body and face in a cut out of a voodoo sculpture, Mutu envelops her cover girl as a product of typecast desire and roleplay: warrior-princess, s&m freak, chastity-belted virgin. Overlapping the controversial facets of cultural association, Mutu’s figure beacons as a subversive dominatrix, shrewdly co-opting the rules of hierarchy, power, and manipulation.
In Untitled, Wangechi Mutu creates a glamorous, yet barbaric centrefold. Working in painting and collage on paper, Mutu exploits the physical qualities of her media to create a self-referential sensuality: the translucent crispness of the vellum relates easily to film, spilled paint stains diffuse as the subtle bruised texture of skin, and cut out blond hair and gams lend an appropriated lusty ideal. In picturing female sexuality, Mutu offers a futuristic totality of womanhood that’s both fiery and liberated. Comprised of motorcycle parts, she’s a machine built for speed: corpulent, sexy, with the dazzling power creation.