What happens when an artist decides to focus on the female body as the site of engagement and provocation?

What you get is a series of imagery and hybrid figures sourced from medical diagrams, fashion magazines, anthropology and botany texts, pornography and traditional African arts, all amalgamated into challenging and yet almost disturbingly beautiful visual metaphors.

It is myth making at its best – bringing to life physical and conceptual depths in a  tactile, fleshy fashion while making social and personal commentary.

Kenyan born, New York based Wangechi Mutu is creating waves across the art world with her thought-provoking and stimulating interpretations of the female form.

Many of the artworks of Brooklyn–based Mutu’s career display a unique ingenuity. Packing tape plastered on a gallery wall becomes a mountainous landscape above which hovers a moon constructed of clothing, animal pelts, blankets and plastic pearls.

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Perhaps the Moon will Save Us (2008)

Similarly, her collaged bodies are frequently subjected to strange deformations or embellishments, combining elements of humour, pathos and sexuality in often surprising ways.

Being exhibited in Australia in 2013 are her Bedroom Masks series, The Ark Collection (2006) of erotic collaged postcards, and the X Ray series (2008) of strangely morphed life forms which sit between human, animal and plant worlds. The single collage Intertwined (2003) extends this theme with its elegant depiction of two conjoined female figures with canine heads.

Mutu’s work also illustrates the realities of Africa’s colonial past: her video series include moving images of the artist hacking at branches with a machete, endlessly scrubbing soap circles on a dirt floor, and walking into the ocean while singing Amazing Grace in Kikuyu, recalling the loss of life at sea on the slave ships bound for America or Europe.

”Beautiful things can happen when you act intuitively and instinctively in a moment of anxiety and do something radical,” she says.

My Dirty Little Heaven (2010) is a series of collages, videos and sculptural elements combined in a dramatic interplay; long slatted tables recall those used to stack exhumed bodies following the Rwandan genocide. The work was originally commissioned by Deutsche Bank, the Major Partner of the exhibition, and created as part of the Deutsche Bank Artist of the Year program.

Then there’s Perhaps the Moon Will Save Us which features an overstuffed, sagging moon made from fur pelts and costume jewellery; tiny collaged pigs with fur wings ‘fly’ across the wall, a satirical play on the idea of hope in a world gone mad. Rising from the gallery floor, the artist’s Mountetas – volcanic mounds made from packing tape – also evoke a strange alien world.

Mutu says Perhaps the Moon Will Save Us explores how power and strength can spring from unexpected sources.

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Wangechi Mutu. Photography: Kathryn Parker Almanas

”It’s kind of my obsession,” she says. ”There’s always a way to be powerful in places and at times not considered strong because you have no weapon or position. There are ways to speak that can transform things, which has less to do with authority but is more about resourcefulness and ingenuity.’

A group of elderly women taking their clothes off when confronted by riot police during a protest in Kenya highlights Mutu’s concerns about power in Africa.

”That was a very powerful gesture that expressed the power of the female body,” she says. ”It shifted the dynamic by setting up a primal psychological reaction, in that case shame and confusion, because the riot police weren’t expecting these motherly women to disrobe.”

Gender, race, colonialism and its aftermath in Africa are all examined by Mutu, who has art degrees from Britain and the US and has exhibited around the world, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin.

Mutu is perhaps best known for her collages that combine imagery from fashion, hunting and motorcycle magazines to look at how women, and especially black female bodies, are depicted in the mainstream media. She also delves into pornography, revaluing its trashy images of naked women by deploying them in her art.


The End of Eating Everything is a short film - a piece of social commentary ruminating on our present state of mass consumption in contemporary culture, created in collaboration with recording artist Santigold

”We’ve allocated them the label of trash, so they’re not valued,” she says. ”I try to think of ways of extending the lifespan of that image. Resourcefulness for me is conceptual, philosophical, political. It’s not just about garbage, but things we insinuate are beneath us.”

Mutu says she obsesses over the female form: ”My lab is this female body.”

She says the female body is a source of inspiration for her, allowing her to investigate her own experiences as well as those of other people.

”One of the things I’m interested in is not just women but the female qualities that are present in everyone.”

She digresses from the female body time to time to tackle issues such as Africa’s poverty. One example is Suspended Playtime - an installation of 44 balls made from rubbish bags and shredded paper hung at the entrance to her show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. The piece is a DIY homage to children in poor countries who do not have manufactured toys.

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Suspended Playtime

”Football has that wonderful gift of being accessible,” Mutu says. ”You don’t need much gear, a coach or a lifeguard. You just need your imagination, strong legs and a couple of friends and it’s a game.”

”In some way I’m trying to say art needs to be this way, and have this element of accessibility and being what you need. I make balls as artwork (but) the kids do a hundred times better job.”

Wangechi Mutu is at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia from May 23 to August 14.

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Exhuming Gluttony: A Lover’s Requiem, Salon 94, New York, NY

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The artist – Wangechi Mutu






Obtained with permission from the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney - http://www.mca.com.au/exhibition/wangechi-mutu/

Perhaps the Moon will Save Us (2008): Image courtesy of the artist and the Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

Main image - Parted (Wangechi Mutu) 2010



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