Violence is a force exerted with intent to destabilize. It’s often described in congruence with ferocity, cruelty, and brutishness. But not all violent acts are calculated to hold more than their metaphorical or strategic value. Artist Wangechi Mutu’s brand of violence is unlike any typical association of the word. In the visual context, violence is a method of occupation. Images have the ability to make a hostage of our pre-formed assumptions. Mutu’s prints and video works are remarkably measured in their balance of softness and sinew. They’re alluring for their scholarly influences and poetic imagination. Mutu is a master of the aesthetic of politic—her prints, driven by contradiction, compose a picture of violence constructed from social criticism. The exhibition The Hybrid Human, sourced from the collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer, is an assemblage of visually political images with reconstructive resolve.
The series Histology of Different Classes of Female Tumors is a detailed metaphorical study of women’s anatomy. For Mutu, the anatomy of women extends far beyond the biological. Her examination is a study of a historical anatomy—the momentary antagonisms that when combined make for a “cadavre exquis” of women’s pain, progress and fetishization. Composed of tactile elements like fur and glitter, the works recount through their materials the assumption that women are perceived as attention seeking—available to be closely examined, coveted and touched. Mutu is also thoughtful about etiologies—both scientific and analogous. Medical illustrations act as the literal and ideological foundation for these images. Many works depict various nagging afflictions as the narrowly interpreted roles and representations assigned to women throughout history. Presenting diseases of the female organs for spectacle is a visual indictment of broader societal tropes of femininity. Tumors become euphemisms for the feminine as a rapidly developing terror in urgent need of a corrective. Tumors, after all, are unexpected and often times uncontainable growths. They metastasize. They permeate spaces where they’re unwanted. Mutu’s Histology is a visual pun reconciling contemporary feminist principles with the misguided iconographies of womanhood past.
Separate but equally informative to the prints in The Hybrid Human is the complex condition of African ancestry in a world often antagonistic to people of color. Much has been written of Mutu’s figures and their seemingly overt connection to seduction and mystery. Their femaleness, eclipsed only by their blackness, makes them an easy target for descriptors like “erotic”, “aggressive”, or “perverse”. It is in the spirit of these hyperbolic notions that the artist created the series The Original Nine Daughters. The production and consumption of African images and folklore by non-Africans has birthed innumerable caricatures and unforgivable hierarchies that have pervaded social consciousness. Ranging from pets and laborers to “noble savages”, portrayals of black bodies are often secondary to those of Western birth. Mutu upends this tradition by imbuing her figures with the significance of being the origin. The lore of The Original Nine Daughters is weighty even in title, considering the canon of “nine daughters” allegories also embedded in Greek mythology. The nine original clans of Kenya are thought to be descended from the daughters Mutu has etched. They’re described for their poetic hybridity—for being a combination of human women and goddesses with animal-like cleverness and understanding of the earth. They are mothers of black civilization. The women in “Nine Daughters” are both fearsome and femme, indicting our presumption that the two rarely overlap. Mutu, in her skill and decisive vision, glorifies the connotation of Africanness with animalism. The women in her images are spirited; they’re omniscient. They critique western notions of beauty not through exasperation and anger—but subversion and joy.
Through her meticulously crafted titles, Mutu has coined the memorable epithet, “People in Glass Towers Should Not Imagine Us.” Through a simple revision to an iconic adage, the artist’s entire practice is pinpointed. People in glass towers—positions of privilege with transparent foundations—should not imagine us. They should not conjure our images for their own, misguided narratives. They should not reproduce what was never theirs to give a name. In a world where pictures of blackness and womanhood are pictures of otherness, Mutu’s figures present themselves as othered with violent contention. Her confounding hybrids are exceptional in both senses of the word—they’ve been excluded from our current aesthetic economy, but they’re made more valuable for it. The prints and video in The Hybrid Human each represent an evolutionary stop in our understanding of what it is to construct an image. Both the mechanism and the metaphor involved in Mutu’s combining of disparate parts speak to a universal desire to appear complete in the face of fractured lineage. The artist deconstructs the human image not to point out its individual parts, but the connective tissue.
Wangechi Mutu: Hybrid Human is on view at 511 Gallery at the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Center for Art and Design until March 12th. This essay was originally commissioned by Pacific Northwest College of Art.
Ashley Stull Meyers is a writer, editor and curatorial collaborator. She has curated exhibitions and programming for the Wattis Institute (San Francisco), Eli Ridgway Gallery (San Francisco), The Luggage Store (San Francisco) and the Oakland Museum of California. She writes for DailyServing, The Exhibitionist and BOMB Magazine, and has been in academic residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art (Omaha, NE) and the Banff Centre (Banff, Alberta). Most recently, Stull Meyers has been an adjunct professor at Wichita State University (Wichita, KS). She is currently based in Portland, Oregon.