Out of Africa

Female forms that tell a tale of torture

The collage drawings of female figures by Kenyan-born artist Wangechi Mutu on view at Miami Art Museum are harsh and seductive, violent yet beautiful. Collectively titled "Amazing Grace," their mottled surfaces glitter like distant planets, like microscopic organisms or rare fungi. They are ephemeral but also monumental in size (many drawings measure 86 by 51 inches). Her images feature weblike tangles created by plants and their roots, out of which humanoid forms twitch and jive, seemingly elastic and animated. A certain science-fiction element pervades some of these works, causing images of body-snatching aliens and swamp things to haunt the imagination. The women Mutu depicts could be zombified witches or innocent victims of real violence. The artist observed that "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." This duality of desire and repulsion keeps her work vibrating in the psyche.

It's easy to get lost in the blotchy surfaces of skin that Mutu has created for her female figures, vixens both as glamorous and reptilian as a leotarded David Bowie during his Ziggy Stardust days. She covers Mylar drafting film in ink washes of reds and earth tones that flow and congeal like splats of blood as they coagulate on the surface. Sometimes Mutu creates an airbrushlike sheen by spraying millions of particles onto those enormous sheets of Mylar. References to scarification of the body, plastic surgery, prostheses, and pathology derive from Mutu's anthropological training. In spite of the dispassionate remove with which she examines her subjects -- reflecting her academic and data-sifting side, the scientist within conducting an autopsy -- she manages to bring a complexity of feeling to this forensic occupation.

In addition to the ink washes, Mutu collages magazine cutouts of female flesh, facial features, and body parts from sources such as National Geographic publications and pornographic literature. An obvious kindred spirit of Mutu's is Briton Chris Ofili, an artist who also embeds porn clippings in his dense, mixed-media paintings, and someone who has also developed a stylized, mythologized pantheon of African figures.

Collage drawings of female figures by Kenyan-born 
artist Wangechi Mutu
Collage drawings of female figures by Kenyan-born artist Wangechi Mutu

Also on display are works from Mutu's tumor series, in which she collages female breasts, legs, and elaborately manicured nails grasping at the surfaces of cells and planets. Blades of grass surrounding the body parts wiggle like giant hair follicles, like sperm trying to penetrate an ovum. The power in Mutu's work partly derives from the resistance proffered by the materials she uses. She slices precise skeins of adhesive contact paper to form the calligraphic lines visible throughout her pieces. This commonplace material, normally rigid and inert, becomes sinewy and flirtatious in her hands. The Mylar surface on which she works is a drafting film usually specified for rigid, mechanical drawings, but the contours of her figures form more serpentine lines. There are no right angles anywhere.

Her use of collage is not taken from analytic Cubism, which concerns itself with the organization of planes in a composition. The materials are applied more like makeup, to ornament the plain features of the contour drawings and make them sexier. Mutu pastes fur and glitter onto her mannequins, tarting them up for show or for a sacrificial purpose. It could be said that those figures drawn with sprouting roots, or the ones that thrash about without limbs, resemble sixteenth-century oil painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo's portraits composed of vegetables or inanimate objects. Hieronymus Bosch's mutant creatures who inhabit fecund, nightmarish landscapes are also related.

The theme of real-life suffering referenced in these works is ever-present, like a malodor that won't fade. One of the violent repercussions of Africa's illegal diamond trade is often portrayed by the maiming and torturing of helpless slave laborers. These pieces offer a visual representation of that horrific suffering, but by incorporating fashion and artifice, Mutu's works are also eerily enticing. Leon Golub's massive paintings from the Eighties are an antecedent to this notion. His Gigantomachies and his depictions of torturers, victims, mercenaries, and hostages achieved a visceral effect that still manages to astonish, even in today's society where beheadings are broadcast on television. In his crusade, as well as in Mutu's, the flayed and damaged surfaces meant to provoke empathy can't help but also be construed as beautiful. Mutu's arrangement of forms is agreeable and triggers a pleasure response in the brain. Works of art that reflect a tragic experience generally, if ironically, transport the viewer into an uplifting aesthetic sphere, making any kind of lamentation difficult. This shows the limitation of the museum environment for raising consciousness about the darker side of humanity.

Clearly Mutu's métier is making pictures. Amazing Grace -- her bland video projection that lends its title to the entire exhibition -- and the installation work titled Strange Fruit are as one-dimensional as the remaining drawings are rich and unsettling. Without the explanatory text panels they're vague and obstinately remote. After reading the text panels, one concludes that these two pieces seem contrived, the sketchiest outlines of works that might come to fruition in the future. The exposé of the popular hymn "Amazing Grace" is fascinating to read, but its relevance to the actual works is unclear, beyond being a byproduct of the anthropologist's research.

The tangled roots of mangrove represented by some of Mutu's drawings are Kenyan and Floridian phenomena, and this local bridge that journeys to Mutu's internal landscape is a useful link between the familiar and the exotic, the reality and the fantasy of the artist's homeland. Mutu astutely believes that the impulse of Westerners to safely stow Africa in the past or in some remote archaeological zone is unrealistic. Her works are contemporary, worldly, visually elegant, and compelling.

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