On a recent weekday morning, Wangechi Mutu balances precariously atop a towering scissor ladder while affixing handfuls of flaxen sheep's wool to a colossal mural collage. As the clack-clack-clack of her staple gun echoes like a tinny drumbeat near the entrance of the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, one of Mutu's mysterious mutant creatures takes on the appearance of a feminine centaur rampaging across the space.
Funny thing is, part of her concept comes from motorcycle magazines. "Women are often posed seductively next to the bikes to help sell them," Mutu says. "For me, not only the bike's shape, which is feminine in nature, but how you mount them and their vibrating motor simulate machine and human sex."
The centaur is one of more than 50 of the Kenyan-born artist's works dating from the mid-'90s to the present on display at MOCA for her exhibit, "Wangechi Mutu: Fantastic Journey." The show includes works ranging from collage and drawing to installation, sculpture, and video. It is the first major museum solo for the 41-year-old Brooklyn-based artist.
Mutu employs the feminine figure to create a hallucinatory world of cyborg-like creatures at once primal and postapocalyptic. Her work is set in lush, surreal landscapes that make it both sexy and sci-fi.
Look at the work for a while and you might gain insight into Mutu's voyage from Nairobi to Wales to America. Her father, Gethoi, who studied in the States during the Kennedy administration, majored in political science before returning to teach in his homeland. Her mother, Wambura, operated a pharmacy and worked as a nurse and midwife.
As a youngster, Mutu had a vivid imagination. She found inspiration for her creative urges in daydreams and nightmares of fairies and mythical creatures.
But she says art was a career most people frowned on back then. "Encouraging kids to pursue art in the 1970s and 1980s was not a big thing in Kenya," she recalls. Mutu studied at the Loreto Convent Msongari School before leaving her middle-class Nairobi home to attend high school in Wales when she was 17 years old. After graduating, she returned home before deciding to pursue an art career in New York.
Her parents were not delighted by her decision to move away. "With a bit of their blessing and a lot of their fears, I chose to come to America to study when I was 19," says Mutu, who by 2000 had earned degrees from Cooper Union and Yale.
One work on display at MOCA, Root of All Eves (2010), brings to mind her Catholic upbringing.
The soaring mixed-media piece -- composed of ink, paint, and collage on Mylar -- depicts the Virgin Mary sporting dark sunglasses. Hidden in the earth beneath her is the shadowy figure of an enigmatic spirit guide. Mary appears equal parts rock star and developing-world dictator atop a jagged throne.
In a way, Mutu says, it's a reaction to the depiction of the Madonna at her elementary school. "[She] was always blond, white, and veiled while standing on a snake and overpowering the Devil with a serene expression," Mutu remembers.
Yet another work that conveys the cultural minefield Mutu navigated is Suspended Playtime, a sprawling installation dangling from MOCA's rafters in the center of the main gallery space. The work includes 200 crude spheres fashioned from stuffed garbage bags bound with twine. Using balls like these, the artist says, kids used to play soccer back home. "They are each made from shredded paper, junk mail, and other stuff I had lying around my studio," she says. "I wanted to create a sort of maze people could interact with and engage with each other face-to-face while experiencing the work."
Near the rear of the central gallery, Mutu swaddled columns with gray felt rescue blankets that she says are often used by disaster victims back home. The cloaked columns look like trees sprouting from the museum's walls and are designed to convey how plant life plays a central role in African Creation myth.
"The Kikuyu Creation story is centered on trees," Mutu explains. "The tree is the original gallery, temple, and gathering place. When people pass away, trees are planted on the burial sites over the body as an eternal source of direct communication between mortals and the gods."
Also as part of the exhibit, MOCA's Pavilion Gallery becomes a black-box theater to house the projection of the artist's first animated video, "The End of Eating Everything." Mutu collaborated with pop star Santigold to create the video's central character, a futuristic female juggernaut sporting dreadlocks while belching noxious fumes from numerous orifices as she gobbles everything in her path. As the creature inhales a flock of birds, her slimy carapace swells until it implodes in a final burp.
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But before you head out for a postmuseum meal, don't miss Virginia Overton's reimagining of MOCA's fountain and other work. For "Virginia Overton: Flat Rock," the 42-year-old New York artist also removed a drop ceiling and lined the walls with towering wooden planks that give the impression of a minimalist hunter's blind. The reconfigured room also includes a truck tire, a light box with the museum's name, and a totem created from the battered roll-up door of a moving van.
"Someone recently asked me what the most valuable thing in my studio was, and I answered, 'The space,' " Overton observes. "I want to bring all these things together in a way that's no longer obscure."