Wangechi Mutu is one of the most mesmerizing contemporary artists of our time, who has revolutionized the concept of identity and cultural diversity with her awe-inspiring paintings, collages, sculptures, installations, and films. Her artwork is intriguing, challenging, and provocative, reflecting the universal themes of race, gender, sexuality, history, power, and myth. Her distinct style blends African aesthetics, postcolonial politics, and feminist perspectives, creating a unique visual language that speaks to people from all walks of life. In this blog post, we will dive deeper into the life and work of Wangechi Mutu, exploring her inspirations, achievements, challenges, and future prospects.
Where does Mutu live?
Wangechi Mutu was born in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1972, where she spent most of her childhood exploring the enchanting landscapes, diverse cultures, and political upheavals of her country. Currently, Mutu lives and works in Brooklyn, New York, where she has established herself as a prominent figure in the art scene, exhibiting her artworks in major galleries and museums worldwide. Her studio is situated in the heart of Brooklyn, where she creates new pieces using a range of media, including paint, ink, paper, fabric, clay, metal, glass, and found objects.
Wangechi Mutu’s creative journey
Mutu’s artistic journey began in Kenya, where she was exposed to the rich traditional arts and crafts of her country, including pottery, weaving, basketry, beadwork, and carving. She was particularly influenced by the Kamba culture, which is known for its intricate woodcarvings and vibrant textiles. Her interest in art intensified when she went to study anthropology and art history at the United World College of the Atlantic in Wales, where she discovered the works of modern and contemporary artists, such as Frida Kahlo, Francis Bacon, Pablo Picasso, and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
After completing her undergraduate studies at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City, Mutu pursued a Master’s degree in sculpture at the Yale University School of Art, where she developed her signature style, which combines traditional African motifs with contemporary aesthetic concepts. She started creating large-scale collages by layering magazine cutouts, photographs, and drawings on paper, canvas, or wood panels, producing surrealistic images that challenge the viewer’s perception of beauty, identity, and culture.
Wangechi Mutu’s breakthrough
Mutu’s breakthrough came in the early 2000s when she gained recognition for her innovative collages that explore the female body, sexuality, and power. Her most celebrated work in this genre is the series “Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tumors” (2004), which features female figures with distorted anatomical features, including multiple breasts, heads, limbs, and genitalia, blurring the boundaries between human and animal forms. Mutu’s collage style in these works reflects the fluidity and malleability of the female body, which has been culturally and socially constructed in various ways throughout history.
Another significant work in Mutu’s oeuvre is the sculpture “Complete Prolapsus of the Uterus” (2016), which represents a life-size female figure made of bronze, positioned in a half-standing-half-falling posture, with her arms stretched backward, as if trying to defy gravity. The sculpture is inspired by Mutu’s own experience of pregnancy and childbirth, as well as the medical term “prolapse,” which refers to the displacement or descent of organs like the uterus or bladder, due to weakened pelvic muscles. The sculpture challenges the conventional notions of motherhood, femininity, and physical strength, by showcasing the vulnerability and resilience of the female body.
Who inspired Wangechi Mutu?
Wangechi Mutu has been inspired by a wide range of artists, writers, scientists, and philosophers, who have contributed to her thinking and imagination. Some of her major influences include:
Joseph Campbell: the American mythologist, who wrote extensively on the archetypes and symbols of world mythology, which Mutu uses as a source of inspiration for her artworks.
Octavia Butler: the African American science fiction writer, who created futuristic worlds that challenge the norms of race, gender, and power, which Mutu incorporates into her visual narratives.
Gertrude Stein: the American writer and art collector, who supported the avant-garde movements of the early 20th century, including Cubism and Surrealism, which Mutu blurs in her collages.
Frida Kahlo: the Mexican painter, who depicted the pain, passion, and politics of her own life through self-portraits and allegorical paintings, which Mutu emulates in her own explorations of the female body and psyche.
Where did Wangechi Mutu go to college?
As mentioned earlier, Wangechi Mutu attended the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City, where she completed her undergraduate studies in fine arts. She later enrolled in the Yale University School of Art, where she received a Master’s degree in sculpture in 2000. During her time at Yale, Mutu was exposed to a diverse range of artistic practices and theories, which influenced her interdisciplinary approach and experimentation with mixed media.
Wangechi Mutu is a visionary artist, whose works challenge and inspire us to see the world in new and different ways. Her creative journey through different cultures, histories, and disciplines has given her a unique perspective on the human condition, which she expresses through her mesmerizing collages, sculptures, and installations. Her exploration of the female body, sexuality, and power is particularly relevant in the current global context, where women’s rights and empowerment are still contested and precarious. Mutu’s art offers us a glimpse into the potential of art to transform and transcend social and cultural boundaries, creating a more inclusive, diverse, and equitable world.