The world that Wangechi Mutu creates with her art is intense — intimate, feminine and disturbing. Her solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami, “A Fantastic Journey,” delivers just such a world.
The walls of the main space of the museum are covered in gray packing cloth, making the room fuzzy and dark. Like a womb. Several sculptural trees covered in the same material also sprout in the space, their blooms made of bright red panties. The contrast of those two colors is stunning and engulfing, setting the stage for a trip through Mutu’s universe.
And what a universe it is, populated with collages and drawings of strange creatures, usually distinctly female but distorted enough to often make them monstrous hybrids of something from the future. These collages — the ones hanging here were created between 2002 and 2013 — are what have made Mutu a famous name in the global art scene.
Born in Kenya in 1972, most of her art career has been centered in New York, where she moved in 1992; she received her MFA from Yale University in 2000. Elements of all these worlds are evident in her works. But the way she has manipulated her images earns them a description of firmly 21st century — a unique mix of the past, the present and the future.
Make no mistake; while the colors schemes are deep and beautiful, these creatures from Mutu’s imagination can be creepy. When you move in closer to study an ink collage and see the title is Riding Death In My Sleep, you shouldn’t be surprised that it is dark and strange. But is also oddly filled with life. A woman with high-healed fashion boots and wildly colored attire squats over a planet sprouting mushrooms, while out of her head a winged creature with elephant tusk may just have been birthed. It seems to be suggesting that life sometimes morphs out of our control, but remains fertile and ongoing.
In another powerful work in diptych, People in Glass Towers Should Not Imagine Us, a woman painted bright white wearing a a crown of thorns is tied to a tree, surrounded again by mushrooms, while tiny funksters on motorbikes race around her feet. She is facing another woman, dressed in heels and leopard-skin leotard, this time breaking free from another tree, with a crown that looks like totem statues or trolls.
Just what is going on here? According to curator Trevor Schoonmaker of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, where this extensive survey originated, an awful lot. In his excellent essay, he writes that all the various, bizarre imagery has specific meaning, often relating to gender, race and migration. For instance, he explains the reoccurring theme of mushrooms this way: “As mushrooms are fleshy, fruit-bearing fungi that have no roots, do not require sunlight, and are neither plant nor animal, Mutu uses them in her work as a metaphor for immigration, as people separated from their own countries often settle — whether by necessity or force — in areas seen as intolerable by others.”
Aside from mushrooms, another constant stands out: all the central figures have distinctive, black-female bodies and features. There may be no better metaphor for the complexity of gender and racial issues than the African woman’s body. Once derided as unattractive by the slave-trading West, black women and their struggle for respect and power have often been tied to their physical make-up. Mutu addresses this head on with her fantastical journeys, creating figures that are simultaneously desirable and grotesque, sometimes forced into shapes not of their own.
Several videos included in the exhibit are also so strong they need time to digest. One is incorporated into one of the sculptures in the main room, Amazing Grace. Mutu is walking along a beach dressed in white, singing a haunting version of the famous hymn. The grotesquery here is not in the imagery but in the reference to how most African-Americans came to America — sent from beaches in Africa to land on beaches here as slaves.
Separated from the museum’s main building in the pavilion next door, The End of eating Everything gets its own screening. And it might be the exhibit’s scene-stealer. It’s an intense — what else? — and gorgeous animated film made in collaboration with musician Santigold, where the Medusa-looking flying mother figure, whose body swirls with color and mutates, inhales a flock of birds. But instead of being just an immense meal, the birds are version of sperm, as mother spawns a new generation of creatures. To be appreciated, it needs to be viewed from beginning to end.
That’s the case with the entire Fantastic Journey, an immersive event that requires time. But it shouldn’t keep you from moving to the back of the museum to see Virginia Overton’s Flat Rock. Although aesthetically it can seem miles apart from Mutu’s work, in fact Overton’s feels like a good companion. The exhibit comprises several simple sculptures cordoned off by two walls made of blond plywood, both positioned at a slant. They are based on found objects or materials — a truck tire, an electric fan, rope, wood — and the end result is a contemplative oasis. Rather than looking junky, the exhibit is a study in the art of special orientation.
Originally from Tennessee, Overton — like Mutu — now makes Brooklyn home. And while this is her first solo museum show, she’s making art waves. She was recently featured at the booth of London’s powerhouse White Cube Gallery and will have a show there in January. She has also joined the faculty of Harvard University. As part of her MOCA exhibit, Overton will give an art talk on May 31.
MOCA has made headlines for the wrong reasons lately, with its fight to merge with the Bass Museum turning messy for everyone involved. These two exhibits should put it back in the spotlight for the right reasons, the reasons that the museum has always been known for.