Wangechi Mutu at the Contemporary Austin

REVIEW | Mutu’s magic brings hegemony to heel, a welcome change of course


The idea of the outsider is on the collective mind of the Austin art scene, and for good reason. Sure, the response to the political climate has everyone refocused on identity. But there are plenty of notable occurrences specific to local contemporary art re-strumming that resonant chord since the election.

There’s Austin-based artist Deborah Roberts and her rocket-propelled rise to the international stage in every publication, and new intersectionality-focused curatorial collective Neon Queens kicking off their funding drive for their first major exhibition project. This last round of Soundspace at the Blanton focused on refugees and a controversial article by art historian Ariel Evans found its way into print in Conflict of Interest Volume 2.

On its digital debut Evans’s article sparked intense dialogue after leveling criticism at the Contemporary Austin for its PR blunder in which the museum framed a fundraising appeal around the Austin Women’s March  — this with a less than glowing record of exhibiting female and minority artists.

That’s the climate in which, thankfully, senior curator Heather Pesanti brings us Wangechi Mutu, an artist directly addressing issues of race, gender, and sexuality as they relate to power.

At the Contemporary’s downtown venue Mutu delivers a commanding show, presenting primal imagery and mythical forms that ring true to some barely accessible part of the mind. These quasi-spiritual, icon and idol like sculptures feel genuine, and so exist in an odd relationship to the gallery, more like religious objects on display in an anthropological setting far removed in time and space from their original use.

Mutu seems keenly aware of that relationship, and amps it up through the full Chelsea treatment of immaculate bespoke displays, dim honorific lighting, and perfect considered arrangement. Everything is exactly so, even if at first glance it seems gestural. Through this infrastructure, Mutu reclaims moments in art history, and moments in all history, for female, and sometimes more specifically African female, power.

Ascending the staircase and entering the primary space of Mutu’s exhibition viewers are confronted with a large wall running at an angle across the expanse of the gallery. An inverse constellation of black points and clusters populate the white wall, the aftermath of Mutu repeatedly throwing wads of black paper pulp against it. The work is meant to degrade and by the time of this writing much of it has found its way to the floor.

The label describes “Throw” as a “site-specific action painting’ which it certainly is. But the work is many things, so to choose to narrow in on the action-painting-ness must be intentional. In a general sense action-painting is an arena that women have been written out of from 1950s Abstract Expressionism onward, reflecting hierarchical values of that and subsequent decades: masculinity, heterosexuality, and whiteness.

In “Throw” Mutu stakes a claim for everyone outside of those values. And there are notable differences here undoing some of the aburdity of that movement — earthy pulp not manufactured paint, wall not delineated canvas, ephemeral not permanent, experiential not commodity.

Moving around the wall a viewer is confronted by “Dream Catcher,” a rust colored bust at a glance appearing to be made from unfired clay. A towering tangled crown of mud, twigs, and crystal extends seamlessly out of the african women’s head, a relic that feels torn from some dark altar. Its magic feels real and in this position seems to guard the rest of the exhibition. Its name backs that up, a harvester of nightmares, an apotropaic against ill influence.

Past that sentinel, and around the corner of the wall the exhibition space opens up to a series of earthy works, all referencing the human body in one degree or another. The opposite side of the action-painting wall is black, the lights in the room are low and shifting slowly from a three channel projection dominating the opposite wall.

On this side of the gallery are two sculptures of as-yet unstoppable Dengue virus strains (spheres covered in a pattern of curved slug-like proteins) and a bronze head that we’ll come back to. Flanking the corridor between here and the video projection are, on the left, three gargantuan strings of prayer beads, and on the right, a forest of pine topped plinths with welded metal legs holding up alien sculptures of soil, branches, and, quixotically, acrylic high heels.

At first glance “Heeler I–XIX” might look like mud-dauber or termite constructions harvested for display from the natural environment along with their enveloped branches. On a closer look t the manufactured elements are unmistakable; the fashionistas among us might recognize the Ellie 821s and similar footwear, but the layperson knows them all best as, plainly, stripper shoes. These 6- 7- and 8-inch platform heels act as a foundation for the hive like clusters of sticks and mud extending upward in pseudo leg shapes. The forms are totemic, wand-like, and command the same reverence as “Dream Catcher.”

High heel shoes began as a form of empowerment for female royalty, eventually adopted by royalty and aristocracy of both sexes. A few hundred years later the style made it into dress codes for women in the workforce then were pushed back against by second wave feminism (while finding its way into other professional dress codes), then later were re-embraced by various sex-positive third wave factions. Mutu’s sculptures build on that history, further claiming the power of women’s sexuality back for their own, now as divine right rather than sinister disposition. Each “Heeler” bridges the forked definition of the word “fetish” — these are simultaneously objects of spiritual significance and objects of sexual fixation.

Opposite “Heeler I–XIX” slung over massive nails staked in the wall is “Prayer Beads” made from the same rust and black colored earth and pulp as so much of the exhibition. Here are echoes of the Dengue forms (a virus whose strains are too numerous to count) and another pair of pole dancer shoes, this time hiding as an abstract pendant, heel-to-heel, the locus of power.

Past these power objects another mud goddess rests, this time in full form, with a pineapple-like plant extending out of her head. “Giver” is seated on her heels with one hand outstretched offering or emphasising the projection she sits beside. Her surface is covered with a shifting patterned texture somewhere between bark, spines, and the Dengue slug.

She leads us to “The End of carrying All,” a projection of collaged animation and video in which a woman walks slowly uphill from the left to the right as a landscape scrolls in the opposite direction. She carries a basket on her head full of dark goods that shift and grow across the length of her journey. At some point the shapes become recognizable: a bike tire, a satellite dish, later an office or apartment complex, an oil derrick. The woman responds to the increased burden with an increasingly hunched back and other signs of exhaustion. She passes the silhouette of a generations-old Baobab tree (of which legends abound) and heads towards a cliff’s edge with what is now a comically large load. The lights in the carried towers ominously short out and at the last possible moment—when the viewer finally feels the woman will be free—the basket shifts into an amorphous blob that covers the woman and slips down the side of the cliff with her inside, flashes of green light pulsing within the amoeba-like form. Then a shockwave ripples back through the ground, cracking the hillside before even that falls into silence and stillness.

Is the woman just a woman with the burden of today’s living? Is she everywoman with the accumulation of a lifetime? Or is she mother earth herself, trudging along with this growing thankless weight of humanity, waiting to cast us and all of our doings off the edge of existence, when finally she — and we with her — collapse back into the primordial universe goo that we came from. If the other work is any indication — Mutu means all of these things.

In the wake of that narrative, walking back through the gallery the outlier in the room might help bring a viewer back down from the apocalypse and its cosmic irrelevance. “This second Dreamer” is a sculpture not made of soil but rather, a single highly polished bronze head resting on its cheek with painted braids wound into a point.

The work mirrors Brancusi’s “La Muse Endormie” which made headlines earlier this year selling at auction for $57.4 million. Brancusi and the Modernists pulled heavily from what they called “primitive” cultures, using African masks and other appropriated forms to bolster their practices, and in turn their income and fame. In “This second Dreamer” Brancusi’s stylized lines are replaced by a more physically representational form, the face of Brancusi’s patron Renee Irana Frachon replaced by the features of an African woman.

And as if the point might be missed by the less art-historically educated, Mutu gives us another opening. “Dreamer”‘s neck is significantly more prominent than in Brancusi’s sculpture, and is positioned as to face the natural flow of a viewer through the gallery. In other words the termination of the neck becomes a focal point here instead of a hidden attribute as it is in Brancusi’s sculpture. In combination with the feminine features of the face and the forms of the hair it would be easy to find a decapitated Medusa in the form, especially given the thick pine (read: chopping block) topped pedestal it rests upon, a powerful female Gorgon beheaded by heroic masculinity.

Either way you slice it, the work does well what each piece of the show does in one fashion or another. It achieves a readjustment of the ownership of powerful images and forms from the current perception of a single source and single value system, to a broad, layered and complicated authorship — one that tends to include a genesis that is rarely white and male.

Wangechi Mutu’s solo show at The Contemporary Austin’s Jones Center continues through Jan. 14. thecontemporaryaustin.orgMutu’s “Water Woman” sculpture is on permanent display at the Contemporary’s Marcus Sculpture Garden at Laguna Gloria.

Seth Orion Schwaiger
Seth Orion Schwaiger
Seth Orion Schwaiger is an artist and writer living and working between Austin, Texas, and Kingston, New York.

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