Deconstructing representations of the black female body
Barbara Kruger’s Untitled, 1983 work proclaimed that “we won’t play nature to your culture” a poignant statement for many and a phrase I have returned to numerous times, becoming a marker for detecting traditional, sexist or reductive representations of women both in art and more broadly in life. That was thirty years ago and much has changed in that time, the terrain of contemporary feminist thought and action is infinitely varied. It seeks to include the voices of different women, from different parts of the world with a wide variety of lived experiences and diverse ideas about what constitutes feminism. Both Kruger and Wangechi Mutu are widely seen as feminist artists: Mutu was included in the exhibition Global Feminisms at the Brooklyn Museum and she spoke at ‘The Feminist Future: Theory and Practice in the Visual Arts' at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, both in 2007.
Interestingly though, Mutu’s women seem to embody nature. In her recent exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, breast-like Mountetas (2008) spring from the gallery floor. Her ‘moth girls’ from the Moth Collection (2010) are half-woman-half-moth hybrids that cluster towards the edges of the blood-red lakes that Mutu has carved into the gallery walls. Her 2006 series African Ark challenges representations of black women - in these collages Mutu literally deconstructs images from magazines and, piecing them together, she re-constructs these women into hybrid forms.
It is her collages that Mutu is perhaps best known for and what I would like to focus on here. To create her collages Mutu scours magazines: women’s fashion magazines, hunting and motorcycle magazines, medical and ethnographic records, tourism postcards and pornography. In each of these sources she examines the different ways women, specifically black women, are represented. She recombines these elements adding watercolour, glitter and other embellishments including dried plant materials and costume jewelry. Mutu has talked about the different ways black and white women are portrayed in pornographic material. Black women are rougher, sexy, wild and primitive; the images are less digitally altered than those of white women.
For Mutu’s collage series African Ark she has sourced images from quasi-ethnographic postcard books, such as Women of the African Ark by photographers Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher. These postcard books were made quite recently, dating from post-2000, and attempt to document women from the Horn of Africa dressed-up in traditional costumes and adornments from this region. These images cast reductive stereotypes that exoticise these women and position them as, somehow, trapped out of time and the realities of their everyday lives. Through her juxtaposition of these traditional representations of African women with images of African-American women sourced from pornographic magazines in highly sexualised positions, she brings to the fore the stereotypes inherent in these images. Mutu challenges these representations by making the positions these women are portrayed in, how they are dehumanised and objectified, so overt and readily identifiable. Mutu has said that there “...is a hyper exoticism of the black body as native and strange. I find this so problematic and interesting, but these extremes are real in people’s minds and pervasive like a disease...”
African masks and artifacts appear in the Bedroom Masks series, from 2005 onwards, which has spawned comparisons between Mutu and Hannah Hoch’s collages From the Ethnography Museum. Although, these two artists are working at very different times and with quite different motivations behind their use of these images. In other works such as I belong to you, you belong to me (2007), Mutu’s collaged women take on motorcycles as body parts becoming part machine as they take active possession of these items of which they are too often cast as an accessory to.
Mutu’s work also explores the feminine and motherhood more broadly through her use of lo-fi, relatively cheap materials such as packing tape and felt blankets and her use of organic shapes. Mutu has covered many of the gallery walls with felt blankets: adding warmth, protection and an almost womb-like quality to the spaces. As you enter her dark immersive environment, Exhuming Gluttony: Another Requiem (2006), there are beautiful and repulsive elements competing. Her work possesses the ability to move you, through its beauty and revulsion, its imagery and its references to the horrific acts of violence and genocide that have occurred in different parts of Africa. Her work references and explores war and violence both in Africa, particularly the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, and in the post-9/11 United States. Mutu is one of only a small number of artists from Africa to reach these levels of international prominence, the African women artists at this level could probably be counted on the fingers of one hand.
With third wave feminism’s intention to allow the space for a diversity of interpretations around feminism and the lived experience of women from all around the world Mutu’s work speaks poetically about the breadth and variety of feminisms and the effects of war, violence, poverty and greed on women and more broadly within society.
Wangechi Mutu at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney
23 May - 14 August, 2013.
Kent, R., 2013 ‘Messy splendor: Wangechi Mutu’s accumulative art’ in Wangechi Mutu at the Museum of Contemporary Art 23 May - 14 August, 2013 catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art p:10.
Video for ‘The Feminist Future: Theory and Practice in the Visual Arts’ is available of the MoMA website - http://www.moma.org/explore/multimedia/videos/16/179 accessed on the 8/06/2013.