I walked into the Brooklyn Museum Saturday afternoon with high expectations. Currently on display there is the first survey show of Brooklyn-based artist Wangechi Mutu ART ’00. I had heard from several friends that it was “fantastic,” and “really changed perspectives.” A fan of Mutu’s work, I was excited to see the evolution of her ideas and collage techniques over such a comprehensive time span. Instead, I found myself overwhelmed by the space, unable to settle my eye on one specific piece.
Mutu was born in Kenya and moved to New York in the 1990s, receiving her MFA from Yale. The exhibit, called “Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey,” features 50 pieces from 1995 to the present, including sculptural installations, large-scale collages, video works, small-scale sketches and a site-specific wall collage. The exhibition’s namesake is a 1970s NBC series chronicling the adventures of a family trapped on an uncharted island. Trevor Schoonmaker, curator of contemporary art at the Nasher Museum at Duke University, created the show for his home museum.
The artist is most well known for her massive, cryptic collages of cyborg-like figures, which are somewhere between woman, machine and monster. Her work focuses on issues of gender, racial relations, war, consumerism and colonialism. Much of her process is devoted to carefully choosing and cutting out images from nature, political, fashion and pornography magazines. I expected to find a traceable development of style — a narrative to follow — but was disappointed by the exhibit’s lack of guidance. The works were hung close together: Rather than putting them into conversation with each other, this staging caused one piece to eclipse the other. It was impossible to focus on one work for very long without being distracted by its neighbor.
Mutu’s work is emotionally charged, and as a woman of many passions, her influences are scattered. Yet the very aim of her art seems to be finding unity in fragmentation. Her work is multimedia and she beautifully creates one figure out of a plethora of materials including watercolor, tape, animal heads, contact paper and magazine cutouts among others. Primarily a collage artist, she is attuned to the subtlety needed to join many forms into a cohesive whole. Yet, “Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey” failed to mirror her unified aesthetic. Perhaps by nature of it being a survey show rather than a focused exhibit, or perhaps because of the Brooklyn Museum’s characteristically impractical use of space, I could not locate a narrative.
However, though there was no real story, the show did transport viewers into the mythical world of the artist’s creatures. Mutu’s site-specific installation of large felt tree trunks gives visitors the sense that they are winding through a mysterious forest whose contents oscillate between the natural and the manufactured. One room is occupied by Mutu’s 2008 sculpture “Suspended Play Time,” a series of black spheres made of trash bags wrapped around packing blankets and suspended at different levels from gold string. Through the throng, one can make out the playful and plant-like collages — the natural setting — of “Funkalicious Fruit Field” and “A’gave You.” Mutu leaves me wondering: are these trash bags the former liners of what she calls “receptacles of cultural consumerism,” or are they vines in a forest? I don’t know — and I don’t think she forces me to decide.
The show also succeeds in what Mutu identified as her artistic goal in a video interview: “to keep the figure, the story of female, in the center; to keep discussing and talking about women as active, as protagonists.” She went on to say that she did not want women to be marginalized. In the show, the female body is certainly not: instead, it overtakes nearly every wall space. The imposing wall art, “Once upon a time she said, I’m not afraid and her enemies began to fear her The End,” is the first piece of the show, standing almost as a protective barrier between the visitor and Mutu’s mythical land. The subject of this piece, Mutu explained in the video, is triumphantly evading robotic, demon-like creatures. Her escape is successful primarily because she has said that she is no longer afraid. It is also fitting that she is the first work of the exhibit because she serves as a guide. Her coyote head is both a testament to her power and an allusion to border “coyotes,” individuals who illegally transport people from one side of a border to another.
Mutu has said of her work, “If you make something, you actually bring it to life.” She has enlivened her imaginary cyborgs and placed them in their accompanying mystical realm. I just wish I had felt more a part of that world than an alien, directionless visitor. But maybe that was the point.