Mar 7, 2014

Exhibiting Wangechi Mutu’s Impossible Futures

by Benjamin Turkus

The line of visitors snaking its way through the foyer of the Brooklyn Museum on an otherwise quiet, snowy Sunday during the month of February gave me pause—I had never seen such a crowd clamoring and jockeying for position at the massive Beaux-Arts building on the northeastern tip of Prospect Park.  Could this eclectic array of individuals possibly be gathered for the first ever solo museum exhibition devoted exclusively to the art of the endlessly provocative and exhilarating Nairobi-born, Brooklyn-based Wangechi Mutu?  While a thorough accounting of tickets purchased and exhibits visited was beyond the scope of my amateur ethnographic detective skills, it was immediately apparent that those making up this densely packed throng of fashionable snow boots, fur-lined winter coats, and utilitarian parkas were instead spurred to brave the elements to gain admittance to the immensely popular, soon-to-close The Fashion World of Jean-Paul Gaultier: From the Catwalk to the Sidewalk.  And though one could present an intriguing case for Mutu and Gaultier as artists sharing certain sympathetic frequencies—both display diverse manipulations of an array of media, and both demonstrate a deep commitment to challenging “societal, gender, and aesthetic codes in unexpected ways”—one could only hope that the many admirers gathered to pay tribute to the creator of Madonna’s infamous pointed corset (for 1990’s Blond Ambition Tour) would be willing to venture further afield, and begin to explore some of the other treasures hidden in the vast expanse of the somewhat intimidating Brooklyn Museum (Brooklyn Museum: The Fashion World of Jean-Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk).
             As part of an experiment in observing and assessing a curated moving image exhibition, I visited the Brooklyn Museum and Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey on two separate occasions: the aforementioned blizzardy Sunday afternoon (February 16, 2014), and the following Thursday (February 20, 2014), for an event titled Off the Wall.  Part of a new initiative designed to attract visitors to the museum during evening hours (6:30 P.M. -9:30 P.M.), the Off the Wall series features “site-specific performances inspired by the exhibitions on display” (BWW Art World: Brooklyn Museum to Launch “Off the Wall” with Wangechi Mutu’s Fantastic Journey, 2/20).  The February 20th Off the Wall revolved around the theme of Afrofuturism, a term coined by cultural critic Mark Dery in “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose” (1993) to describe what he considered at the time to be an always-burgeoning, never fully-blossoming cultural and artistic mode made up of equal parts fine art (Jean-Michel Basquiat), literature (Samuel R. Delany), and music (Sun Ra, Parliament-Funkadelic).  The lodestone of Afrofuturism, and the guiding question of Dery’s essay—“Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?”—can also be seen as the abiding concern of Mutu, a Kenyan-born artist whose own work shows signs of a struggle to upend traditional notions of diasporic and refugeean identity (180).  Following a curator-led tour of Mutu’s disorienting, post-racial, post-human, post-gender creations, Off the Wall featured a roundtable discussion regarding the work of seminal science fiction writer Octavia Butler (who, like Mutu, plays with the conventions of science fiction as a means of transcending our Earthly fixation on categorizing and taxonomizing), a live music, performance, and dance piece titled The Beginning of Everything eating by Daví (an explicit reference to and inversion of one of Mutu’s video installations), and ChimaTEK: The Dinner Party Uploaded, an interactive performance by Saya Woolfk.  As one would likely expect, the crowd attracted to the Off the Wall event was young, enthusiastic, and multicultural, and the after-hours, Night at the Museum feeling of the evening (accentuated by a cash bar) added a slightly illicit charge to the air.  Off the Wall was, simply put, a wonderful counterpoint to my previous visit, which had a much more conventional, Sunday-in-the-Park, afternoon-at-the-museum feel to it.
To properly assess and analyze the moving image curatorial philosophies and practices underlying Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey, it is necessary to attend to some of the particularities and eccentricities of the exhibition.  A Fantastic Journey is perhaps best considered a survey, or an overview, of a thriving career, and the video works on display serve as simply one illustration of the broad array of Mutu’s remarkable talents. While my attention focused primarily on video materials, the selective nature of this analysis will hopefully avoid giving the mistaken impression that Mutu is a video artist; in fact, Mutu is a truly multidisciplinary artist, best known for her bold, striking collages of ink, paint, and found materials (National Geographic, Vogue, and Motorbike Magazines; fake fur; felt blankets; and sparkling jewels) on Mylar plastic sheeting.
Presenting more the fifty works from the 1990s to the present, A Fantastic Journey is curatorial at its very core.  Organized by Trevor Schoonmaker, the Patsy R. and Raymond D. Curator of Contemporary Art at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, in close collaboration with Mutu, A Fantastic Journey is a well-thought-out, carefully designed introduction to the diverse range of Mutu’s work, including elements of sculpture, collage, drawing, installation, and video.  Schoonmaker and Mutu have a long-standing personal and professional relationship; as Sarah Schroth, the Nancy Hanks Senior Curator and Interim Director of the Nasher Museum, describes, “The relationship between Trevor and Wangechi has developed over a period of thirteen years and the extent of their mutual trust and respect is evident in the innovative offerings and intellectual depth of this exhibition and catalogue” (13).  One of the earliest works on display—Yo Mama, a fantastical portrait of Funmilayo Anikulapo–Kuti, the mother of Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti—traces back to Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, a 2003 New Museum exhibition curated by Schoonmaker.

A taste of Mutu’s fantastical collage: Yo Mama (2003). © Wangechi Mutu. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art.  Photo by David Allison.
Though currently installed at the Brooklyn Museum, A Fantastic Journey is a traveling exhibition (originating at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University) that will continue on, stopping at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami and the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University (Schroth 13).  Sponsored by a lengthy list of private and institutional benefactors (A Fantastic Journey received “essential financial support” from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts), the peripatetic nature of the exhibition will require Mutu’s complex pieces to be re-installed at every leg of the journey (13).  While Mutu and her team have and will likely continue to oversee this process themselves, Saisha Grayson, Assistant Curator at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, described Schoonmaker as “wonderfully hands-off,” willing to allow Grayson the opportunity to help Mutu adapt her works to the unusual and intimate Sackler Center, often referred to as a “museum within a museum” (Grayson; Miccuci). In whatever space she is provided, Mutu takes advantage of every inch, carefully wrapping columns and walls with felt blankets to create what Schoonmaker calls an “immersive, tactile domain,” full of “three-dimensional life” (21).

Mutu leaves no surface untouched, transforming columns into trees with felt blankets.

Occupying 8,300 feet on the forth floor of the Brooklyn Museum, the triangular Sackler Center is a unique gallery space designed around a permanent exhibition, Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1974-1979), often described as “the first epic feminist artwork” (Micucci).  Unlike the more flexible, open square of the Nasher Gallery, the unusual layout and multiple entrances and exits of the Sackler Center present a host of unique spatial/organizational challenges (Bernstein).  But while the Sackler gallery imposes a certain measure of compression, or perhaps a cramped feeling, to the Mutu exhibition, it does provocatively force Mutu’s work into an intriguing conversation with the breed of high feminist art represented by Chicago’s classic work.  And this conversation, notably, can be understood as either pleasantly agreeable, divisively heated, or some amalgamation of both.  

The Floor Plan of Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. 

 Limiting yet also expansive, the Sackler Center ultimately reinforces the beautifully open-ended nature of Mutu’s art, giving it an opportunity to truly flourish.  Undoubtedly feminist, though resistant to forestalling individual interpretations of her work, it is likely that Mutu had conflicting feelings regarding the Sackler Center installation.  As she described in a recent interview:

I think everyone reads the work depending on where they are coming from.  I don’t want my work read from one angle.  My approach to race and ethnicity and my identity all shift depending on where I am (Buck).

Of the many Mutu works currently on display at the Sackler Center, three are video installations:
  1. Amazing Grace (2005), color, sound, 7:09 minute loop, edition of six
  2. Eat Cake (2012), black-and-white, sound, 12:51 minute loop, edition of six
  3.  The End of eating Everything (2013), color, sound, animation, 8:00 minute loop, edition of six (Schoonmaker 156-164).
iPhone photos of limited quality are presented above and below to help provide some limited sense of the technological specificities of A Fantastic Journey.
Amazing Grace, the earliest video on display, depicts Mutu walking slowly into the ocean while singing the Christian hymn “Amazing Grace” in her native Kenyan language Kikuyu.  Referred to by Schoonmaker as a “meditation on the African slave trade and the travails of displaced populations,” the haunting sounds of Amazing Grace echo throughout the exhibition space (23).  Presented to viewers on a flat-screen digital television hidden behind a felt blanket-lined wall, the 7:09 excerpt of the 59-minute Amazing Grace is a digital file that plays on an external hard drive connected directly to the television screen.

The felt blanket-lined wall of Amazing Grace (2005).

In Eat Cake, a more recent video work, Mutu again presents herself, but this time she masquerades as a figure akin to one of Macbeth’s witches.  In the video, Mutu materializes in front of a tree by a riverside, then proceeds to gorge herself on a three-tiered chocolate cake.  Most relevant to this discussion is the unusual manner of presentation for Eat Cake.  Projected from a digital projector attached to the ceiling of the Sackler Center, the video is made visible to the viewer on a compressed wooden packing crate topped with a piece of cardboard.  While the brand of projector was not discernible, it was apparent that an external hard drive (with digital video files) was attached to the projector.

Eat Cake (2012), surrounded by a crowd of visitors on a Sunday afternoon in February.  The image, projected from above, picks up a distorted, grainy texture from the damaged cardboard placed atop a wooden crate, on which the video is projected.
The final, and most elaborate video on display in A Fantastic Journey is The End of eating Everything (2013), a new work commissioned by the Nasher Museum of Art specifically for the exhibition.  A wonderful example of what Holland Carter, a New York Times art critic, referred to as Mutu’s ability to meld unpopular content with popular form, The End of eating Everything—a harsh condemnation of the environmental impact of excessive consumption—is an 8-minute animated video that features popular musician Santigold.  Again projected from a ceiling-mounted digital projector with an attached external hard drive, The End of eating Everything is a menacing and hallucinatory viewing experience, one that forces visitors to bear witness to one of Mutu’s signature cyborgian creatures brought to terrifying life.
Though commissioned by the Nasher Museum, The End of eating Everything was co-released by MOCAtv, a YouTube channel and “digital extension” of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.  One of the YouTube’s “Education Channels,” MOCAtv has its own curatorial mission, presenting “both curated and original videos to inform, educate and engage a global audience with contemporary art and its intersection with film, video, music, performance, dance, comedy, and more” (YouTube: MOCAtv: About).  While the MOCAtv channel hosts a 3:40 excerpt of the full 8-minute video, the collaboration between the two institutions demonstrates the new curatorial and cross-promotional possibilities arising in the digital age.
As expertly described by Schoonmaker, the exhibition of A Fantastic Journey allows visitors to “enter and experience a transformed and transformative space” (47).  While Mutu’s work with video is only one element of her astounding artistic expression, moving image materials do lend a striking power to this transformative experience.  By constructing her own utterly unique visual language, one that is fundamentally apart, Mutu challenges us to form our own unique interpretations, beginning to contemplate new and diverse possibilities for our own futures.

Bernstein, Rosalyn.  “Everything Grows: Inside Wangechi Mutu’s A Fantastic Journey.” Guernica Magazine.  January 14, 2014.  Web.
Buck, Louisa.  “Artist Interview: Wangechi Mutu and Her Warrior Women.”  The Art Newspaper.  Issue 244, March 2014.  Web.
Carter, Holland.  “A Survey of Wangechi Mutu at the Brooklyn Museum.”  New York Times.  October 10, 2013.  Web.
Dery, Mark.  “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose.”  Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture.  Ed. Mark Dery.  Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994.
Grayson, Saisha.  Personal Interview.  February 20, 2014.
Micucci, Dana.  “Feminist Art Gets Place of Pride in Brooklyn.”  New York Times.  April 19, 2007.  Web.
Schoonmaker, Trevor.  Ed.  Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey.  Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013.
Schroth, Sarah.  Foreword.  Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey.  Ed. Trevor Schoonmaker. Durham, NC Duke University Press, 2013.

Web resources

BWW Art World: Brooklyn Museum to Launch ‘Off the Wall’ with Wangechi Mutu’s Fantastic Journey, 2/20
YouTube: MOCAtv: About
The Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University: Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey
The Brooklyn Museum: Floor Plan: Fourth Floor
The Brooklyn Museum: Exhibitions: The Fashion World of Jean-Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk
The Brooklyn Museum: Exhibitions: Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey
The Brooklyn Museum: The Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art

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