DURHAM — Wangechi Mutu’s work is as nakedly revealing as any you’ll ever see. The Kenyan-born artist’s multi-media collages, in which figures constructed from found-art clippings inhabit dark dreamscapes, course with images evoking issues of sex, power and colonialism.
The work is so bold that it’s hard to imagine the artist feeling apprehension or self-consciousness. But Mutu is feeling that way about some parts of “A Fantastic Journey,” her new show at Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art. It includes a number of drawings from Mutu’s private sketchbooks, which she never intended for public display. Getting Mutu to agree to show them was a major coup for the museum, and took a lot of cajoling from Nasher curator Trevor Schoonmaker.
“I’m still nervous about showing them,” Mutu said on a recent Sunday, during a break from an on-site mural she was completing as part of the show. “The sketches are an ongoing, very personal archive of thoughts and experiences going back to when I was in graduate school. They’re very uninhibited images I didn’t try to assess before drawing them. So they’re hard for me to show, little kernels of secrets and personal knowledge about me.”
“A Fantastic Journey” is the 40-year-old Mutu’s first career survey in the United States. It’s a retrospective spanning more than a decade, with 50-plus pieces drawn from museums and private collections across America and Europe. Following its Nasher run, it will show in Brooklyn, Miami and Chicago.
Eventually, a sizable chunk of the show will wind up back at the Nasher as part of the museum’s permanent collection – “Family Tree,” a series of 13 collages Mutu used to depict her own creation mythology. Schoonmaker has been a champion of Mutu’s work ever since they met in 1999, when she was a Yale graduate student and he worked at a gallery in New York.
When Schoonmaker curated a 2003 show about Afrobeat pioneer Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, he commissioned Mutu to do a piece. Her contribution was “Yo Mama,” a tribute to Fela’s mother (a major figure in Nigerian politics), which is part of “A Fantastic Journey.” The piece shows its subject crouched in spiked heels holding the beheaded body of a snake that stretches to what may or may not be another planet.
“A lot of Wangechi’s early work is from this totally sci-fi kind of world that seems almost interplanetary,” Schoonmaker said. “That theme of being between two worlds was already there.”
Severed heads recur throughout “A Fantastic Journey,” along with suggestive poses that straddle the line between eroticism and violence. “Riding Death in My Sleep” features a woman crouching over a globe, as a winged snake with an elephant’s head flies by. You don’t have to dig too far to find commentary about Westerners’ stereotypical perceptions of African culture.
“Her collages and drawings are grotesque but also erotic,” Schoonmaker said. “Certainly the violence in her work equals the beauty in it. There’s a lot about power dynamics and hierarchies, interplay between big and small figures where it’s not clear who is propping up who. She creates this otherworldly fairytale realm with beautiful images plus a menacing aspect, which enables her to talk about important social, political and cultural issues. It’s not ham-fisted or didactic, it’s very layered and subtle – her message if not the imagery.”
Most of “A Fantastic Journey” consists of pictures on walls, but there are also a few striking videos. “Amazing Grace” shows Mutu walking into the ocean while singing the well-known spiritual in the Kikuyu dialect of her native Kenya. And “The End of Eating Everything,” a collaboration with the pop star Santigold, is a disturbing and somewhat icky meditation on gluttony run amok.
“A lot of her works are about the idea of consumption,” Schoonmaker said. “Society and the media’s consumption of women comes up a lot, as does everyone consuming natural resources without care for the future. She brings together all these crazy elements. Her women are composite figures constructed from cutouts of animals and ethnographic imagery in National Geographic, fashion magazines, even pornography. And she’ll also use pictures from motorcycle magazines to create this cyborg-looking robotic effect. Everything is interconnected. Hybridity is a huge element in her work.”
That said, some parts of the show display a playful aspect. The gallery space has been integrated into the show to an unusual degree for a contemporary-art exhibit, with a tree-like piece made from felt-like blankets to evoke the feel of a dark forest.
One of the first things you’ll encounter inside the gallery is “Suspended Playtime,” 44 balls made from trash bags and shredded paper. They’re in a close cluster that you can just barely walk through, suspended from the ceiling to just above the floor. It looks like something you’d see in a children’s play space.
“That mimics the not-very-expert footballs that kids make in poor places where they can’t afford to buy them,” Mutu said. “I wanted to rework this idea of using discarded materials to build something, and for the piece to be playful. For some reason, kids understand this immediately in a visceral and intuitive way and know what to do with it. Adults are less likely to walk in it, while kids are very drawn to it. They’re all near the ground where young people can assess them with their playful intellects.”
Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat