At the New Museum, Wangechi Mutu Puts Down Roots – SURFACE

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Last summer, perched on a wooded hilltop in the rolling hills of Storm King Art Center, Wangechi Mutu’s evocative bronze sculptures were clambering ahead toward an unknown destiny. The centerpiece, In Two Canoe, depicted two botanical female figures in a canoe, their mangrove-like limbs appearing to plant roots in the grass. Mangroves, which can flourish all over the planet and migrate to new habitats, are an apt metaphor for Mutu’s practice—and symbolize how the artist has sculpted her own trajectory. 

In 2015, Mutu started dividing time between New York, where she lived since the mid-1990s, and Kenya. Returning to her home country helped galvanize a shift away from the collage-based works that sealed her fame, allowing her to explore other mediums, especially large-scale sculptures like In Two Canoe that explore the intersection of Afrofuturism and femininity. “If a plant has just one root,” she told the New York Times, “that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to stand straight and strong. The idea of having many roots, of having your feet really grounded in different places, is extremely empowering for me.”

That mantra has borne fruit for Mutu, who tomorrow is unveiling an ambitious career retrospective, called “Intertwined,” at the New Museum. More than 100 works create an all-encompassing tableau of paintings, collages, drawings, sculptures, performances, and films that trace the intertwining ideas across her 25-year career. These include “transmutation, doubling, ideas of interconnectivity and reciprocity, not just to one another, but to ourselves and our environments,” says Margot Norton, who co-curated the show. “We want to show that her work is consistently challenging her own ideas.” 

Revealing the interconnectedness of her ideas calls for space, and “Intertwined” marks the first time the Lower East Side museum has dedicated its entire eight-floor building to a single artist. Expect classics from Mutu’s oeuvre, including a 2003 watercolor collage of two hyena-headed women and Crocodylus, a sculpture that reclaims an overly exoticized Jean-Paul Goude photograph of Naomi Campbell riding a crocodile. Coming full circle is a diptych of a warrior woman decapitating a white serpent with her stiletto heel, which Mutu created for a group exhibition devoted to the life of Afrobeat visionary Fela Kuti at the New Museum in 2003.

“My point really is to try to use visual and art historical language and images and objects to flesh out a more African-centric history that predated colonization,” Mutu tells the Times. “And when you start to look at it from that perspective, you see the amount of trade and interconnection, the number of commonalities there are between Kenyan cultures and the rest of the world.”

“Intertwined” arrives after a series of wins for Mutu, long a fixture at global art fairs and blockbuster biennials. She landed a major commission at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she filled niches on the building’s facade with bronze sculptures of seated women resembling caryatids. A year later, her imposing takeover of San Francisco’s Legion of Honor brought evocative sculptures of Black women to its Neoclassical courtyard, dwarfing Rodin’s looming Thinker statue. At this year’s Sharjah Biennale, Mother Mound pays tribute to the resilience of women who fought in Kenya’s Mau Mau rebellion against the British army. 

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