As part of our ten-year anniversary celebrations, we’re considering the best of a decade of arts publishing. Today’s selection comes from senior editor Vivian Sming, who writes, “Author Catherine Wagley asks us to critically reflect upon the convergence of seduction and brutality in the works of Wangechi Mutu and Kara Walker. This review of Mutu and Walker’s concurrent exhibitions demonstrates the continued and ever-pressing need for more representations of Black women in contemporary art.” This article was originally published on March 31, 2008.
Wangechi Mutu will never experience the heated backlash that Kara Walker experienced. No one will call Mutu the “patsy of the white art establishment,” accuse her of selling fellow black artists down the river, or launch a letter-writing campaign to keep her artwork from being shown. There are good reasons for this: unlike Walker, the Kenyan-born Mutu does not share the slavery lineage of African-American artists and she does not make work with a lucid historical context. Yet Mutu’s work is often as disturbing as Walker’s, reconfiguring sexualized representations of women and creating visceral collages that appear more pornographic than critical.
Mutu and Walker both probe the ways in which women’s bodies have been caricatured and both use craft-inspired materials to create compositionally seductive images. Both also provoke the same question: Is this work compelling because of what it says or because of the way it speaks?
Mutu received her BFA from Cooper Union and her MFA in Sculpture from Yale. Since leaving Yale, she has participated in celebrated group shows internationally and her inclusion in Saatchi Gallery’s USA Today made her an art world sensation. The critical discussion surrounding her work often hovers around terms like mutilation, fashion, and empowerment, emphasizing the contrast between representations of gender in Africa and the West. But there’s something missing from the discussion of Mutu’s art. The compulsive, sentimental, and seductive quality of her imagery overwhelms any social criticism that she might be articulating.
Like Mutu, Walker jumped through the hoops of academia. She graduated with a BFA from Atlanta College of Art and received an MFA from Rhode Island School of Design in 1994. After her breakthrough show, Selections 1994, at The Drawing Center in New York, Walker became controversial. Despite, or perhaps because of, accusations that she promulgated stereotypes, Walker’s career flourished and she won a MacArthur “genius grant” in 1997. Walker’s mid-career retrospective, My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love, is on view until June 8 at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Mutu’s current show, Little Touched at Susanne Vielmetter Projects runs through May 3.
Mutu’s and Walker’s concurrent exhibitions call to mind a gut-wrenching scene from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. In Morrison’s novel, a heartbroken Hagar tries to reclaim the self-esteem her lover took from her. She buys panties, a night gown, heels, a little yellow dress, perfume, and red lipstick. Walking home with her purchases, she gets caught in a storm that destroys her finery; still, Hagar is determined to make herself beautiful and lovable. She uses the soiled finery to turn herself into a garish, overly made-up caricature, then collapses in exhaustion. At the end of the chapter, Hagar dies, destroyed by her desperate attempts to feel attractive.
A similar self-destruction occurs in Little Touched. Mutu’s You pretty, no you pretty (2008) consists of two drawings in which opulent watercolor stains morph into approximations of faces. Mutu has collaged photos of vegetation, leopard skin, and a human figure onto the stains, inviting sleek magazine imagery into the discussion of prettiness. But the discussion can go nowhere since the materials silence each other. The magazine imagery allows no room for the stains to assert themselves and the drawings become passive. Like Hagar, You pretty, no you pretty disappears in a puddle of aimless finery.
Mutu’s A’gave you (2008) pushes the problem of passivity to a further extreme. A large work on Mylar, it uses an assortment of materials and collaged body parts to depict a woman’s figure. Her body is in an excruciating position, exploding as if struck by a grenade. Yet the lusciousness of the materials turns the violence into something decorative. This seems to be Mutu’s obsession: the violent seduction of mass media images and the places where the violence and beauty converge. Violence appears so natural that we react to the opulent imagery of Mutu’s work more strongly than we react to its confrontational content.
Betye Saar declared war on Kara Walker in the mid-1990s because she feared that Walker turned stereotypes into seductive, formally compelling imagery. Saar had reason to fear; Walker’s art is lyrical. Her large paper cut-outs and her projections work together like a perfect poem in which each word plays an irreplaceable role in the overall composition. Yet the work also has an unavoidable brutality.
While an unsuspecting viewer could approach Walker’s Excavated innocently enough, the narrative portrayed by the installation will eventually set in: baby-kidnapping, genital grabbing, defecating, and other vulgarities. This contrast between visual lyricism and content does not make Walker’s work didactic; instead it makes the work unsettling in the worst possible way. There is nothing we can do about nineteenth-century representations of slavery and Walker’s work does not give us an easy prescription for making the world a better place today.
The videos in the show depict scenery reminiscent of Gone with the Wind—silhouetted hand-puppets move rhythmically across the frame with sunsets and mystic rivers in the background. But Walker’s narratives uninhibitedly probe rape, mutilation, and death. Anyone who does not leave the exhibition feeling sick to the stomach has not truly seen Walker’s work.
The problem with Walker’s work is that it’s as deadly and confrontational as it is lyrical. On the other hand, Mutu’s is as visceral as it is beautiful, but it is not confrontational in the least. The two artists occupy different spheres—Walker the sphere of context-specific, historically driven art and Mutu the sphere of diffuse, media-driven art. Yet both artists have a similar net effect: They seduce us with sensual, rich imagery but ultimately leave us feeling destroyed.