‘That Little Piece of Energy Is Magnified’: Artist Wangechi Mutu on Honoring the Spirit of the Natural World in Her Fantastical Works
As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.
Right now the New Museum has been transformed into an otherworldly scene, all thanks to Wangechi Mutu. Blending folklore and science in a striking manner, the artist’s big show gives us massive bronze sculptures of fantastical hybrid creatures astride sea creatures, surrounded by luminous works on paper depicting still more fantastical beings. It’s the first time that the museum has ever given its entire building over to a single artist. And it’s a tour-de-force for the Kenya-born Mutu.
“I’ve always been a city girl with a nature brain,” Mutu says in an exclusive interview filmed as part of Art21’s series Extended Play. “I’ve always loved animals, plants, and insects.” That much is clear, considering the figures that populate her imagery: attenuated female forms with faces of leaf fronds, the beings are celestial and yet literally sculpted from the earth, and rooted in it.
In the video interview, which originally aired back in 2021, the artist traces the themes of her artistic practice, which are informed by her childhood in Africa where she attended all-girls Catholic school. At school in the 1970s and ’80s, children were taught British history, but not the traditions, heritage, or culture of their own community. “We hadn’t even looked at our own histories,” she explained. “There isn’t one particular way of seeing things. And in fact, when there is a singular voice or singular story, it tends to be domineering, problematic, and often fictional.”
When Mutu moved to New York City to pursue her art, she began working in collage, drawing on source material like fashion and wildlife magazines to anchor her own watercolors. That early work led her to study the history of photography and consider how it grew on a parallel trajectory with colonization. “The ‘other’ was photographed, and packaged, and consumed,” she argues. “Your image essentially became who you were.”
And so, Mutu began to create other, alternate identities through hybridized forms “combining humans and animals.” That notion, she says is “as old as the human mind.” Through her unique blended forms, Mutu creates a world of multiple perspectives, histories, and futures—and it’s thrilling.
Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s series Extended Play, below. “Wangechi Mutu: Intertwined” is on view at the New Museum in New York through June 4, 2023.
This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of news-making artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series, like New York Close Up and Extended Play, and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.
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