In his catalog essay, Nasher Museum curator Trevor Schoonmaker refers to Wangechi Mutu’s works as “dreamscapes,” which appropriately describes both her art—collages, videos, and sculptures—as well as its current presentation at the Brooklyn Museum. Tucked away in the Sackler Center wing, upon entering the exhibition, it certainly does feel as though one has entered a dreamscape. Confronted immediately by a large mixed-media wall installation depicting a centaur-like creature with four legs and two arms, climbing atop a mountain of cloth, glitter, and tape that spills onto the gallery floor. The installation is called, Once upon a time she said, I’m not afraid and her enemies became afraid of her. The End. I quote the title in full because it appropriates the language of fairytales, evoking dreamscapes and bringing to mind children’s stories—both central to Mutu’s work.
In an artnet interview, Mutu touches on both the importance of children and childhood to her work, as well as the specific relevance of the exhibition title, Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastical Journey, in shaping the body of work on display. As Mutu explains, “the title should be something that has to do with moving from a place, traveling, going somewhere outside of that place that you were bred and born.” The title thus functions on multiple levels: on one level it references Mutu’s own journey as an artist from her birthplace in Kenya to Brooklyn, which she now calls her home; on another more intentional level it speaks to the theme of the work itself, images of or having to do with journeys both physical and psychological; and finally, bringing us back to the idea of the physical show as a kind dreamscape, it functions as an accurate description of the viewers’ experience of entering and moving through the show. Once upon a time she said… acts as the gatekeeper to the fantastical world on the other side of the wall.
As a works-on-paper gal myself, I am partial to her elaborate large scale collages that utilize scraps from popular culture, glitter, fabric, pearls, and are often held together by a thin and fragile sheet of Mylar. The iconography demands the viewers’ full attention in order to process the tiny details that each figure and scene is composed of, as well as the meaning of the image as whole. Yet there is a tension between this aggressive iconography and the very fragile Mylar paper on which it lies. In her artnet interview, Mutu explains that her work deals with myths and stereotypes. She points to the myth of the past: what visual iconography is brought to mind when we talk about “the past”? Is the past in black and white? Is it sepia? Is it dull while the present is shiny and glittery? She pushes this further with the example of science fiction. What do aliens look like?, she asks. We think we know, but the images that come to mind are culturally constructed myths founded in movie stereotypes. Much like these myths are built on a fragile foundation, so too are Mutu’s explorations of them, built on a delicate Mylar foundation.
This is a fabulous body of work presented in a fabulous installation that fittingly leads right to Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party. I highly recommend it.
Images courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum. Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastical Journey is on view through March 9, 2014.