Storm King Art Center is situated on the ancestral homelands of the Lenape, a reference point that Kenyan-American artist Wangechi Mutu returns to for a new exhibition at the outdoor museum in Hudson Valley. Comprised of her signature sculptures of immense hybrid figures, the largely bronze body of work addresses settler-colonialism and the inextricable tie between people and the land.
Perpetually evoking nature and mythology to address historical issues of contemporary relevance, Mutu positions women as the most powerful, revering their physical form and highlighting their innate connection to ecology. The artist’s latest work, “In Two Canoe,” features a pair of figures with branch-like appendages momentarily straddling a skinny vessel, their faces wrapped in mangrove leaves. “This plant has moved everywhere, has made journeys like those who were kidnapped from Africa and taken to the Americas. The water seals this unified story we’ve created for ourselves. We are all connected on this sphere of Earth and the water is how we go and find each other,” Mutu says in an interview.
Also on the Museum Hill site is the regal “Crocodylus,” a sleek reptilian creature that faces an opening in the trees. The scaly form corresponds with the massive coiled snake that occupies “Nyoka,” one of five sculptural baskets spread across the meadow. Inside the center are smaller earthen works constructed with natural materials like bone and soil gathered near her Nairobi studio.
Mutu’s sculptures are on view at Storm King through November 7, and she’s hosting a film screening at the museum on September 3. To follow her practice, head to Instagram.
Share this story
The natural world and moments of tenderness merge in Lincolnshire-based artist Nichola Theakston’s expressive sculptures. Serene mammals sculpted in terracotta and cast in bronze characterize a tranquil animal world in which they relax, reflect, and dream. “The notion that an individual creature may experience some spiritual dimension beyond its instinctive animal behaviours is the premise behind much of my work,” she explains in a statement. With half-closed eyes or faces turned skyward, each portrait is an intimate exploration of feeling and empathy.
Inspired by fauna seen commonly around the U.K. like hares and hounds, Theakston also focuses on distant or endangered species like langurs or polar bears that are threatened by hunting and habitat loss. She draws inspiration from ancient cultures that venerated specific animals, such as the Egyptian goddess Bastet who was worshipped in the form of a cat and warded off evil spirits and disease, especially those associated with women and children.
Theakston begins in the studio by pushing and shaping clay into the lithe forms of felines, primates, and canines, trying to capture gestures and contours that give each individual its distinguishing persona. Some of these are then cast into bronze editions to which she applies a patina, giving the sculptures a distinctive texture and hue. Some pieces live on in terracotta, applied with distinctive colored slips. “My main reason for working is to attempt to elevate the animal to an expression of something beyond a representation of its form,” she tells Colossal. Each portrait uniquely mirrors human emotional shifts, encouraging contemplation and communion with the natural world and reflecting on its delicate balance.
Share this story
Artist Simone Leigh Embodies Self-Determination in the Historic ‘Sovereignty’ at the Venice Biennale
“To be sovereign is to not be subject to another’s authority, another’s desires, or another’s gaze but rather to be the author of one’s own history.” This conviction founds Simone Leigh: Sovereignty, the artist’s new body of work created for the U.S. Pavilion of the 2022 Venice Biennale. Leigh is the first Black woman to be awarded the prestigious commission.
Comprised of towering bronze works and ceramics, the exhibition continues Leigh’s questions about self-determination, historical erasure, and Black femme subjectivity. She explores both interiority and what it means for Black women, who she’s repeatedly described as her primary audience, to move through the world.
While largely sculptural, Sovereignty opens with Leigh’s reinterpretation of the pavilion’s Palladian-style facade. A thatched roof and wooden columns cloak the stately architecture in reference to the 1931 Paris Colonial Exposition, which celebrated French dominance and extracted and exoticized objects, images, and materials of African cultures. The Jamaican woman hunched over a mirrored pool in “Last Garment,” a depiction Leigh originally discovered on a vintage postcard, similarly rebukes colonialism and the negative stereotypes it perpetuates.
Inside are additional figurative works, including the soaring, abstract bronze piece titled “Sentinel,” which has a wide, sloping head and echoes the squat “Satellite” at the exhibition’s entrance. Evoking the artistic traditions within Africa and of the diaspora, many of the pieces address questions and themes that recur in Leigh’s practice, although they extend her oeuvre, as well. As with her earlier works, cowrie shells make an appearance, emerging from a large, ceramic jug and resting atop a raffia dome in “Cupboard.” The standing bronze “Sharifa,” on the other hand, depicts Leigh’s friend, the writer Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, and is the artist’s first portrait.
“In order to tell the truth, you need to invent what might be missing from the archive, to collapse time, to concern yourself with issues of scale, to formally move things around in a way that reveals something more true than fact,” she says in a statement about Sovereignty, adding in her opening remarks that, “Black women and Black people in general across the diaspora … We often are getting information from someone who had a different intention than we have.”
In addition to Sovereignty, Leigh’s monumental bust “Brick House,” which was stationed at the High Line through May of 2021, is included in the Biennale’s international exhibition The Milk of Dreams, on view through November 27. “Brick House” also won a Golden Lion, the exhibition’s highest award.
Share this story
Kehinde Wiley Addresses Vulnerability and Resilience in a New Series of Monumental Portraits and Bronze Figures
In 2008, artist Kehinde Wiley (previously) exposed the violence against Black bodies in a series of majestic portraits titled DOWN. Holbein’s painting “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb,” which depicts an emaciated Jesus outstretched on white cloth, inspired Wiley’s collection that reimagined the 16th Century piece and other art historical works in the same vein with contemporary metaphors of pain and ecstasy. Centering on Black men lying on their sides with twisted limbs or supine against the artist’s signature floral backdrops, DOWN positioned the subjects as saints and heroes as they confronted death.
Now more than a decade later, Wiley returns to this series for a new body of work that expands on its themes and indictment of the continued brutality against Black people. An Archaeology of Silence, hosted by Fondazione Giorgio Cini for the Venice Biennale, exhibits new bronze figures and large-scale portraits featuring subjects in unguarded positions, their eyes closed, arms splaying outward, and bodies resting.
Monumental in scale— “Femme Piquée Par Un Serpent (Mamadou Gueye),” or “Woman Stung By A Snake (Mamadou Gueye),” is 25-feet wide, for example—the works portray Black men and women as icons, and while vulnerable, the figures exude a sense of resilience and perseverance, having endured exceptional pain and cruelty. Both sculptures and portraits speak to the ways technology has allowed more people to witness injustices that have been occurring for centuries. “That is the archaeology I am unearthing: The spectre of police violence and state control over the bodies of young Black and Brown people all over the world,” Wiley says, explaining further:
While this work is not specifically about tomb effigies, it does relate to death, mortality, powerlessness, and the downcast figure—the juxtaposition of death and decay in the midst of a narrative of youth and redemption. It is an expression of my desire to depict the struggles of Black and Brown youth globally, through the rubric of violence and power.
An Archaeology of Silence will be on view through July 24. You can explore more of Wiley’s practice on Instagram, and visit his shop for goods and prints that support Black Rock Senegal, the residency the artist established in 2019 in Dakar.
Share this story
The wide, reddish-brown fungi known as lingzhi, or reishi, has long been revered as the mushroom of immortality, said to grant eternal life to anyone who consumes one of its spores. This ancient belief founds some Chinese legends and is also a mainstay of Xiaojing Yan’s practice. Based in Toronto, the artist has created a body of work that’s broad in medium and subject matter, ranging from small sculptures installed in circular formations to bulbous paper lanterns with rotating parts. Each piece, though, hearkens back to Yan’s experience as a first-generation Chinese-Canadian and her interest in the way the formidable power of nature continually intersects with culture, art, and lore.
Displayed in precise patterns, both Yan’s 2014 work “Lingzhi” and 2020 installation “Fairy Ring” are comprised of bronze mushrooms finished with a turquoise patina. The texture is enhanced, the artist shares, to mimic concentric tree rings and prompt questions of aging and time. “I arranged them onto the wall in the way that bracket mushrooms would grow in steps in nature,” she writes. “Against the white wall, these hoary objects appear to float in space. Bronze is often associated with monuments, images of power, or eternity and creates tension with lingzhi’s delicate nature and mythology.” In conjunction with immortalizing the fungi in alloy, Yan also uses the actual spongy spores in other pieces, including in coating busts and sculptures with the fleshy growths.
Similarly focused on symbols from nature, Yan’s more animalistic works involve gilded cicada exoskeletons suspended as a winding staircase and an animated series of cocoon-like sculptures that twirl in a circular motion. “Tiger’s Embrace,” a recently carved wooden sculpture, nests alternating depictions of the cat and a human figure in diminishing forms. Commissioned by the Royal Ontario Museum where it’s on display through January 2023, the piece celebrates the Year of the Tiger and is the first in a series of all twelve signs in the Chinese zodiac. The hybrid work, which blurs the distinction between people and animals, “is also based on the Chinese custom of dressing children in tiger hats for good luck and protection,” she says. “The warrior’s lion skin hat turning into a cute baby’s tiger hat can’t stop me from pondering over self-transformation and adaptation.”
Yan has exhibitions slated for Paris, Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Nevada in the coming months, and she is currently working on a project supported by the Canada Council for the Arts. Explore a larger portfolio of folklore-infused pieces on her site and Instagram.
Share this story
A column of metallic type scales the former Zenger Transformer Substation in Prague, melding the historic venue with the visual identity of the new art institution housed in its space. Conceived by the Czech Republic-based Studio Najbrt, the uniquely positioned logo wraps vertically around the corner of the Kunsthalle Praha building and is based on a typeface by German designer Jan Tschichold, who created it in the 1930s around the time the station was built. Construction involved modeling the hinged letters in paper and modifying the forms to account for the central bend, a lengthy process you can see more of Studio Najbrt’s Instagram.
Share this story
Editor's Picks: Illustration
Highlights below. For the full collection click here.