Kenyan-American artist Wangechi Mutu made history in 2019 when her four bronze sculptures became the first ever to occupy the niches of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s facade. Stretching nearly seven feet, the seated quartet evokes images of heavily adorned African queens and intervenes in the otherwise homogenous canons of art history held within the institution’s walls.
The monumental figures are one facet of Mutu’s nuanced body of work that broadly challenges colonialist, racist, and sexist ideologies. Now on view at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor is the latest iteration of the artist’s subversive projects: I Am Speaking, Are You Listening? disperses imposing hybrid creatures in bronze and towering sculptures made of soil, branches, charcoal, cowrie shells, and other organic materials throughout the neoclassical galleries. The figurative works draw a direct connection between the Black female body and ecological devastation as they reject the long-held ideals elevated in the space.
No matter the medium, these associations reflect Mutu’s deep respect for and fascination with the ties between nature, the feminine, and African history and culture, a guiding framework that the team at Art21 explores in a recently released documentary. Wangechi Mutu: Between the Earth and the Sky visits the artist’s studio in her hometown of Nairobi and dives into the evolution of her artwork from the smaller collaged paintings that centered her early practice as a university student in New York to her current multi-media projects that have grown in both scope and scale.
Whether a watercolor painting with photographic scraps or one of her mirror-faced figures encircled with fringe, Mutu’s works are founded in an insistence on the value of all life and the ways the earth’s history functions as a source of knowledge, which she explains:
I truly believe that there’s something about taking these bits and pieces of trees, and animals and completely anonymous but extremely identifiable items and placing them somewhere that draws their energy, wherever they were coming from, whatever they did, whatever molten lava they came out of a million years ago, that is now in my work and that little piece of energy is magnified.
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Obscured faces peek through tangles of leaves and stems in the ethereal portraits of Toronto-based artist Christine Kim. Her mixed-media collages layer textured graphite gradients and mesh-like cuttings into splintered depictions of her subjects. “‘Fragmentary’ is one word that I return to again and again because I think portraiture is an act of catching glimmers of a person,” she tells Colossal. “I like the idea of not being able to see everything. Having multiple layers partially conceals but the patterns of foliage, (which) also act like a kind of shelter.”
For each work, Kim first illustrates a single figure—the subjects shown here are models Yuka Mannami and Hoyeon Jung—and then digitally draws a corresponding botanical pattern. Those motifs are cut with the help of a Silhouette Cameo machine before they’re built up sheet by sheet. Graceful and at times surreal, the resulting portraits portray fractions of faces and hands that are duplicated or filtered through colorful webs.
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An Eclectic Group Show Features Sound Sculptures, Collages, and Toy Assemblages for the Annual BBA Artist Prize
A broad, varied collection of work from 20 emerging artists converges in a group exhibition for the sixth-annual BBA Artist Prize. Living in ten countries and working across mediums, this year’s finalists include Steve Parker’s touch-activated horn sculptures, Fiona White’s vivid collaged paintings, and June Lee’s figurative assemblages of toys and everyday objects. The winner of 2021’s award will be announced on June 25, with all works on view at Kühlhaus Berlin through June 30. Get a preview on the BBA site, and check out artist Ming Lu’s blue-and-white porcelain sculptures, which won the 2020 competition.
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Sand and Currency from Dozens of Countries Converge in an Endless Interchange of Culture and Economics
Corrie Francis Parks’s absorbing stop-motion short “Foreign Exchange” is all about perspective. Through a continuously evolving landscape of minuscule stones and banknotes, mini-universes emerge that meld the two materials into culturally significant tableaus. “Between the dazzling layers of currency and sand lie connections that can be mined in infinite ways. Each person who views this film will unearth different associations filtered through their worldly experience and national background,” Parks says.
Although the sand shown is small in quantity—Parks can hold all of it in her two hands—it’s sourced from more than 50 countries just like the paper currency, and both materials converge in a perpetual juxtaposition of culture, economics, and nature. The rocks flow across the screen like water and animals, while the colorful collages of ripped money contrast distinct national figures and heritage against a universal economic backdrop. “Canada’s interstellar pride meshes with the gothic arches of Prague’s St. Salvator’s Church. Portugal’s colonial conquests intertwine with a Singapore’s nostalgic market economy. India’s signature animals wallow beneath a Chinese waterfall,” the Baltimore-based animator says in a statement.
Watch behind-the-scenes footage of Parks’s micro-sand process, which involves moving each grain with a toothpick or tweezers before photographing, along with a few of her other animated projects, on Vimeo.
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Lahore, Pakistan-based artist Omar Aqil (previously) digitally assembles technology, 3D objects, and textured masses into figurative collages for his series Self-Portraits 2050. The futuristic characters all sport a pair of glasses but are otherwise distinct, sometimes conveyed through sleek geometric shapes stacked into facial features and others sprouting whimsical florals and various organic elements. Experimentation and play are at the heart of this new series—which Aqil refers to as “profile pictures”—and his practice overall, resulting in an eclectic collection of self-portraits rooted in the current digital era.
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Nearly a decade before masks became a ubiquitous part of our lives, artist Volker Hermes was fashioning lavish face coverings made of flowers, lace, and ornate baubles. In his ongoing series, Hidden Portraits, Hermes digs into the art historical archive and selects classical paintings that he then reinterprets. Elaborate accessories derived from elements in the original works become tools for obscuring the subjects’ faces, which subsequently draws attention to their garments, gestures, and surroundings.
Since he began the prescient series, Hermes has based his practice in painting even though he realizes each portrait digitally. Time has given him ample opportunities to delve into the original painters’ backgrounds, periods, and the symbolism of various fashions, an experience bolstered by his costuming work for opera productions.
Now fluent in historical significance, Hermes continues to parse questions of representation in the works and their current-day implications. “Each era has its own symbols,” he says. “I always like to mention the Chanel costume as a metaphor for today’s upper-class affiliation. There are of course more current, more specific ones, but this garment has something of a general visualization of an established elite.”
Other emblems—like the big, black hats made from beaver fur that many men don in works from the Dutch Golden Age to signify their rank—are more difficult to recognize today. Hermes says:
Whoever had such a hat, had himself painted with it. But today we don’t know that anymore. We simply see men with black hats, which no longer trigger anything in us. We look the sitters in the face as our natural approach. If I now exaggerate such a hat in my interventions, blocking the access via the face, the focus changes, the viewer is forced, so to speak, to look at the painting under new aspects, taking into account the meanings that determined the painting at that time.
From his studio in Düsseldorf, Hermes is preparing new pieces for a group show centered around a theme of clerical representation and pilgrimage, which you can keep up with on Instagram.
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Editor's Picks: History
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