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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Two Imposing Cubes Covered in Yellow Plastic by Artist Serge Attukwei Clottey Respond to Global Water Insecurity
A mottled patchwork of plastic cloaks two cubes that tower over the desert landscape of Coachella Valley. Titled “The Wishing Well,” the bright pair are the work of Ghanaian artist Serge Attukwei Clottey, who created the nine-foot pieces from scraps of Kufuor gallons, or jerrycans, in response to shared struggles with water insecurity that ripple across the world. Resembling a yellow brick road, a paved walkway connects the two woven structures that stand in contrast to the surrounding environment, which faces continual struggles with access to the natural resource.
Clottey’s use of the material is tied to a larger critique of colonialism’s enduring legacy and the ways it continues to affect populations around the world, particularly in relation to the climate crisis. Originally, European colonialists brought Kufuor gallons to Ghana to transport cooking oil. Today, the plastic vessels are ubiquitous and used to haul potable water. “As repurposed relics of the colonial project, they serve as a constant reminder of the legacies of empire and of global movements for environmental justice,” says a statement about the work that’s part of Desert X, a biennial bringing site-specific installations to Southern California.
“The Wishing Well” is one facet of Clottey’s larger Afrogallonism project, which he describes as “an artistic concept to explore the relationship between the prevalence of the yellow oil gallons in regards to consumption and necessity in the life of the modern African.” The Accra-based artist works in a variety of mediums spanning installation, sculpture, and performance that deal with the broader influence of colonialism in Africa. You can see a larger collection of his pieces on Artsy and Instagram.
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