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.
Share this story
Vietnamese-American artist Antonius Bui highlights the flexible, evolving nature of identity and the value of community through a series of unapologetically affectionate portraits. Elaborate hand-cut botanicals and geometric motifs envelop and give shape to Bui’s subjects, who include chosen and biological family members, friends, and colleagues. Painted in deep blue or inked in smaller spots to emit a warm glow, the pieces are monumental in scale—some extend upwards of 10 feet—and saturated with underlying stories that reveal themselves through smaller portraits and displays of domestic life embedded in the central image.
Continually focused on the power of narrative, Bui leaves gaps in the metaphorical, mesh-like works as a way to create space for more nuanced understandings of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, immigrant experiences, queerness, and the prevalence of false binaries. A child of Vietnamese refugees, they draw on their family’s heritage with “allusions to the spiritual significance of Joss paper, an incense paper used both to imitate value and as a form of blessings, position(ing) each work almost as an offering to honor queer communities,” a statement about the portraits says.
All of the works shown here are part of The Detour Is to Be Where We Are, which is on view through August 14 at Monique Meloche Gallery in Chicago. You can find more of Bui’s intimate pieces on their site and Instagram.
Share this story
Disembodied faces and fingers encircle the surreal vessels created by Canopic Studio, a Los Angeles-based practice helmed by Claire and Curran Wedner. Known for their ceramics that display human anatomy in a repetitious pattern, the husband and wife recently diverged from the black-and-white works previously mentioned on Colossal to create a series entirely in celadon, a jade color with a rich history.
The translucent glaze originated in China and was prominent throughout the country for centuries before being replaced by blue-and-white porcelain. It’s traditionally made with a bit of iron oxide—too little creates a blue color, while too much produces a darker olive or black—and then fired in a reducing kiln at a high temperature.
Curran says he first experimented with the glaze in 2004 as part of a ceramics class and returned to it now after researching cone 10 gas firing and reduction, or the process of decreasing oxygen in the kiln. The resulting pieces shift in color with the light, a trait that dovetails with the studio’s interest in mutable identities and idiosyncrasies that shows up in the shape of their works.
Pieces are created using the same mold to produce similar, but not identical, body parts. When attached in rows on the mug or bowl, the single face or finger becomes one of many, each defined by its slight difference. “I’m interested in identity and how it shifts when we go from being alone to being a part of a crowd,” Curran says. He explains:
I like prodding that space in between, where identity feels almost pliable or molten, then hardens, then shifts again, and so on. When the face I’m using is pulled from a single mold, it has a surreal quality—so identical it’s almost eerie, and all the tiny flaws and differences come forward when they otherwise wouldn’t.
Right now, Canopic Studio is in the process of creating a line of face medallions finished with 22 karat gold. The duo list new pieces bi-monthly on Etsy, and you can keep an eye out for shop updates and see works-in-progress on Instagram.
Share this story
In his architectural portraits, Patrick Akpojotor visualizes the exchange between humans and their built environments, whether real or imagined. The artist’s spatial body of work, which explicitly contemplates the relationship between interiority and exteriority, is founded in his childhood in Lagos, a city checkered with traditional, colonial, and contemporary structures where he still lives today. “I saw how a former residential area became a commercial one changing how people interacted with that community,” he says.
Rendered in bold blocks of acrylic, Akpojotor’s paintings encourage introspection as they consider how identities inform the design of single buildings and infrastructure, which in turn shape the people who occupy those spaces. The anthropomorphic structures evoke cubist geometry and illusion, fracturing the body with a staircase, brick chimney, or entire house, and some works shown here, including both “In Memory of the Living” pieces, are self-portraits.
Beyond his surroundings in Nigeria, Akpojotor derives inspiration from ancient African sculptures and masks, particularly “the way the forms are intentionally distorted to pass messages and symbols of their (beliefs),” he shares. “In my work, the way object(s) are placed does not matter. What is important is that the object(s) are represented, and the message is passed.”
Share this story
Through nine ceramic bowls, Yurim Gough untangles the complex narratives surrounding performance, appearance, and gender fluidity. Her identity-centric pieces—which are infused with layers of pencil renderings, thread, and other materials that can require nearly a dozen rounds of firing at multiple temperatures to complete—depict figures outfitted with ostentatious costumes and elaborately painted faces. Drawing on aspects of queer culture, Gough’s vessels are disruptive and revisionary, simultaneously exposing the dated and constructed nature of traditional gender categories while reveling in the history of those who’ve subverted norms.
Gough’s gold-trimmed collection will be on view as part of Salvage, a group exhibition curated by Colossal’s Founder and Editor-in-Chief Christopher Jobson at Paradigm Gallery + Studio in Philadelphia. Opening tonight, January 22, Salvage shares how artists are revitalizing fragments of tradition and culture that were destined to be lost, relegated to the periphery, or buried forever. The exhibition, which you can tour virtually, launches with a live talk with Jobson, Gough, André Schulze (previously), and Debra Broz (previously)—tickets are available on Eventbrite—and runs through February 20.
Now based in the U.K., the South Korean artist has a background in fashion. Explore more of her work, which includes a variety of self-portraiture and considerations of contemporary culture, on her site and Instagram.
Share this story
“As a product of an American father and a Mexican mother, I am influenced by the conflicting expectations I have received as a woman within my two cultures,” says artist Nicole McLaughlin. From her studio in Marion, Massachusetts, McLaughlin combines historically domestic crafts—ceramics and fiber art—into striking sculptures that explore identity and heritage, particularly in relation to gendered expectations, traditions, and the changes that occur as generations pass.
In her mixed-media works, the artist contrasts the soft, pliable fibers with the fragility of the plates painted with blue-and-white motifs. Dyed in subtle gradients and earth tones, the loose threads are woven through the sloping ceramic edges and knotted in the center. McLaughlin explains how it’s important that the utility of both elements is removed once combined:
(The vessels) serve as vehicles for fiber. As the fiber flows from, weaves into, or frames the ceramic, it distorts the functionality but becomes a meaningful component as plate and cloth merge. The vessels contain an expression of femininity and an essence of personal and cultural history.
These dichotomies in the materials also reflect the artist’s experience eschewing “the feminine ideals of my Mexican identity,” she says. “I am a force, and I think I tend to push the boundaries of what might be within the female expectation in Mexican culture.”
Currently, McLaughlin is serving as a teaching fellow at Tabor Academy. She sells some smaller ceramic pieces in her shop, and you can follow her work on Instagram, where she also shares glimpses into her process.
Share this story
Editor's Picks: History
Highlights below. For the full collection click here.