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ART: Pretty Ugly

Wangechi Mutu, A Shady Promise (Damiani, 2008)

Shady Promise organizes and paraphrases Wangechi Mutu’s oeuvre without diminishing its scope or the complexity of its vision. The book is organized into four “chapters” (not including the introduction by Michael E. Veal and the afterword by Malik Gaines and Alexandro Segade): “Line Drawings,” “The Pin-Up,” “Hybrid,” and “Body as Space.” Each chapter begins with an interview between Mutu and curator/art scholar, Isolde Brielmaier, and contains about 22 to 25 full color prints. Together, the chapters show a somewhat chronological but mostly ideological progression of Mutu’s ideas from their more nascent forms to their fruition as large-scale paintings and installations.

The first chapter, “Line Drawings,” sets the impetus for the remainder of the book by providing a starting point into the realm of Mutu’s aesthetic. As with all of her work, Mutu’s line drawings use the female body as a locus for the creation and subversion of discourses of sexuality, xenophobia, and race. The drawings are austere and blueprint-like, but manage to contain the complex combination of sexual intensity and repulsiveness that flowers in Mutu’s more articulate collages and installations.

In the second section, “The Pin-Up,” a collage technique is used to explore the themes introduced by Mutu’s line drawings. These mosaic compositions capture women in the artificial postures of pornography, high fashion, and commercial media. In certain pieces, pornographic images of women’s bodies are obfuscated by mud or clay, so that dirt and sex become integral and catalyze each other. In other “pin-ups” the collage effect enhances aspects of the female anatomy, causing breasts, asses, eyes, and lips to appear disproportionate in comparison to body size. The result is a representation of the African- American female that is somewhat Frankensteinesque, but eerily sexy and celebratory. 

The pieces in A Shady Promise’s third section, “Hybrid,” combine collage, watercolor, spray paint, and ink into fantastical, chimerical visions. Part cyborg, part cockatrice, part porn star, the women in “Hybrid” are impossible beings. They exist in tremulous moments of physical contortion. Their limbs explode in firework-like displays. Some gaze out from fabulist settings, while others seem barely able to contain this same fabulism within the limits of their body. In every piece there is the strong sense that the women are struggling with the confines of two-dimensional representation. Their contortions, the multi-dimensional composition of their bodies, their radiant colors all foreshadow an escape from the canvas to the open space of Mutu’s installation work. Despite their meta-human appearances, Mutu’s women never cease to exude confident sexuality, and an otherworldly strength of spirit. In a sense, they derive their coherence from that which seeks to weaken it. Xenophobia, racism, sexual exploitation, and violence become elements of composition in Mutu’s work, so that paradigms of vulnerability are transformed into compositions of unsettling beauty.

The final section of A Shady Promise, “Body as Space,” attempts to capture the spaces of Mutu’s installation work. The installations translate the earlier depictions of the female body into three-dimensional space by incorporating allusions to blood and corporeal wounds. Bottles hang downward from ceilings, allowed to drip their blood-like contents (perhaps wine) onto the floor or table above

which they are suspended. Pools of liquid are left to mold over, so that their growth and smell become part of the space. Wounds gape on the gallery walls, alluding to the cell-like quality of the art-world context. In certain installations, pelts of fur conglomerate on the walls, functioning as reminders of past violence, sensuality, and extravagance. The effect is a feeling that one has entered a zone that is itself an open wound or a place where the “body” is caught in a moment of reconfiguration that is as beautiful as it is repulsive. While the limitations of the photographs in “Body as Space” are obvious, they capture a great deal of the essence of the installations, locating them within the contextual progression of A Shady Promise and showing a definite evolution of Mutu’s aesthetic forms.

A Shady Promise is itself a beautiful object. It has a luxurious size (13.75" by 9.75"), giving ample room to the reproductions of Mutu’s work. The breadth of the book feels substantial, without packing too much in. The mini-interviews that begin each section, as well as the introduction and afterword, are helpful guides to those unfamiliar with Wangechi Mutu’s art, while remaining sophisticated and challenging enough to offer new ideas to those familiar with her work. Most importantly, perhaps, A Shady Promise gives the strong impression that Mutu’s ideas are still evolving, leaving one to consider where, when, and how they might next be encountered. 


Ben Mirov

Mirov is editor of pax americana. He is also poetry editor of LIT Magazine.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2009

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