To have a fantastic imagination requires a fluidity of perception of reality and that encapsulates Wangechi Mutu’s exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, A Fantastic Journey. Mutu’s medium of collage artwork provides a natural basis for her ideas that combine an ancient mythic and animistic values with the futuristic cyborg concepts to comment on global modern cultures’ interconnectedness yet monstrous excesses, objectification, exploitation and mechanization of gendered and racialized bodies.
Her discourse on the fluidity of being is establish very early in the exhibit with the first video instillation, “Amazing Grace,” where a woman sings the song of the same title in the Kenyan language of Kikuyu on the beach and immersing herself into the ocean. The video speaks to the exhibition’s themes of the displacement or dispossession of marginalized groups, either enslaved or colonized, a recognition of our disconnect from each other and nature, and a need of a womb-like re-immersion.
Mutu claims that our break of nature resulted in objectification, in which nature and “othered” bodies become material for exploitation. She discusses this primarily through employment of female bodies, since exploitation and violent violation is primarily gendered. Women, and by extension people of color, children, animals and even objects, becomes vessels for projections of power. Mutu plays with gender in her art, like inverting the power paradigm in “Yo Mama,” a tribute to feminist Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Fela Kuti’s mother. Here, she replaces suns with dark suns and has a female figure stomping on the head of a phallic snake and getting the apple, alluding to the story of not only Adam and Eve, but also of Lilith, the rebellious woman who existed before Eve, and possibly the story of Ra and Apep. It symbolizes a reclamation of feminine and natural power. She again alludes to these mysterious, mythic feminine, and often racialized, powers, like Medusa and Eve again in “The Roots of all Eves,” that are debased and blamed for social ills.
In addition to gender, Mutu’s work criticizes the objectification of colonialist and capitalist cultures. She shows that our detachment from nature has changed the mentality that all matter has a spirit and fluid to all matter is an impenetrable object to be consumed. Our interconnectedness with other humans, plants, animals and objects (Mutu’s use of spiritual fetishes hints at the different cultural relationships to objects) is masked by these monsters of power and consumption. Bodies of living and nonliving matter, bodies of knowledge, and of culture are violently ripped apart and restructured for purpose of profit and validation of power in a Frankensteinian sense. This is seen in her works, like “Le Noble Savage,” where a racialized and gendered body become as a Statue of Liberty tourist attraction, a source of pleasure, paradise and profit, and “Humming,” symbolizing the hypersexualizing of both nature (ex. flowers) and female, especially black female, bodies.
Her third video instillation featuring Santigold, “The End of Eating Everything,” which some viewers still did not get it, despite going through the entire exhibition (a mark of blind privilege maybe?), gives the dangerous effects when this all goes unchecked. A large, uncontrollable mass of a monster with destruction and pollution of nature in its path, and the use of marginalized bodies, especially black women, for that destruction. But hopefully as the video suggests by the end, one day there will be an end to it and we can imagine spaces for transformation.