Wangechi Mutu keynote speaker for the Gender Studies program at The New School © Taylor Hynes

Return To The Stars: Why Wangechi Mutu’s Work Is Desperately Needed In Race And Gender Politics Right Now

In case you missed her survey at the Brooklyn Museum in 2014, Wangechi Mutu is a Kenyan-born, Brooklyn-based artist whose multimedia work challenges perceptions of gender, black bodies, and cultural narratives. On April 23, the internationally renowned artist presented the keynote speech for the Gender Studies program at The New School and used this opportunity to chronicle the forces that compel her to make her art.

Mutu’s work spans a range of critical topics, from our relationship to the planet, to the importance of recognizing that black bodies and lives matter. In her mixed media and collage pieces, there is a stark and visceral effect of her fusion of the organic and the surreal, of bodies and landscapes, of the future and the past. Her portrayals of human-creature hybrids establish their own myths, emerging from the imposed myths by Europeans during African colonialism, as well as on females in society.

During her discussion, she examined the historical account of Europeans dissecting Africa in the nineteenth century, as well as a number of African folktales and how they’ve found their way into her work. She noted how these stories are facing erasure from history and described her obsession with creating new images for them, in cutting them out of history.

She paid homage to a number of powerful female artists such as Grace Jones, Frida Kahlo, Yoko Ono and Marina Abramović, describing herself and many of them as “transplants…understanding how to move and rework yourself and having to find a new language.” She also made several observations about representations of black female body, discussing “the contortion and distortion and torturing of it” and how one doesn’t see it “represented in its fullest and its best the majority of the time that you see it.” A recurring theme in her work is the mythos that women began as all black, and over time exhibits a gradual shift towards paler  skin until she eventually fillets the skin to unveil the muscles underneath, representing the shallow significance that our external features illustrate.

Her art is honest, expansive, and is desperately needed right now. She stated that a concept that has been on her mind recently is our “return to the stars,” a theme that is reiterated by the otherworldly figures she depicts. This notion is particularly powerful when seen through the lens of a society working towards a more sustainable, cohesive future, both environmentally and culturally. It also ties in perfectly to the Gender Studies program’s yearlong theme of Feminist Technologies, a necessary dialogue in an increasingly tech-driven world.

Wangechi Mutu has a fantastic vision for the future by recycling the past, and it will be powerful to see how the rest of her myths unfold.


Taylor Hynes

Taylor is a freelance writer, living and struggling in Brooklyn, as struggling writers are wont to do. She’s known for her interest in class and gender politics, long films based on short stories, and incongruous yet accurate lists.