Please step into my room: Wangechi Mutu’s gloomy ‘Dirty little heaven’

Too bad one often takes decisions based on (the wrong) details. A poster with an image that’s not really enticing. A name that doesn’t ring a bell. And thus I’d almost skipped Wangechi Mutu‘s exhibition at Wiels (Brussels; through September 12). Shame on me, because her Dirty little heaven really is an intriguing affair. I like it when walking into an exhibition means opening a door to a different and mysterious universe. In this case: a gloomy one, with richly detailed collages in warm colours with strange creatures, felt covered walls, liquid dripping from bottles, two videos and one bunny. ‘My work is a reclaiming of an imagined future’, Mutu says. More pics and info after the jump.

Wangechi Mutu was born in Kenya (1972) and currently lives and works in New York. She was elected Deutsche Bank’s artist of the year and My dirty little heaven was already on view at the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin. Her collages have been compared to the work of Hannah Höch and even to that of sixteenth-century painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo. Mutu has a keen interest in artists who work with transformation, masks and disguise and it will barely take you a second to realize that camouflage, stereotypes and mutation are big themes in her work. ‘I’m interested in powerful images that strike chords embedded deep in the reservoirs of our subconscious’, she says. Mutu admits to being influenced too by techniques of abstraction used in Southern and Central African sculpture, in which ‘bodies are attached onto other bodies, creating a latticework of limbs, expressions and narrative.’

The creatures in her collages are inhabitants of an AlieNation, a world in which more and more people are migrants and permanent travellers. As is stated in the catalogue: ‘In Mutu’s view, cultural identity is no longer determined by geographical origins, ancestry or biological disposition, but is increasingly becoming a hybrid construct that people can determine and change themselves.’

Or as Mutu once said in an interview with artist Barbara Kruger: ‘I use the body as a metaphor and as a focal point from which to engage people in this discussion of: what is your war mask and battle uniform? What is your persona when you leave and enter the world of structures? What do people expect of you? (…) I took all of these psychological issues and my own personal stories and the stories of other women, and I manifested them as body injuries or mutilations or malformations or exaggerations or prostheses, as a way of talking about the need to extend, perforate, change, or shape-shift your body in order to exist… the only way to keep moving around this body that is society is by mutating… That’s where these chimeras, these creatures, these women warriors come from – they’re not me, per se, they’re human conditions.’ (Interview, April 2007)

Mutu isn’t too  partial to feminist readings or racial interpretations of her work. ‘People simplify my work and always see these figures as black women, when it could very well be a purple insect.’ (from an interview with Matthew Evans) But of course her personal history did influence her art. ‘I have to admit that being transplanted changes your notions of self and survival. I’m sure the more extreme your migration story is, the more complicated issues of personal and cultural survival become for you. Displacement anxiety and a fractured identity are implied in my drawings; there are mutilations and awkward attachments in the collage work. I think one of my most poignant moments in my late teens was realizing that my father’s generation was this group of men who’d been raised to understand the true traditional value of a large herd of cattle and goats, yet they were expected to mutate and become middle-class, Mercedes-owning, intellectually rigorous, three-piece-suit-wearing urbanites.’ (from an interview with Lauri Firstenberg in the exhibition catalogue)

You’ll find an interview with Mutu here. For more info on the exhibition click here, or the catalogue (published by Hatje Cantz), click here.


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