Wangechi Mutu’s work Sleeping Heads (2006) was installed in the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2010 as part of an exhibition called This You Call Civilization? Sleeping Heads consists of several individually framed collaged portraits of heads on their sides. In the 2010 exhibition at the AGO Mutu chose to install them onto a wall which she also altered. The wall was painted a shade of blue and was pockmarked with holes that were then painted with reds to mimic a kind of wounding. Mutu uses collage materials from fashion, motorcycle, and pornography magazines, as well as dirt, glitter, and beads.
Mutu is critical of the way that black women are portrayed in contemporary photographic works (“Wangechi Mutu”). She mentions an example where a photograph, part of another artists project, is rejected not because the woman is wearing traditional African earrings, but because she is also wearing a t-shirt; she does not look traditional enough (“Wangechi Mutu”). Mutu contends that censoring works in order to develop a picture of Africa fictionalizes the black woman and continues to perpetrate the idea of the hyper-sexualized black female (“Wangechi Mutu”). In response to popular imagery of African women Mutu looks for ways to place the traditional and the hyper-sexualized into one image (“Wangechi Mutu”). In this way she creates synergy between the two ideas of the black woman (“Wangechi Mutu”). She removes the most titillating parts because she is not interested in replicating the objectification of either the sexualized woman or the exoticized woman (“Wangechi Mutu”).
Artist Allyson Mitchell in a panel discussion about the exhibition for the AGO explains that by putting these bodies in a gallery that Mutu is changing the meaning of pornography in several ways (Mitchell and Brand). Where porn is meant to be consumed in private, Mutu she says, is making it a collective public experience. Mutu, by making it public, takes revenge on the viewer by asking them to look at stumps, missing parts, and bubbling scabs. Allyson Mitchell, as part of the same panel, states bluntly that Mutu is challenging male sexuality by stating “I look like this and you still want to fuck me?” (Mitchell and Brand). Mitchell recognizes the difficulty in representing women’s bodies by referencing violence and porn through her invocation of the essay title from Audre Lorde’s “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” but suggests that Mutu’s works recognize the power of female sexuality and uses it to complicate porn (Mitchell and Brand).
Additionally, Mitchell continues on another vein referring to Mutu’s use of pornographic imagery. She states that “Mutu’s don’t look like pinups, but ruptures” (Mitchell). Mitchell suggests that the work animates the atrocities of colonialism. Yet, “something that is whole comes out of these pieces” (Mitchell and Brand). The exhibition called This You Call Civilization? also questions the culture as well as particular titles that Mutu uses such as Try Dismantling the Empire Inside You. To understand the work Mitchell says, “you have to dismantle your own empires” (Mitchell and Brand).
I am interested in Mutu’s work because of the way she addresses Whiteness. In This You Call Civilization? The subjects of Sleeping Heads, which was part of This You Call Civilization? are all non-Whites. The images in Sleeping Heads and the wall itself are wounded. The heads are bodiless, as if severed, and many of them reference strangling or some other kind of violence. The wall contains divots or gouges that could reference festering boils, bed sores, or some other type of bloody wound in the body. With both of these devices Mutu talks about the effects of colonialism, which therefore invokes Whiteness. So, rather than make work that is about Whiteness, Mutu makes work here that is about what Whiteness does.
I would like to make a brief comparison of Mutu’s work to the work of painter Jenny Saville. I can also be fairly certain that if I were to have a discussion about her work with others, that we could also completely avoid the topic. Whiteness can remain unnamed and invisible. I can talk about body image, surgery, painting, everything but the fact that all her subjects are White. What Whiteness does is render the bodies in the paintings as normal bodies, except where the skin is broken or bruised. A simple search in Google Images for “jenny saville” and you are presented with a window full of pink flesh. She may be aware of her white privilege, but she does not acknowledge it in her practice. Although both artists work with the ideas about the representation of women, Whiteness is where I see the work of Mutu being in opposition to the work of Saville. Where Mutu makes work about what Whiteness does, Saville makes work about Whiteness. The ideology of Whiteness is reproduced.
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Besire, Mark H.C. William Pope.L, The Friendliest Black Artist in America. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002.
Mitchell, Allyson, and Dione Brand. “Wangechi Mutu: This You Call Civilization? Panel Discussion (Audio).” Interview by Robert Enright. Audio blog post. Art Matters Blog. Art Gallery of Ontario, 5 May 2010. Web. 28 Feb. 2012.
“Wangechi Mutu: This You Call Civilization.” YouTube. Art Gallery of Ontario, 04 Mar. 2010. Web. 28 Feb. 2012.
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Edited: May 1, 2012