Mutu & Saville

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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Works Cited

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

Dyer’s White


In preliminary searches on the concept of whiteness the work of Richard Dyer repeatedly surfaces. Dyer has written several books on the subject.


There are several important ideas contained within Richard Dyer’s book White (1997). Within this blog format I will pull out a couple. Richard Dyer calls his project one of “making whiteness strange” (4). That whiteness should become marked rather than invisible. Dyer explains that whiteness is recognized in relation to the representation of the non-white1 (11). He invokes both Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark (1992) and Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), since both these authors works “suggest that white discourse implacably reduces the non-white subject to being a function of the white subject” (13). Can we then say that both white and non-white are defined by the spaces where they meet? I have wrestled with this previously in a recent paper. “In works such as Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915) […] the blackness of the square is understood in relation to its white ground. Discussion about Black Square is centered on the black square as the subject of the painting, while the white ground remains unnamed.” What I think is also important here is that the positioning of non-white in relation to white (foreground and ground dichotomy enters the discourse too) provides a way for the white to remain unnamed, not the subject of deconstruction or analysis.

Dyer does express some concerns with the whole project. He lists several. The first he calls the “green light” problem (10). Where writing now gives whites to do “what in any case we have always talked about: ourselves” (10). Then there is what he calls “me-too-ism” (10). A type of navel gazing where whites are able to say in essence “we are part of a group too.” Also contained in me-too-ism is “the sense that being white is no great advantage, what with being so uptight, [and] out of touch with our bodies” (10). In addition to the previous ideas there is also the new oppressed group, the white man who can’t get a job (10). Dyer expresses a fear that “talking about whiteness could lead to the development of something called ‘White Studies’” (10). However, he is not fearful that is will “dislodge [whiteness] from its centrality and authority,” but that it might lead to a new type of “assertiveness” (10). Dyer also identifies guilt as a problem. He does think that the solution is to acknowledge the wrongs, but not allow guilt to become a block since the display of guilt expresses a “fine moral character” (11). Guilt becomes an expression of what whites are and by implication that others do not have such “fine moral character.”

Further on Dyer explores the use of film in asserting whiteness, which he precedes this with the role of photography in asserting and affirming the construct of whiteness. He explains the historical belief that photography could reveal the inner nature of a person (104). He also discusses eugenics before and after discussions on early ideas of whiteness related to high morals, purity, higher thinking (in males, not females). As well Dyer talks about the importance of lighting and positioning the white person in photography and other imagery. What interested me in this passage was the insertion of the term eugenics. Photography “was a central tool of the eugenics movement, whose focus was the improvement of the human race through control of breeding” (105). This passage is a direct reminder of a piece I titled Hitler Would Love You (2009). The inspiration for the piece comes from an image similar to the following that I had seen on the Internet. Both HWLY and the source image also refer to sight (which Dyer also delves into with a discussion on the primacy of sight and its contradictions).,_Bestimmung_der_Augenfarbe.jpg,_Bestimmung_der_Augenfarbe.jpg
Eye colour chart. (Know the source? Please contact me.)
Eye colour chart. (Know the source? Please contact me.)
H.W.L.Y., 2009, Human hair, glass, ply, plaster, acrylic
H.W.L.Y., 2009, Human hair, glass, ply, plaster, acrylic

Choosing/selecting a person, as meeting a standard of worthiness, based on eye and hair colour as an indication of their “fine moral character” is absurd. (Also brings to mind the work of Michael Euyung Oh and his arbitrary choices.)

How can whiteness be deconstructed without turning the discussion into a massive cosmic hole? How can whiteness be shown to be a marked position and at the same time remove racial labels? How can each person, regardless of the race they identify with, feel dignity without being barricaded by guilt or pride?


1 Richard Dyer explains his uncomfortable use of the terms “white” and “non-white”: see the sub-section titled “The Politics of Looking at Whiteness” in White, London: Routledge, 1997, middle of page 11.


Dyer, Richard. White. London: Routledge, 1997. Print.