I’m interested in powerful images that strike chords embedded deep in the resevoirs of our subconscious
Trapped within the mundane white living of Orange County, California it becomes of paramount need to find the quiet moments of mental escape.[i]. Those breaks in the reality of the situation when I surround myself with nothing but Blackness, Black ‘living,’ Black thought, and Black ‘culture.’ When I scroll down my tumblr dashboard I’m always in a state of shock-excitement-peace seeing the numerous blogs devoted to maintaining a loving relationship with this thing we call Black. That thing/stuff that is constantly misrepresented, unrecognized, feared, yet still hypervisible and overdetermined. One of the themes running across these blogs (my own included, in my relationship/work with Black visuality) is beauty, often addressed through the notion of Black love—of self and culture. I’m pleased to be linked with others in this remarkable act of unapologetic Blackness, not new, but now hip, chic, and constant—in step with the ever-evolving technology age. My, your, our Blackness is represented as just as relevant and pleasing as the MacBook I type these words from. The blog world has become a space of representing our interest in transforming, self-making, and ultimately protesting. What is to be said of this affirmation of beauty? Or what can be made in these life-affirming words and images of Blackness? A lot can be said on those questions, but I’m currently most intrigued/engaged with another question: where does what we transform, make, and protest figure into our notions of Blackness?
The work of Wangechi Mutu plays with all of these questions and pushes our ideas of transformation and beauty to the (performative) limits. In responding to and protesting stereotypes, our blogs often obscure and avoid the violent notions of Blackness we daily encounter. But where does that violence go in our mental escapes? What happens to those things not spoken? They certainly don’t evaporate.
As I have stated elsewhere, what is remarkable about the work of artist like Carrie Mae Weems or Michael Ray Charles, is their ability to confront what is known/thought and bring it out for all to speak, contemplate, and confront. Kara Walker mines the same vein and abstracts, imagines, and digs into fantasy space toward an account of the same notions of Blackness. Particularly concerning the idea of beauty and self/Black love, I am captivated by Wangechi Mutu’s ability to abstract and amplify stereotype.
In an interview with Lauri Firstenberg, Mutu noted:
"Camouflage and mutation are big themes in my work, but the idea I’m most enamored with is the notion that transformation can help us to transcend our predicament. We all wear costumes when we set out for battle. The language of body alteration is a powerful inspiration. I think part of my interest in this comes from being an immigrant but I’ve also always been interested in how people perform and maneuver among one another."
In contrast to the Walker, Weems, and Charles, Mutu’s work does not present clear cut renderings of stereotypes, but they are always present. The violence forming and shaping Blackness is highlighted, exposed, and abstracted in such a way that flips the formula: finding beauty in what is equated to ugly (transforming, self-making, protesting), toward highlighting the complex/constant relationship between beauty and ugly: the two are always with each other and always visible.
Mutu is a New York artist from Kenya who was educated both in Africa and the States. Her work uses collage not just as a crafty, chic art medium, but rather to speak to the ways in which one’s life is organized. She culls sexual imagery from fashion and porn, ethnographic photographs in National Geographic and high-gloss populist coffee table books such as Africa Adorned toward deconstructing the female body until it becomes a series of leprous dismembered pinups.[ii]
“Violent incidences are often fastened to images of privilege in my drawings. Images of altered or slightly mutilated bodies with diseased skin sometimes look like bizarre and colorful fabric costumes. There is this tiny percentage of people who live like emperors because elsewhere blood is being shed.” -Wangechi Mutu
“Women’s bodes are particularly vulnerable to the whims of changing movements, governments, and social norms. They’re like sensitive charts—they indicate how a society feels about itself. It’s also disturbing how women attack themselves in search of a perfect image, and to assuage the imperfections that surround them.” -Wangechi Mutu
[i] I say Orange County simply because that is my current physical location. I keep in the forefront of my thinking, “what Black utopia exist where this would not be a need?”
[ii] Lauri Firstenberg, “Wangechi Mutu: Perverse Anthropology: The Photomontage of Wangechi Mutu,” in Looking Both Ways: Art of the Contemporary African Diaspora.Lauri Ann Farrell, editor (New York: Museum of African Art), 136-143