Wangechi Mutu’s protest painting
By referencing action painting and Kenyan feminist protests, Mutu breaks down any barrier between fine art and political concerns
Wangechi Mutu is an artist who understands her place in art history. The Kenyan-born painter, sculptor, videographer, collagist, performer and installation artist has a BFA from Cooper Union, and an MFA from Yale. Her art has been shown at almost every prestigious contemporary art institution across the globe, including the Tate, MoMA, Paris’s Centre Pompidou and the Venice Biennale.
However, Mutu is also an artist who knows the limitations of the fine art canon. Works by women, works by non-white artists, as well as works in media less well-recognised in the fine-art sphere, such as oral poetry, or art that abut other vernacular practices, like dance, religious ceremonies or folklore, are often excluded from the gallery space.
Over the past twenty years, the artist has pushed these limits in a wide range of installations, collages, videos, sculptures and paintings; however, there is one particular performance piece, staged in 2016, that truly brought these two opposing positions together in one remarkable act. That work is called Throw.
Here’s how the art historian and curator Kellie Jones describes this simple, yet powerful work in our new book on the artist. “Clad in a black gown and gloves, a barefoot Mutu repeatedly reaches into a bag and flings black viscous matter at a wall,” writes Jones, acknowledging earlier performance influences such as Marina Abramovic and Vito Acconci, as well as performative action painting of the kind pioneered by Jackson Pollock and other abstract expressionists, and further developed by Japanese Gutai artists such as Saburo Murakami, who created works by jumping through sheets of craft paper.
Wangechi Mutu, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, 2021
Yet there’s more to Throw than its fine art precedents. The gunk that Mutu chucks at her white wall is actually “a stew of magazine pulp, to which she has often referred as the waste or faecal matter of Western society,” writes Jones. “Fermented, boiled and soaked, this refuse is effectively recycled in a method that glosses traditional dyeing processes, which she had used previously in early pieces.”
Mutu has also used a throwing action in earlier pieces too, such as in her earlier video, Shoe Shoe (2010), in which the artist, “slowly pushes a shopping cart down a city street toward the unseen camera, hurling footwear with increasing vigour, grunting with the exertion of disavowal.”
Throw, by contrast, may take place in a white cube, rather than on the street, yet the artist’s references still extend far beyond the art world. Throw “constitutes the refusal of sublimated status, of the colonised subject, or the bounds of sexuality and gender, and is empowered by figural complexity,” writes Jones. “It is an act tied to the emergence of the artist’s own feminist consciousness, and protest actions like that of Maathai and the mothers who rejected police violence in 1992 by stripping naked to bear their own ‘experienced’ bodies as weapons of power and refutation.
“Over decades, this gesture has been used across the continent as an emblem of women’s might, and meshes with myriad deeds throughout the globe where women raise their voices in dissent,” Jones concludes.
By introducing the action into a fine art setting, Mutu takes that fight right into the gallery system. To understand how Throw fits into this artist’s hugely varied practice alongside other equally groundbreaking works of art, order a copy of Wangehi Mutu here.