Wangechi Mutu’s African Queens
In an age of toppling statues, this incredible African artist created four regal figures fit for our times
The 2010s was a time when statues were being torn down, rather than put up. In our new Wangechi Mutu monograph, the art historian Kellie Jones runs through the toppled figures, from the Rhodes Must Fall campaign that began in South Africa in 2015, through to the dumping of Edward Colston’s statue into Bristol’s harbour in 2020. Spurred on by the Black Lives Matter movement, “Stone and metal statues of confederates and slavers were wrestled to the ground and picked apart or tossed into the waters to which they had unceremoniously consigned so many others,” she writes.
What kind of elevated figures should take their place? In January 2020, the NYU professor Ulrich Baer suggested that the regal bronzes by Wangechi Mutu might make for good candidates.
Mutu was born in Kenya in 1974, educated in the UK and the US, and addresses pertinent, knotty issues of gender and racial politics, as well as ecology, colonialism, capitalism and motherhood in her wide-ranging art, that includes collage, video, watercolours, as well a sculpture, performances and installations. Her highly acclaimed work has been praised on both sides of the Atlantic and forms part of many of the world’s most prestigious public collections, including those of the the Tate, MoMA, and the Whitney.
In 2019, another institutional supporter, the Metropolitan Museum, unveiled the artist’s most high-profile commission to date. As part of a new annual exhibition, it had asked Mutu to create works for four unoccupied niches set into the museum’s facade.
This was no easy task. Throughout her career, Mutu has challenged notions of a closed, Western, art history, and in accepting the commission, she knew she would have to address the Beaux-Arts order exemplified in the Met’s frontage, and take on the critical views of casual passersby.
“I was very conscious of the fact that this piece was going to be seen by people who never bothered or thought about looking at my work, or who had looked at my work but weren’t necessarily in agreement that I should be the one in those niches,” Mutu tells the art historian Courtney J. Martin in our new book. “It’s almost like I had to find exactly the right woman who could sit in that position and, with such dignity and confidence, position herself as the one who ought to be there at that time.”
Mutu settled on a quartet of haughty, royal-looking, female bronze figures. Collectively entitled The New Ones Will Free Us (2019) and individually dubbed The Seated I-IV, these four female figures were made from this prized metal, because in part, the artist felt, in using bronze to cast each of these four women, “I was able to enhance her, to lift her up, to clothe her, to protect her, to heal her from within and in front of the viewer, and at the same time to present her to the world with the essence of the material that she was sculpted from,” Mutu says.
Wangechi Mutu, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, 2021
There’s something otherworldly, perhaps even alien or futurist about the statues. Yet there’s also plenty of age-old references in their forms. Mutu says they were in part modelled on classical caryatids, supporting columns shaped like women. However, the artist undermined this trope, as her figures did not play any supporting role, and instead were seated on thrones, and take further cues from African art.
“All four wear disks around their heads, polished to a brilliant shine, based on lip plates historically worn throughout East Africa, and in Seated III worn as headdress in the manner of the Mangbetu of the Democratic Republic of Congo or Zulu in South Africa,” writes Jones. “The coils encircling the bodies simulate those of the Sande women’s society masks among the Mende of Sierra Leone, symbols of flourishing ascribed to water spirits that preceded Nguva and Mami Wata. In the vertical orientation that covers Seated II and Seated IV, strands suggest raffia, the flora of masquerade adornment throughout the continent.”
Jones argues that Mutu's figures can be seen “as conduits for the majesty of women of power and status.”
“Rather than have them carry the weight of so many others, Mutu wanted to release these decidedly female figures from such worldly burdens,” she writes. Instead as leaders and custodians, they are sentries for a new era, encouraging humans to do better. And as the artist remarks, ‘They will be our redemption.’”
They certainly won over the general public in New York. Though they were only meant to be on show for five months, the Covid-19 pandemic lengthened the display to over a year, and this suited The Seated just fine.
“The figures seem to have decided how long they wanted to be there and when they were done being seated at The Met,” says Mutu. “They had carried the power that this pre-pandemic/post-pandemic moment has exuded: the power of the reiteration of human rights, social justice, environmental awareness, as well as the kismet that came with the severity of the conditions that they were made in.
“I feel like they came exactly at the right time, exactly when they were supposed to,” Mutu goes on. “They came in and enveloped that façade during a time of deep crisis and change and fear and transition, and reset awareness and creation. I use the child metaphor a lot, but they are a little bit like children who come at exactly the time, giving you that bridge between the thing that you’re not able to get through and the thing that you must go through. They just force you, the viewer, to cross the street and come closer. That’s what they did for me, and I think that was the role that they played in those niches in that museum.”
To see more works by Wancechi Mutu, and get a better understanding of each, order a copy of our Wangechi Mutu monograph here.