Wangechi Mutu’s Imperial Monsters
In her highly charged video work, the Kenyan artist addresses global ecological fears and a highly personal colonial history
Wangechi Mutu is a global artist. Born and raised in Kenya, educated in the UK and US, she has gallery representation across the globe, and has had her work added to prestigious public collections around the world, including the Tate in London, MOCA in Los Angeles and MoMA in New York.
Via sculpture, collage, performance, painting and installations, Mutu has addressed all encompassing concerns such as ecological collapse and gender equality. However, she also draws on her own, inherently personal experiences when creating her art.
Mutu can trace her heritage back to the Kikuyu or Gikuyu people of the highlands around Mount Kenya. They had access to some of the most productive farmland in the region, until the arrival of the British, when writes, the art historian Kellie Jones in our new book, “Mutu’s Gikuyu people lost sixty percent of their homeland.”
This wasn’t a simple act of deracination. Elsewhere in our book, the Nigerian artist and curator Chika Okeke-Agulu describes how colonialism also introduced “mechanised cash-cropping that both alienated the indigenous populations and eventually impoverished the land. This invasive, colonial land exploitation, continuing beyond the age of empire, would later lead to deforestation and food crises that in turn posed an existential threat to East Africa’s land, societies and peoples,” the curator goes on to explain.
Growing up in post-colonial Kenya, Mutu has addressed the task of remaking her national culture in the wake of the British Empire. Yet, in doing so, she has also had to grapple with ecological problems many communities across the world are only just beginning to comprehend.
Wangechi Mutu, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, 2021
Okeke-Agulu focuses on Mutu’s video work, The End of Eating Everything. “Against a bloody skyscape, a horde of noisy black birds, slenderer and more agile than ravens, burst into the scene from the left, and dance their way forward,” writes Okeke-Agulu. “From the right emerges a woman’s face, seen in profile and with striking pharaonic makeup, her hairline pulsing with luminescent lesions. She casts her gaze in the direction of the birds, closes her eyes, sensing them. In this brief instant, a poem (written by the artist), one line at a time, flashes at the bottom of the screen:
“I never meant to leave / I needed to escape / And now it’s so far / Who knows where? / It’s been like this for a very long time / It follows me, and I them / We’ve always been / Hungry, alone, together.
“From this moment on, the camera slowly and steadily pulls away, revealing the rest of the woman’s gargantuan body. Her impossibly large, prehensile hair braids straighten, flutter gracefully and snap into menacing curls like a predator’s tentacles as she sways and pulls her blob-body into view. She glowers at the birds, but they continue their choreographed flight back and forth. She suddenly rears back, raises a mighty howl and pounces, leaving billows of blood.
"The birds, apparently unscathed, pull back then forward, continuing their aerial ballet. If this is a violent clash, we are not entirely sure whose blood has been spilled. In the meantime, as the camera pans away, we now see the woman’s entire body. It is colossal and resembles a unicellular organism, without primary limbs or any other recognizable anatomical part. In its colourfulness, it reminds you of a resplendent and populated coral reef; but it is also cacophonic with numerous rotating tyres, and other mechanical and organic rotting stuff that makes us think of a vast urban landfill.
"Her entire profile is punctuated by the tyres and numerous waving black arms that seem to paddle her, even as parts of her body heave like a subterranean Leviathan. On her dorsal side, several turrets belch white, red, grey and green smoke, while her anal orifice heaves volcanic clouds that soon swirl into a massive cyclone, which then overwhelms and obliterates her and her avian antagonists. In the wake of the cataclysm, numerous disembodied heads with cranial fins – multiples of the woman – pop up, tumble-floating, like galactic debris, in the blue, cumulus-filled sky. Then fade.”
It’s a terrifying vision and one often seen as depicting a terrifying monster-woman with an insatiable appetite for birds, though Okeke-Agulu points us towards Mutu’s own pronunciations that “‘to connect and re-draw power from the fertile land of my childhood.”
The curator also draws a line from the imperial farming practices and ecological predicaments facing many today, quoting the artist as saying, back in 2014, when The End of eating Everything was completed, that this work was about “earth’s predicament and present state of being. I feel like our illnesses are earth’s illnesses. Our own lack of regard and respect for the earth is related to our lack of regard for our humanity.”
The monster in Mutu’s video is partly a terrifying vision of what’s to come, but also a metaphor for what’s taking place right now, and what has taken place in the not-too-distant past.
"This character, in her melancholia that will become self-consuming rage, is not only an enfiguration of the crying earth-poor-woman” writes the curator," it is Mutu’s damning and dark prognostication of what is bound to happen to dirtied, uncleaned, abused earth-woman-us. The uncrackable existential question that this work raises is this: how to bring forth the clean, blissful world that briefly flashes at the end of the video, after the total destruction?"
To see further images from this video, as well as much more insight into the work of Wangechi Mutu, order a copy of our Wangechi Mutu book here.