Legion of Honor, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
through November 7
Written by Lorraine Heitzman
The most extraordinary exhibit, Wangechi Mutu: I Am Speaking, Are You Listening? is currently at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. The Kenyan-American artist shows her recent work of mostly figurative sculptures that question feminist tropes, but also personify the universal struggles of the oppressed and disenfranchised. They have a mythic quality that brings to mind unearthly sci-fi creatures who, despite their other-worldliness, carry their burdens with a dignity that is all too human. Through Mutu’s deep connection to the natural world and spiritual realms, she honors their resilience and imagines a path towards empowerment.
Installed outside the Legion of Honor and inside amongst the museum’s Rodin collection, the exhibit includes several large-scale bronzes, collages, painted photographs, smaller mixed-media sculptures and a film. The bronze sculptures encountered in the columned courtyard are placed on low plinths or directly on the ground, their dark burnished surfaces contrasting against the whiteness of the architecture that surrounds them. Mutu explores feminism and colonialism in her work, and when you first see “Shavasana I” and “Shavasana II” pitted against Rodin’s The Thinker, the differences couldn’t be starker. Two female figures lie beneath mats, their bodies obscured except for their hands and feet, their high heels splayed to the side. Mutu places the women directly below the base of the The Thinker, thereby exposing the hierarchy and discrepancies of privilege between men and women. Shavasana is a restorative yoga pose commonly known as the corpse pose, but these blanketed women do not look as though they are being revived, instead they are smothered into submission and appear lifeless. The cast of the The Thinker that looms above them was made during Rodin’s lifetime, more than one hundred years ago prior to Shavasana I and II, and was originally intended to commemorate the poet Dante. While the white, male poet is lauded and placed on a pedestal, the women beneath him have no agency. Clearly racism must also be factored into the equation. The other outdoor sculptures, “Mama Ray” and “Crocodylus” embody more powerful visions of women, incorporating African mythologies. One creature takes the form of a giant manta ray and holds her head up high in a watchful, defiant stance, like a cobra ready to strike. Another is astride a charging crocodile, almost melded into one being. It is aggressive and warrior-like, and you can’t help but think that we are being forewarned.
Upon entering the museum, “Water Woman” lures you into the exhibit with the same seductive power attributed to sirens for thousands of years. A mermaid-like creature holds a serene pose, and in contrast to most of Mutu’s other sculptures this one is all fluid lines, from her webbed hands to her sleek tail. Based on an East African mythological character, Nguva, Mutu’s “Water Woman” maintains the regal authority of a goddess, though like Nguva, she is not meant to be entirely benevolent. Her power to beguile is deceptively self-contained, which is part of her strength. In the rooms to either side of her, her sisters tell another story. I am Speaking, Can You Hear Me? is a sculpture of two women in close, anguished conversation, their heads tilted inquisitively toward each other. The busts, made from paper pulp, glue and dirt, are placed on spindly legs so that our focus is fully on their earnest expressions. The materials have an earthier, softer appeal than her bronzes, and curiously, their upper torsos have exaggerated, raised lines that suggest a natural armor. Most significantly, they have real conch shells and bones for ears and jaws to amplify their hearing and speaking. The content of their conversation is unknown, but the title and the space between them suggest that although there is a disconnect and maybe even an estrangement between the two, there is an effort to communicate. In the opposite gallery, there is a group of similar figures, “Mirror Faced I”, “Mirror Faced II”, and “Mirror Faced III”. They stand together like a Greek chorus, except rather than informing us about the activities on stage, these wildly adorned women use their mirrors to visually reflect their surroundings. They are silent witnesses that hover between comical and frightening.
The largest installation in the show is in the central Rodin gallery where Mutu defines her space with garlands that look like strands of beads suspended from the ceiling. Centered within “Prayer, Sentinel IV” is an isolated figure made of gnarled wood, dirt and pulp. The figure holds one limb aloft like Lady Liberty, but whether it is an appeal or an act of defiance is difficult to say; perhaps it is both. More satisfying are her intimate sculptures, “Rose Quartz” and “Dream Catcher” from 2016, which predate most of the work in the show. Another figure, “Outstretched”, is in a familiar reclining position, but although the figure seeks to mimic a traditional pose of historical European paintings, it skewers our standards of beauty instead. The model’s skin is imaginatively textured, like an animal’s hide, and the head and hand sprout feathers. The irony is that Mutu hijacks the pose intended for the male gaze, prompting us to question our preconceptions about beauty. We are forced to wonder about the intended audience for the art in the surrounding galleries and elsewhere.
It is sometimes said that we make up stories to explain our lives to ourselves, and the same can be said for art. Mutu creates fantastical hybrid characters that are like the heroes from an epic narrative who find inner strength during their difficult journey. Or maybe they are enchanting archetypes from haunting fairytales. In either scenario, she describes aspects of herself while also reflecting upon the larger forces of racism and sexism. If I Am Speaking, Are You Listening? is your introduction to Wangechi Mutu, the pleasure and provocative themes should be welcome and revelatory. She is speaking to us and we should listen.
Legion of Honor, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Located in Lincoln Park Golf Course
100 34th Ave, San Francisco, 94121