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The Body and the Road to Justice

January 10, 2019
The visual artist Wangechi Mutu, American Academy in Rome’s Roy Lichtenstein Artist in Residence for 2018
Peter Benson Miller, Andrew Heiskell Arts Director for the Academy
Wangechi Mutu in conversation with Anne Palopoli and Peter Benson Miller
AAR Director John Ochsendorf introduced the speakers
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By Claudia Trezza.

In a December 5 talk at MAXXI, Rome’s preeminent contemporary art museum, Wangechi Mutu recalled the statues of the Virgin Mary that filled the Catholic primary school in her hometown of Nairobi, Kenya. Mutu, a renowned contemporary artist and the American Academy in Rome’s Roy Lichtenstein Artist in Residence for 2018, said these icons depicted a “pious blond European woman” that had nothing to do with her or the other African girls and women in her class and home. That memory, she said, “forced me to look at the invisibility of the African woman” and influenced her own sculptures and paintings, including those that reinterpret the Madonna away from the confines of a single religious tradition and of the “the de-sexual body.”

The exploration of those works was part of a broad discussion of Mutu’s life and art—from the wonder inspired by her African homeland, to how place influences art, to the depiction of women—that made for the fourth installment of the Academy’s 2018–19 series New Work in the Arts & Humanities: The Body. Prior speakers have included the renowned classicist Mary Beard, who talked about the subversive power of ancient Roman and Greek depictions of the human form; the noted scholar Robin Lane Fox, who discussed differing relationships that Christians and pagans had to the natural world; and the artist Paolo Gioli, who uses image-transfer techniques to produce photographic depictions of the human body.

Mutu’s presentation at MAXXI demonstrated once again the Academy’s versatility and engagement with Rome—as the artist uses contemporary media and materials to explore current issues of displacement, gender constructs, the eradication of traditions and religions, and body image. After her talk, she discussed those works with Anne Palopoli, who included Mutu in a group exhibition at MAXXI called Road to Justice (June 22–October 14, 2018), and Peter Benson Miller, the Andrew Heiskell Arts Director at the Academy.

Mutu, who splits her time between Nairobi and New York, talked about her love and visceral relationship to her home country, where the “material calls me” to touch everything. That included an encounter with a dead python, which she considered to be a turning point in her life. Struck by the snake’s beauty, she decided to skin it with the help of local farmers, and the memory of its damp skin and rotten smell was seared into her psyche and materialized in her subsequent work. On the other hand, she joked, “I wouldn’t touch anything in New York.”

Mutu, whose work has appeared in the Tate Modern in London, Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, and the New Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, said the pieces she created in Nairobi took on added dimensions when seen out of their original context, just as people—like herself—did. She showed documentation of her installation The End of Carrying All (2015) from the 2015 Venice Biennale, which included a video of a purposefully iconic African woman in an African landscape walking slowly as the fruit basket atop her head fills with manufactured contents such as a bicycle wheel and a satellite dish. The weight is too heavy, and the woman transforms into bubbling lava matter. The basket, Mutu said, signified the “burden of new ideas, technology” that women—herself included—struggle to carry.

The artist also talked about her live performances, including the recent Banana Stroke (2017), in which she painted with banana leaves attached to her arms like wings in order to turn an object commonly associated with Africa “into something dignified” and able to create.

Mutu’s depictions of bodies are often hybrid, Frankenstein beings—part animal, part woman, part mechanical—that are inspired by her concerns for the health of the planet, the distorted portrayal of women’s shapes in the media, and her fears about falling victim to our own creations. “What if these species rebel against us?” she asked, referring to the monsters in her work.

The artist’s newer work comprises sculptures of holy and mutilated women, the result in part with her fascination with disease and what she called Africa’s “unsalvageable ills,” and an animated film, featured at Maxxi earlier this year, of a “morbidly” overweight woman covered with ulcers and mechanical parts. The woman eats a swarm of birds that fly across her, and she eventually implodes into female heads floating in the air.

Mutu creates her monstrous “transformed beings” adapting different mediums, using experimental materials, and sometimes taking on multiple roles. Just like in Banana Stroke, the artist concluded, “I’m a tree, I’m a bird, I’m a painter.”

In the spring, Mutu will participate in the upcoming exhibition at AAR, The Academic Body, curated by Mark Robbins.