Don’t Miss: The Wangechi Mutu Retrospective at the New Museum

'Intertwined' looks at Mutu's role as a key trailblazer in incorporating the female gaze into art and just how far society still needs to go.

If there is one word that sums up the Wangechi Mutu retrospective at the New Museum, it’s this: spooky.

An installation view of the Wangechi Mutu Retrospective at the New Museum. Dario Lasagni / Courtesy New Museum

The twenty-year survey, Intertwined, invites viewers on an eerie walk through realms of magic, spells, mysticism and otherworldly symbolism. Featuring over 100 pieces, including sculptures, drawings, collages and paintings, as well as carvings in the walls, it’s enormous. The exhibition spans all four floors of the museum, which has been uncannily transformed.

Some of the walls are painted blue with holes crusted in blood-like red. A giant snake with an engorged midsection rests with its head on a pillow. Unearthly figures stand watch. The only thing missing is the ghostly soundtrack.

Mutu is a trailblazing Kenyan artist from Nairobi, born in 1972, who divides her time between the country of her birth and New York. Folklore is a key element of her work. She draws upon fairy tales, Haitian Vodou and Catholicism to create her own brand of narrative storytelling, squarely focused on the female gaze.

She came into prominence in the early 2000s for her cheeky collages, which lift imagery and portraits from fashion magazines to comment wryly on society’s superficialities, racist undertones and unattainable beauty standards. Is her work Afrofuturist? Yes. It’s feminist, too—and stylish as hell.

Paintings by Wangechi Mutu. Dario Lasagni / Courtesy New Museum

But again, it’s spooky and dark because violence is a recurring theme in her work, as we see in her diptych, Yo Mama. In it, a woman poses with a dead snake, holding its severed body on an island with palm trees in the background. Despite the gore (there is ample blood splattering in the piece), it’s refreshing to see a woman as the bold, warrior-like figure in Mutu’s narrative, rather than a man. Here, the artist puts art history in its place.

Mutu is most recently known for the bronze female figures that sat outside the front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of the institution’s facade commission in 2019. A piece from her series, The Seated I, is on view here, depicting an African woman with a shiny, gold lip plate.

But her early works on view showcase her more gentle beginnings. In glass boxes, we see how she used hair as a medium, alongside tar and wax, for her sculptures and collages. It wasn’t until 2003 that she started working on large-scale mylar paper drawings and sculptures. Some of the earliest works in the show include her Bottle People Series from 1997, which she made while still a student at Cooper Union.

Eerie sculptures stand watch over the New Museum’s Mutu exhibition. Dario Lasagni / Courtesy New Museum

Other highlights of Intertwined include an untitled watercolor series of flowers from 2016, which are whimsical and playful and look like mother nature’s tropical gift to the world, and her collages from the early 2000s, including Red Tail and Machinehead, which contort the female form to enhance their power. The same series features insect-like creatures, mushrooms and monster-like figures that resemble something out of some twisted drug-induced Disney-esque film from the 1950s.

When Mutu’s imagery is less than intense, her titles make up for it. Some of the names give away the motive—one piece called Magnificent Monkey-ass Lies depicts a half-woman, half-centaur figure standing underneath a ghost. The figure’s attitude suggests a kind of revenge against someone who did her wrong. Some of Mutu’s drawings feel like a slap in the face, and it’s refreshing.

The artist returned to Nairobi in 2015 after living in New York and turned to organic materials like stone, wood, bone and shells for her multimedia pieces. Not long thereafter, she created the creepy sculpture alluded to above: Sleeping Serpent, a snake with a human head and a full belly.

Another highlight of Intertwined is Mutu’s 2022 bronze sculpture In Two Canoes, which feels like an alien version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We see two leaf-laden creatures seated facing one another in a canoe weighing in at over a ton. This could explain why the piece is in the lobby—one can’t imagine curator Margot Norton putting that in the museum’s elevator.

Wangechi Mutu’s striking collages. Dario Lasagni / Courtesy tNew Museum

Intertwined is named after one work on paper that the artist made in 2003, which combines collage and watercolor. It shows two female figures with animalistic, wolf-like heads, draped by a tree behind them. There’s a fearlessness to Mutu’s work, and this piece personifies it.

Some of the artist’s most grotesque works call to mind the ink splatters of Ralph Steadman but as created by the hand of a woman—something we need more of in the art world. If anything, Intertwined looks at how Mutu has been a key trailblazer in incorporating the female gaze into artworks while also showing us how far we still need to go.

Intertwined is on view at the New Museum through June 4.

Don’t Miss: The Wangechi Mutu Retrospective at the New Museum