“Consume” can mean many things — to destroy, to spend wastefully, to expend by use, or to engross. As a society, our relationship to consumption is fraught with contradiction. We discuss the need to curb our collective consumption of resources while at the same time we get sucked into buying unnecessary products. This multi-faceted issue of consumption, and our involvement in its sinister side, is precisely what artist Wangechi Mutu addresses in her collages, installations, and videos.
Mutu’s work often centers on a female figure that challenges our perceptions of gender, race, cultural identity, and even what it means to be human. Her collages immediately draw the viewer in with striking colors and intricately layered patterns. A closer look reveals that nothing in this world is straightforward. Fashion and pornography images, medical illustrations, National Geographic photography, and motorcycle parts are fused in a seamless and sensuous way.
Much of the material that Mutu uses comes from magazines because, for her, their contents speak to our culture’s attitudes and biases. She explains in her interview with Border Crossings:
“So if I pick up a National Geographic or Motorbike magazine, it’s about what it stands for and who reads it and why. What is its purpose and how are women’s bodies used in there? As a woman of color, how I’m represented in these publications is of absolute relevance and importance to me because it tells me where I stand in that particular culture.”
Her work The Ark Collection questions the packaging and consumption of the female form in popular culture, especially the way women of color are represented in the West. In this series of postcard-size collages, Mutu pointedly combines problematic photographs of contemporary African women depicted wearing traditional attire with hyper-sexualized images of porn. For the artist, putting two disparate ideas side by side forces them to be in dialogue and re-examined.
Born in Kenya and living in New York, Mutu is equally influenced by her experiences living in both places. Mutu’s parents grew up during British control of Kenya, and she herself experienced the post-colonial aftermath of a country trying to find its footing.
This context along with her training as an anthropologist has led her to create works that critique the West’s categorizing of other cultures as inferior. Her series that builds images from Victorian medical illustrations, which includes the collage Primary Syphilitic Ulcers of the Cervix, references how European academic fields have been historically used to indicate white males as physically and intellectually superior and to justify the control of non-Western cultures by places such as England and the U.S.
In addition to examining past and present, Mutu aims for her work to consider the future. At times, her figures appear like something out of a sci-fi film — simultaneously familiar and foreign. Her recent video animation and collaboration with singer Santigold End of eating Everything shows a polluted and frightening reality where the protagonist greedily consumes whatever is in its path. Though the future that Mutu presents in the video is quite pessimistic, like most science fiction, it is meant to be cautionary.
Mutu feels that by returning time and again to these complex issues, uncomfortable though they are, she has hope that we can change. She says, “I’m optimistic and I believe we grow and will learn to heal.”