OF WOMEN: Mutu's You tried so hard to make us away uses the
ubiquitous South Florida mangrove as part of the imagery. MIAMI
Wangechi Mutu -- Amazing Grace
Where: Miami Art Museum, 101 W. Flagler St., Miami
through Oct. 9, 2005
Info: 305-375-3000 or www.miamiartmuseum.org
Such layers of background knowledge fit well with Mutu's own densely layered and bewilderingly beautiful collages that are part of Wangechi Mutu -- Amazing Grace, a show of her collages, film and installation art at the Miami Art Museum. It is curated by MAM assistant director for programs/senior curator Peter Boswell. This is Mutu's first solo museum show.
In the MAM exhibit, Amazing Grace is a film that Mutu made in the waters off Miami Beach in April. It runs about seven minutes, and shows a woman dressed in white walking in the rolling waves. Light sparkles and dances on the water. The woman in white walks deeper into the waves. We see her head submerge and vanish from view.
There is a persistent sound to this film, both familiar and not. In the film, the artist sings Amazing Grace in English and in Kikuyu, her native Kenyan language. The last two lines of the classic hymn's third stanza are not as familiar as the well-known opening lines, but here they are tough to overlook:
``Tis grace has brought me safe thus far/and grace will lead me home.''
Also in the show is Strange Fruit, an installation of upturned bottles filled with varying amounts of red wine and salt water that drip their contents on the floor of the museum. They make puddles and pools of color that echo forms in her collages and evoke the transforming qualities of wine and the sea as they've been used for ages in religious rituals. The puddles of wine sometimes look like dried blood, underscoring the reference to lynchings of African Americans evoked in the work's title, taken from a song made notorious by singer Billie Holiday.
In an interview in late July at MAM, Mutu said that Amazing Grace is her favorite hymn. The story of its words -- unexpected salvation and grace bestowed on ''a wretch like me'' -- combined with the story of its writing made the hymn a serendipitous way, she said, ``to bind this show together.''
Embedded in the story of how this hymn came to be is a bone-chilling history of violence, abuse and death, of so much darkness being transformed by the light of salvation. Mutu's art explores a similarly shaded radiance.
Her arresting collages are chiefly portraits of women that have been called ''gorgeously horrifying.'' Her women are disfigured, and yet they have been compared to ''fashion divas.'' Fresh out of art school in 2001, she produced a series of portraits of amputees. Her inspiration was violence in Sierra Leone associated with the illegal diamond trade, in which fighting left civilians maimed.
VIOLENCE AND LUXURY
''I was intrigued by her whole theme of connecting Western luxury items with the violence that is going on in Africa,'' Boswell said. ``We think it has nothing to do with our world, and it turns out it has a great deal [to do with our world.]''
Mutu's recent collages are made on Mylar with ink drawings and drips entwining passages of glitter and fur. The spectacular visual texture of her collages is heightened by contact paper sliced into sinuous lines and by dazzling photos of jewels and body parts cut from magazines like National Geographic and Vogue, as well as images of body parts, like breasts and buttocks, cut from pornographic magazines.
''A lot of her images come from porn magazines,'' said Boswell, ``because she found that was where black skin was most realistically portrayed, not in fashion magazines. She has so many themes and ideas running through her work.''
''One of the grounding ideas behind the show is that there are all these communities that have come via the sea and survived the Middle Passage,'' Mutu said. ``Cuban and Haitian communities traversed the sea to be in this Miami area, and that's one of the reasons I decided to deal with this idea in more depth. It's come up in my work before.''
The film, she said, ``has the notions of death and baptismal imagery and there's sort of an Ophelia-like moment where you see a woman lying in the water horizontally. Perhaps she's just relaxed or she could have been beached and her body's being brought here by the ocean.''
The ubiquitous South Florida mangrove is also part of the imagery in this MAM show. It shows up in her collages as curling, overlapping lines that recall fleshy veins as much as mangrove roots. In You tried so hard to make us away, the mangrove forms whip and slice both space and skin, like a vibrant, organic force that is multiplying with fierce energy.
''The mangrove represents a family tree or root system or a system of community and familial structure that is braided and embedded deep, deep, deep into the past and comes all the way out to the future,'' she said. ``It's in quite a few of the works, this root system.''
In her collages, women and creatures mutate and morph within a single figure. Disembodied body parts merge and clash with others. Shifts in scale abound. In Sleeping sickness saved me, the foot of an upraised leg becomes a wide-eyed face. Fingers with red nails like talons grasp the neck of the female figure in Me carry my head on my home on my head. A suggestively bent leg sprouts from her head, as does a swarming system of mangrove roots.
Precedents for her pervasively multi-figured art are folktales and sculpture from East Africa. There are the classic Kenyan folktales she heard from her grandmother and mother. In those tales, she said, you find ``this transformation of characters and beings from one world to another, from the world of the living to the world of the dead, [and] people who have passed -- spirits who come back and forth, not so much to haunt the living, in the sense Europeans have, but to live amongst the living to change the order of things.''
There is also sculpture from the Makonde people in Malawi and Mozambique. ''You'll see these really gorgeous, massive sculptures that are about the same size of the tree trunk from which they were hewn,'' she said. ``All throughout are these body forms intertwined and braided around each other.''
The sculptures ``create an entire community, of past spirits, present life, people who are coming into the future and they also braid in and around each other in this gorgeous, tumultuous vein.''
It has not taken long for Mutu's art to captivate the art world.
Slim and articulate with hair a mass of tiny braids, Mutu, 31, left her home in Nairobi at age 17, first to attend an international boarding school in England and then college and art school at Cooper Union in New York. She received an MFA from Yale in 2000. Since 2000, she has been in more than 25 group shows in museum and galleries in cities like New York, Los Angeles, Paris and Tokyo. She has exhibited in institutions that include the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. In November 2004 she was listed in ARTnews as one of 25 trendsetters.
Boswell encountered Mutu's art in 2003, in Looking Both Ways: Art of the Contemporary African Diaspora at the Museum for African Art in Long Island City.
''I was just knocked out by her work,'' he said. ``I responded to it because I've worked a lot with collage and assemblage. I am convinced that the idea of incorporating objects from the real world into art is one of the top innovations of 20th-century art.''
Since first seeing her collages, he said he ``was astounded by how the work developed. Formally it's just gotten so much more complex. It's so smart. It's not a one-liner.''