The large gallery space at Drexel’s new URBN Center is bathed in shadow, bringing an eerie, science-museum quiet to Wangechi Mutu’s current show, which features video and sculpture in addition to the confident, critical collages for which she is best known. It’s an excellent, ambitious show for the debut of the newly expanded Leonard Pearlstein Gallery.
The survey of Kenya-born, Brooklyn-based Mutu’s work from the early 2000s through 2012 is, as a whole, super-thoughtful, critical and beautiful. The artist manages to walk the walk on a hard-to-navigate tightrope — unabashedly confronting and exploiting the stereotypes of both femininity and African-ness without becoming pigeonholed by her subject matter. (For a show that couldn’t pull off the balancing act, check out the sprawling, problematic mishmash of really great work that is “The Female Gaze” at PAFA through April 7.)
Mutu’s collage work anchors the exhibit, collapsing the distinction between types of objectifying gazes: pornographic, medical and anthropological.
A subset of 32 intimate, postcard-size collages are installed as The Ark Collection. They are displayed in cabinet-of-curiosities-style vitrines that evoke 19th-century colonialism — the taxonomic gaze of the gentleman naturalist-explorer. The foundations of the 32 collages come from a book of postcards titled Women of the African Ark by Carol Beckwith, an American photojournalist known for documenting tribal culture in Africa for National Geographic. The postcards, featuring portraits of indigenous women in exotic garb, are obviously meant to be bought by westerners and mailed to other westerners. (They are also available in wall-calendar form.)
In some of the Ark collages, this indigenous-culture porn is mixed with pornographic images of dark-skinned women. A naked arm and thighs frame/embrace an anthropological-looking image of a beautiful woman in a colorful wrap sitting on a fence and surrounded by vegetation — both women are objectified, but the western eye might not detect it in the National Geographic-esque image alone. In other postcard collages, women become animal-women, artifact-women or machine-women. In the darkened quiet, you become more aware that each dismantled representation is its own fiction.
In the more medium-scale 2001 series The Histology of the Different Tumors of the Uterus, Mutu uses asphalt/charcoal, glitter, collage and ink to reclaim historical medical illustrations of women’s reproductive organs — faces emerge from faceless pathology. There’s more drawing here, revealing Mutu’s virtuosity with pen, ink and brush — which can also be observed around the corner in 2001’s Pinup series, which uses similar techniques on images looking at women’s bodies with a pornographic rather than medical gaze.
The exploration of identity and surface continues in the video component of the show. One video, Cleaning Earth, is projected directly onto felt — the fabric’s nubbly surface distorts the image, rendering it painterly and mysterious. Mutu’s projected figure, scrubbing at the surface of the gallery wall, stands as a testament to her efforts in changing the way women are depicted.
The collages mentioned so far are at least a decade old. Having seen some of Mutu’s most recent collage work at the art fairs in New York this past weekend — fantastic and symbolic, utilizing even more sculptural materials like hair extensions, feathers and jewelry — the closest thing in this show to what the artist is doing currently is 2010’s Three Huggers (above). A female figure clings to a tree, her face a mélange of images: twine and trumpet form a cheek, machinery is revealed in her head, legs make a nose and a fall of hair morphs into a threatening snake.
You want to see women turning things on their heads? You want to see a show about femininity that does not include a wall of cat paintings? You want an identity show that does not pigeonhole itself? See this.
Through March 30, Leonard Pearlstein Gallery, URBN Center Annex, Drexel University, 3401 Filbert St., 215-895-2548, drexel.edu.