Art

The Defiant Spirit of Wangechi Mutu’s Caryatids at the Metropolitan Museum

In reflecting on Mutu’s recent commission for the Met’s façade one morning, I realized that her sculptures make space for excellences and joys that dominant Eurocentric histories have ignored and excluded.

Wangechi Mutu’s “The Seated III” (2019), as part of The NewOnes, will free Us at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (all photos by Laura Raicovich/Hyperallergic)

At 9 am, the sun streams from the east down the corridor of 82nd Street, illuminating the façade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a blast of light. Since September 9, in the four sculpture niches to the right and left of the grand entrance, those rays of light have also bathed four bronze sculptures by artist Wangechi Mutu. Each female figure is draped in robes of heavy coils that articulate necks, shoulders, breasts, torsos, knees, and feet. The women’s arms and heads convey an otherworldly-ness. They have large, almond shaped eyes and extra-long arms which end in attenuated fingers that lightly taper over their knees and garments. Each face is adorned with a flat disc of shiny bronze that seems to grow from her forehead, lips, nose, or the back of her head. These reflect the light powerfully, like mirrors of gold shine. The surface of the bronze garments is a classical patina darkening nearly to black, with undertones of green and turquoise. The patina of the figures’ skin is polished with warm golds and reds glowing under the surface, extra visible in the sunlight.

The installation of Mutu’s The NewOnes, will free Us (2019) marks the first time in 177 years that the sculpture niches of the Met’s Richard Morris Hunt-designed façade have been occupied. When I first read about this project, I instantly recognized the significance of the challenge given to Mutu, both physically and artistically. Given the scale of the building — to say nothing of the complex histories it contains — anything she produced needed to provide a counter-weight, an alternate telling. With its neoclassical building and vast collections, The Met is widely considered to be a standard-bearer of art, as well as the embodiment of a specific kind of colonial, financial, and cultural power. Confronting these dynamics as an artist working today must have been daunting, and I can imagine that Mutu would not want her project to be perceived as either a recuperation of these problematic histories, or a contemporary fig leaf for current realities.

“The Seated I” (2019)

The deftness and nuance of Mutu’s project, taken in this light, becomes particularly provocative. At first glance, the vastness of the white limestone exterior and monumental stair diminish the quartet of bronzes. The sculpture niches themselves are diminutive in relationship to the rest of the building. At a distance the works are small, even dainty against the mass of the façade. Moving closer, a shift occurs, and it becomes clear these are not neoclassical sculptures but something wholly different.  As I approached, I looked up at them, feeling the density of the bronze — their sheer weight and materiality grounding them to the plinths on which they sit. And their expressions and forms yield little to observers who might, like me, ogle from below as I would any monumental statuary, yet these seem to be markers of some unknowable future rather than the past.

They do something else too, which is perhaps the most powerful aspect of this commission. Their heft and intensity, particularly in that blast of morning light, makes the limestone facade fade into a shimmer. Sometimes when I encounter art that is new to me I close my eyes for a while to think and feel it without the visual cues. As I did this in front of Mutu’s works, the limestone reality of the Met dematerialized. Opening my eyes again, the Met was, of course, present in all its overwhelming solidity and symbolism, but the addition of these works did something more profound.

“The Seated II” (2019)

I recently read Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence, a book edited by Gerald Vizenor, an Anishinaabe critic and writer. Vizenor coined the neologism in the title of his book to describe a specific merging of survival and resistance that “creates a sense of native presence over absence, nihility, and victimry.” He surfaces an important idea here: that in spite of what has been wrought by colonialism, violence, and oppression, Indigenous survivance embodies a grace that is represented by all manner of Indigenous culture and thought. To me, there’s a kernel of this thinking that seems to run parallel to both Christina Sharpe’s powerful writings about “wake work,” in relation to histories of enslavement in the United States, and Sadiya Hartman’s insistence on the transient moments of beauty and joy missing from the archives of lives lived under this same oppressive system. Sharpe, Vizenor, Hartman and Mutu all evoke this condition of in spite of that makes space for excellences and joys that dominant Eurocentric histories have ignored and excluded. 

While many have noted that these figures are reminiscent of the famed Erechtheion caryatids at the Acropolis in Athens, the coiled bronze garments of The New Ones take both the fluted robes of the Erechtheion caryatids and the exteriors of the flanking Corinthian columns and turn them inside out. Further, Mutu’s figures are seated, where caryatids must stand, typically supporting architecture with their heads. Mutu’s choice reads as a distinct defiance this norm. Formal references hew more closely to Yoruba and Congolese iconography but are not replications of these either. Wangechi Mutu’s four figures on the Met’s façade come from a different spirit; these seated figures hold their own strength within. 

The NewOnes, will free Us continues through January 12, 2020 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan). The commission was curated by Kelly Baum.

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