NEW WINDSOR, New York — Conjuring fantastical visions of a collective past and imagined future in the face of myriad modern humanitarian and ecological crises, Wangechi Mutu’s sculptures at Storm King Art Center are urgent yet optimistic. Nestled across a hilltop in New York’s sweeping Hudson Valley, Mutu’s arresting sculptures and videos deepen her investigations of gender and racial politics, science fiction, colonialism, consumption, and communion with nature, amid a bucolic environment.
A motif that grounds all of Mutu’s works is a spiritual connection to African traditions. Through this she pays homage to the unifying power of shared mythologies and reclaims narratives that have been erased through colonization. In five bronze sculptures displayed outdoors around the perimeter of Storm King Hill, which take the form of larger-than-life woven straw baskets, Mutu not only aligns the domestic art of basket weaving with fine art as a means of rewriting history, but also elucidates visual parallels between human artistry and naturally occurring patterning in the animal world. Up close, the baskets’ contents are intricate and epic: stately tortoise shells in “Kobe” (2022), scaly twines of serpents in “Nyoka” (2022), and colossal coils of braided human hair in “Nywele I” (2022) swell from the deceivingly lithe rims of their bronze vessels.
Throughout the exhibition, doubles are metaphors for partnership and strength through sisterhood. Mutu presents multiple iterations of most pieces to suggest their kinship through shared identity while works like “Sisters” (2019) — a pair of disembodied heads with conch and snail shells for hair, facing one another on a mirrored surface — convey powerful bonds between women.
Mutu’s imposing characters — often stylized femme figures melded with natural elements — magnify her decades-long collage practice as sites of cultural, psychological, and sociopolitical transformation. In “In Two Canoe” (2022), two gigantic female figures with mangrove roots for limbs fold into one another and fuse into the basin of the canoe in which they sit. Just as mangroves flourish all over the planet and can migrate to new habitats, Mutu’s figures appear to be in motion or on a mission, in search of a better world. The sculpture is also a fountain in which water gushes from one foliaged hand, a self-sustaining ecosystem that posits its imaginary occupants as unions between humans and nature.
Another pair of bronze works, “Shavasana I”and “Shavasana II” (both 2019), shift Mutu’s sculptural style to realism with sobering starkness: female bodies lay on the ground in the eponymous “corpse pose,” shrouded by a yoga mat, their splayed limbs exposed. In glaring contrast to the artist’s other highly mythologized characters, these wholly human women are unmistakably contemporary, wearing vivid nail polish and high heels that have been knocked askew to insinuate their violent demises. Even more jarring, “Shavasana I” is presented alongside “One Cut”(2018), a severed forearm and manicured hand wielding a machete; the work can be interpreted somberly as part of a crime scene narrative or formidably as a reclamation of gendered violence.
Towering over viewers in Storm King’s indoor gallery, at nearly seven feet tall, is “She Walks” (2019) from Mutu’s Sentinel series. Gracefully frozen mid-stride, with the dramatic poise of a high-fashion runway model, her svelte feminine features — lean thigh muscles, root-like high heels, jutting hip bones — are a stunning amalgamation of charcoal, paper pulp, driftwood, and Kenyan volcanic soil to represent mankind’s collective African roots.
“She Walks” appears to be marching in line with fellow dreamy hybrid figures — “The Glider”(2021), “Crocodylus” (2020), and “In Two Canoe.” All face the horizon where Storm King Hill gives way to a sprawling valley, all yearn to move in tandem and solidarity toward a quixotic future perhaps only they can see. Exuding a sense of community and strength inextricable from the natural landscape, where they simultaneously blend seamlessly yet stand in stark contrast, they are timely harbingers of hope for a more humane world in which hybridity and peaceful communion reign.
Wangechi Mutu continues at Storm King Art Center (1 Museum Road, New Windsor, New York) through November 7. The exhibition was organized by Nora Lawrence, Storm King Artistic Director and Chief Curator, with Adela Goldsmith, Curatorial Assistant.
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