“Females carry the marks, language and nuances of their culture more than the male. Anything that is desired or despised is always placed on the female body.”

While drawing inspiration from traditional African work Wangechi Mutu pieces together magazine imagery with painted surfaces and found materials. Mutu uses collages as a method to explore the split nature of cultural identity while referencing colonial history, fashion and contemporary African politics.

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New Museum: What happens between two images when they are joined or juxtaposed in your work?

WM: When images in my work merge, they participate in a raucous mating dance producing a stinky, sinister, gorgeous, little transgender fruit.

NM: Where do you find your images?

WM: I find my images everywhere they call to me from, often places selling overpriced cigarettes and pork skin snacks.

NM: Are you recycling, appropriating, stealing? How would you describe your putting together of images?

WM: All of the above and none really… I’m trying to slowly, thoughtfully vandalise and eradicate that prone notion that beauty is singular or objective.

NM: Do you feel connected to the tradition of collage?

WM: I’m to sure how to answer that, I need some time to think about that…

NM: Is collage a political medium? Is it an activist’s medium?

WM: Collage is a little spell set out to administer doses of cultural insomnia that may encourage the handwork in art making to survive a couple more generations. I wish collage could stop a war or tear the wheels off a tanker in Tiananmen Square…

NM: Who owns the images you use?

WM: We do.

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Adult Female Sexual Organs packing tape, fur, collage on found medical illustration paper

In her work Mutu often uses Victorian medical diagrams as her starting point. I find that fitting because there are some mistakes in those diagrams about what the body looks like, this can be seen as the artists suggesting that females are being judged or thought of incorrectly. The head is made of packing tape; this material refers to bandages and cheap solutions. Mutu portrays the inner and outer ideals of self with physical attributes clipped from lifestyle magazines: the woman’s face being a racial distortion, her mind occupied by what is considered to be for her the ‘perfect’ female form.

As a child whenever my mother would do my hair and I complained she always said “stop making noise. Don’t you know that pain equals beauty”? At the time that just confused me but now that I sit and think about it, the amount of pain we put ourselves through is directly proportional to how much of a drastic change we want to make to our appearance.

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Wangenchi Mutu’s collage makes me think that because her figures look so grotesque that, that sort mutilation can only happen through the atrocities of war or self-inflicted improvements of plastic surgery. In Ectopic Pregnancy, Mutu uses the image of a deformity in reproductive organs to create this horrifying figure. The image of the mouth can be seen as the birth canal or a bloodied mouth. The lips have lipgloss on it. This can be seen as the artist commenting on how a person’s physical appearance always wins over their health.

Wangechi Mutu has named her most recent show Yo.n.i; she has broken up the word yoni to make it sound like you and I. Yoni is the Sanskrit word for divine passage, place of birth or sacred temple. Often totems of female genitalia are what is used to depict this; yoni is also considered the manifestation of the feminine principle.

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