Wangechi Mutu Subverts Western Tropes

The Kenyan visual artist’s new Legion of Honor exhibit challenges entrenched ideas about a woman’s place in the art world.

On a cloudy day, the walkway that takes visitors into the Legion of Honor’s courtyard accentuates the dark bronze outline of The Thinker, Auguste Rodin’s hulking sculpture that has symbolized the museum’s raison d’etre since it opened in 1924. Perched on a high pedestal, The Thinker asks people to look upward to get Rodin’s full intentions. But on a recent day, museum staff members oversaw new additions to the courtyard, including the bronze works called Shavasana I and Shavasana II that are now near the The Thinker’s base, where visitors are asked to look and see what artist Wangechi Mutu has created on the ground: sculptures of two Black women whose arms and legs stick out from the tarp that covers them.

Both figures wear red heels that add a disturbing, macabre element to the artwork — which is the point, since Mutu says the work embodies the continuing suffering of Black people around the world, especially women. 

“In some ways for me, art is that thing that focuses the light on the rust and the ghosts and the undealt-with matters,” Mutu said at a recent lecture — part of Mutu’s Legion of Honor exhibit, “Wangechi Mutu: I Am Speaking, Are You Listening?”

Art, she said, can be “a weapon of mass construction; it’s a weapon of deep compassion if used the right way.” 

After Shavasana I and Shavasana II, Mutu’s exhibit continues in the courtyard with two large, fantastical bronze sculptures (Crocodylus and Mama Ray) that are half-women, half animals. The show continues inside the museum with a series of sculptures, paintings, and a film that keep with the themes of her courtyard works, offering a dramatic artistic view of history, myth-making, and women — with Blackness, feminism, and femininity as a core component.

To see a work like Water Woman, a bare-breasted half woman/half mammal, or a work like Outstretched — wherein a woman displays herself but is covered in a bulbous coat of armor — is to take in a deliberate subversion of the seductress persona that art history often assigns to women. These works confront Western stereotypes of the female form as well as Western stereotypes of Black women. The Legion of Honor has deliberately placed Outstretched near permanent paintings like Eustache Le Sueur’s Sleeping Venus, a nude depiction that the museum has labeled as “perhaps the most provocative and frankly sensual of any produced in seventeenth-century France.” 

“Wangechi plays here, of course, with the trope of the classic reclining nude … with (Sleeping Venus) a depiction of women as a sexual object, with women as open and inviting,” Claudia Schmuckli, Curator-in-Charge of Contemporary Art and Programming at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, told journalists on a tour of the exhibit as she stood near Outstretched and Sleeping Venus. “Wangechi’s Outstretched is anything but. … I can’t help but think of a violence that is being defied through her armor.” 

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco first invited Mutu to exhibit her work in 2018. Standard logistical issues and the pandemic delayed its May 7 public debut — the same day the museum opened again for general-admission visits after several days of member previews (and media visits). “I Am Speaking, Are You Listening?” Is unlike anything that the Fine Arts Museums has brought to the Legion, and the juxtapositions the exhibit creates with the Beaux-arts building, its permanent collection, and even the museum’s surroundings — including the Holocaust memorial and its sculptures of white bodies that are just across the Legion’s way — are unapologetically searing. 

Born and raised in Kenya and now dividing her time between New York and Nairobi, Mutu is a celebrated figure in the art world and works in a multitude of mediums — each one related but distinct in feel and form. So Mutu’s paintings at the Legion, like Subterranea Flourish, feature the same kind of horn-armed woman that’s in her Legion film called My Cave Call, but Subterranea Flourish is its own specific piece: A cosmology of twines, foliage, and colliding tangles that has a half human/half plant emerging from the earth like it’s a truly blessed being. In My Cave Call, Mutu is the central figure who, in a parable about wisdom-seeking within a holy space, falls asleep on a blanket in nature, only to transform amid a swirl of butterflies and lights into the horn-armed woman who waves her limbs to produce smoke that completely envelops the cave. 

Mutu frequently incorporates material from her native Kenya and from nature, as with her sculpture of a crowned woman called Rose Quartz, which incorporates red soil, paper pulp, wood, and the mineral rose quartz that glistens from her crown. The exhibit’s title-inspiring sculpture, I am Speaking, Can you hear me?, features two female figures with shells for ears, who seem to be looking just past each other. 

For the course of the exhibit, which is scheduled through Nov. 7, the Legion has been re-transformed from a space anchored by classical European art into a space anchored by work that explores European colonialism and its way of seeing Africa and humanity in general. Mutu’s exhibit brings to mind Binyavanga Wainaina’s seminal essay, “How to Write about Africa,” where the Kenyan author used dark humor to fault Western perceptions of his continent (“always use ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title). The exhibit also brings to mind writer Siri Hustvedt’s 2016 book A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind, where she talks about Pablo Picasso, Willem de Kooning, and other artists who — unconsciously or not — have normalized the male gaze in their portrayals of women as disturbing, foreboding, or alluring.

With “I Am Speaking, Are You Listening?” Mutu looks by herself at herself and other women around the world. We see empowered women who represent an unknown future or a mythical past. We also see the present, with Shavasana I and Shavasana II being the most cautionary and damning. Reality hits hard with those two pieces. They set a tempo that is deliberately disturbing. But the rest of the exhibit is, if not uplifting, then an affirmation of the way that hybrid figures like Water Woman and incomplete figures like the two in I am Speaking, Can you hear me?, can be new stand-ins for how we react to voices from Africa and the African diaspora, how we imagine Africa’s history and promise, and how we connect feminism, the art world, and the possibility of change as artists like Mutu show their work to greater audiences around the world.  

In her Legion of Honor lecture, Mutu asked this question: “How can we live together on this big sphere in a way that accounts for the differences and, in fact, accounts for how little is different between us all?” Mutu’s exhibit is one way to answer that question.

Wangechi Mutu: I Am Speaking, Are You Listening?’
Through Nov. 7 | $6-$15
Legion of Honor, Lincoln Park, 100 34th Ave., S.F.
415-750-3600 |

Worth A Look

Like Wangechi Mutu, Shana Hoehn makes searing art that reimagines women’s figures through sculpture, exemplified by Moth emerges from lady-jet cocoon, which looks like a hybrid insect-woman with flaps, contorted posture, and intersecting appendages that capture a moment of supreme birth. And then there’s 400 years of digestion, serpent swallows ship, whose humorous title complements its humorous, metaphorical approach: A wall bracket with a breast is chain-linked to a pointed ship with sails, rendering the ship useless but far from inside the serpent’s stomach. This is truly a Sisyphean diet on display. Hoehn’s silkscreen works called “The Spectacles” are also enthralling, with their collaged images of old cinema photos suggesting eerie doings of man-made origins that have literally turned women sideways and upside down. 

‘Shana Hoehn: The Spirals! The Stairs!’
Through June 6, Wednesday through Friday | Free
Euqinom Gallery, 1295 Alabama, S.F.
415-823-2990 |

With their Miami Beach colors and almost-animated veneers, Andy Mister’s drawings that incorporate appropriated images are beautiful to look at. You want to be in the scenes that Mister depicts — though that would mean, in the protest images, avoiding tear gas, authorities’ bullets, and the threat of arrest and violence in cities like Beirut, Gaza, and Minneapolis. Mister juxtaposes those images with scenes of nature at its best: Mount Everest, Joshua Tree, and Virginia Beach. Mister is apparently making a connection with these nature images to politics, climate change, and environmental degradation, and their motifs are similar to the protest works: Clouds from nature instead of clouds from tear gas; and shimmering colors that parse the images into distinct sections. It’s as if Mister was applying a weird X-ray vision to each scene — showing us what’s inside each image, and not just what’s on the surface. 

‘Andy Mister: Solemn Anthems’
Through May 21 | Free
Rebecca Camacho Presents, 794 Sutter, S.F.
415-800-7228 |

Jonathan Curiel is a contributing writer. Twitter @WriterJCuriel

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