In between Jeff Wall’s photographs and the national contemporary collection lies a new exhibition by Kenyan born, Brooklyn based contemporary artist Wangechi Mutu. Mutu’s exhibit is a sensory experience – the smell of aged wood and rotting wine, her textured surfaces. Her installations warp the gallery space – extending across walls but fitting together aesthetically.
Or so it seems. Until you realise that the large circular orb that drew you in at first glance is actually a combination of animal fur, draped with aluminium foil and suspended with brown packaging tape. The creature you thought to be a wolf on the promotional poster actually has human legs, and arms, and nipples. And you know it’s meant to mean something. Here in lies the key to Mutu’s artistic practice – a fusion of contradictions. The natural and the commercial, elements of Western aesthetics subtly combined with traditional African tropes. She confronts our position as the Western viewer, challenging our essentialised conceptions of Africa and asserting a new perspective post the terrors of colonisation.
Mutu’s exhibit is interesting and diverse. There’s everything from miniature porn parodying collages, to large-scale sculptures and perplexing video installations. But interesting and diverse are also the cause of Mutu’s downfalls. Some works are interesting, but to no avail. The little placards are vaguely descriptive, but ultimately uninformative. The diversity lacks aesthetic and conceptual cohesion, with works created near a decade apart placed side by side. For the contemporary art uninitiated, approach with caution. Mutu’s ideas are complex and their articulation is left largely to the viewer. Her aesthetic is confronting, and its delivery uncompromising.
The exhibit is definitely worth a visit. It’s free and Mutu has been critically acclaimed internationally. She contributes to a growing trend of post colonial African contemporary art, addressing her personal cross cultural experiences with wider global conflicts in an insightful manner. There are free guided tours led by high school students running regularly on weekends. Make sure you grab a coffee at the rooftop café when you’re done. The view is amazing, as is the carrot cake.