Postcolonial assemblages

A reflection on the movement of migrants

For Kenyan, Brooklyn-based, artist Wangechi Mutu (1972- ), the generative and creative process of collaging found objects and pre-existing images resists colonial homogenisation and celebrates the multiplicity of Black femininity. As such, her art ponders the question: what happens when one uses the master’s tools to reconfigure the master’s house in our own imaginaries – real, hybrid or otherwise? Especially after western colonialism has colonised and reshuffled cultural identities for its own economic purposes? This is a politics of assemblage and dis-assemblage working within a postcolonial lens. Mutu’s collage art suggests that decomposition, as a form of composition, is a critical site/sight for postcolonial readings of corporeality and temporality.

In Mutu’s work titled Le Noble Savage (2006), Nicole R. Smith identifies the “survival strategies” of a Black woman of the diaspora with the work’s intermingling references to “the Statue of Liberty, emigration and elements of African landscapes.” Note that the noble savage is a racist stereotype readily challenged by postcolonial writers such as Chinua Achebe in speaking back to Joseph Conrad in Things Fall Apart (1958). In Mutu’s Le Noble Savage, the arm is a palm tree, is torch-bearing. Birds, symbols of flight and migration, circle the woman. The hypersaturation of pink tones in her skin and the sky somehow both unsettle and comfort – is she on fire, or is she herself the wildfire?

There’s a line in Mohsin Hamid’s novel Exit West (2017) where he deliberates that “geography is destiny.” The movement of migrants, where we are born, where we love and leave, is a slice of time and space, an intricate possibility. The cutting object in collaging carves moments like these. The process of fragmentation is clearly key, and to remove is the first establishing moment of creation. In a 2007 interview with Barbara Kruger for Interview Magazine, Mutu says, “we live in a moment of collage, of splicing, of entering one another’s space, of coexistence, and of forced coexistence.”

A series of Mutu’s called “Uterine Pathologies” (2004-2005) is a collection of pieces that depict cyborg, diseased and mystical figures – the repulsive and disfigured as a perspective on hybridity, disaffection and Black womanhood. For example, Cancer of the Uterus (2005) from this series wields meaning in an economy of magical realism in depicting a glittering goddess-like face but, with its canvas of found medical paper, she is also imbued with the stories of significant intergenerational trauma recalling the history of African-American slave women being surgically experimented on by the so-called American ‘father of modern gynecology’ Dr J. Marion Sims. As such, the dis-assemblage of collage art might also be what Kwame Appiah signifies as postcolonialism’s effort to be “a space-clearing gesture” – a necessary collapse of binaries that are inherently oppressive and non-generative for marginalized identities. In other words, the dematerialization of one reality, to make way for another. Collaging deconstructs the present, original image, forging it as part of a new history or future. Time, as we in the West know it, is a technology manufactured with Western ideals. It is rational and linear and demands particular labour from Black and Brown bodies.

Like the de-linearity of a novel such as Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997), and the novel’s deeply felt investment in small chances and small voices, defamiliarsation in Mutu’s art is a kind of political commentary that puts forth scripts for radical change and resistance – glimpses of lush utopias. Exploring states of in-betweenness as generative states of being, postcolonial texts often present other / Other ways of understanding our world than the teleological and static ideologies of colonialism and imperialism that proliferate through the art and literature of ‘the West’. Mutu’s work titled History Trolling (2014) was part of a 2014 solo show at London’s Victoria Miro gallery called ‘Nguva na Nyoka’ (Sirens and Serpents). The word ‘trolling’ anticipates something tongue-in-check and jesting but here is suggestive of a colonial subject’s retention of their history and culture. In an interview with Joyce Bidouzo-Coudray on the event and themes of the show, Mutu speaks of the interplay of dreams and consciousness, African folktales, and femme empowerment. She says, “I’ve always had big fantasies about what our worlds, our countries, our nations, our cultures were like previous to European colonisation” and that, in the show she sought to “tease people into looking at things that are so called unpleasant, that give a sense of fear and anxiety …why does this bother you? Why does this make you feel this way and how can we undo it?”

Strangeness is a necessary ally to hopefulness.

This article appeared in the autonomous ACAR edition, ACAR Honi 2018.

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