Thursday, May 22, 2008

WANGECHI MUTU: FEMININE, ABUSED, POWERFUL, AND SEXY



Angela S
Mr. G
English 12 H Period 5
20 May 2008


Throughout history women have been oppressed in society and have faced issues concerning race, sexuality, power, and individuality, especially in the art world. The collage pieces by Wangechi Mutu address the many issues of femininity. Her collages suggest that the dichotomy of whore and virgin addressing women is an idea which does not need to exist. Mutu uses multi-layers of primitive women who have been distorted with pornographic images and magazine clippings to suggest the struggles that women face due to assumptions made based on culture and media from the West. Mutu, born in Kenya, has witnessed women struggling to survive through abuse, wars, genocide, and the Western perspective of the “ideal” woman.


In these series of five collages Mutu revels that despite the issues such as violence and discrimination; women can rise above and be powerful sexual beautiful beings. Mutu suggests through her use of colorful layers and spotted textures that although women are faced with diseases and trauma they can still be beautiful. Her spotting makes these females seem as though they have skin diseases yet they still are beautiful in a unique way. Also, Mutu uses the image of butterflies to suggest that women share the freedoms of men and despite struggles have the strength to be free. Another important detail in her collages are the mismatched body parts, replaced with machine parts and magazine clippings. This reveals that women are often treated inhumanely in wars and genocide and also suggests that society tells women how they should look and feel when in reality it is their chose. Women are often thought of to be pure nonsexual creatures because they are able to give birth and therefore there body is sacred. It is “suppose” to be unseen and covered, yet is also seen as a sex object. Although woman’s childbirth is a beautiful part of a woman it is not the only important thing that represents the female and her life. All of these different distorted females prove that the world’s assumptions and beliefs about women are false and that there is more to a female than her womb.


The purpose of art is to communicate one’s ideas, beliefs, opinions, and for one’s voice to be heard. Wangechi Mutu is an artist who does just this. Her multilayered collages reveal the issues facing women all over the world and they give women hope that they can rise above these problems. Mutu, born in Kenya in 1972, draws from her experiences and other female’s experiences from Africa to create her collages. Mutu’s female images are distorted and mutilated to reveal, “…the issues that go on in present-day-Africa-the wars, the hardships-specifically wars that have to do with the miming of diamonds and cash crops and things that don’t have anything to do with our needs…”(Shabaka). As a child Mutu was often perplexed at the West’s view of Africa as this “archaic” place. Mutu grew up in a city which was rather modern and after moving to the U.S. she discovered the distorted perspective of Africa which existed. As a child Mutu also witnessed many events which helped create her beliefs and perspective of women. Mutu remembers, form her childhood, “…a group of mothers protesting the imprisonment of their sons on political charges took off their clothes… to shame the authorities”(Kazanjan). Mutu states that this “was an incredible expression of the power of the naked female body”(Kazanjan).

After completing high school Mutu studied anthropology at United World College of the Atlantic and received a baccalaureate. She uses the study of anthropology to help her with her art and the relationships of women to society. Mutu also worked many odd jobs in order to save money to move to America and study there. Eventually Mutu moved to New York and graduated from Cooper Union with a bachelor degree in fine arts in 1996. In 2000, she accomplished her life long dream of graduating from Yale University with a masters degree. While studying at Yale her work was recognized and was featured at two exhibits in New York. Eventually Mutu’s career took off and by 2003 her work was featured in museums from Portugal to Los Angeles. Mutu now lives and continues to create her collages in New York (Saatachi Gallery).

In many of Mutu’s collages she addresses a female’s maternal connection and reveals that women are able to change and not necessarily be a stereotypical mother. This collage by Wangechi which expresses this idea is titled
Yo ‘Mama’. This collage features a woman who is covered with various colored spots which appear to be bruises from abuse or from chemical contamination. Mutu, in one of her interviews states, “…chemical dumping grounds and other places where dirt exceeds human control…it is still often women who do the cleaning despite feminism’s best efforts” (Aldaronado). This suggests that despite the progress of feminist movements women still have to do the “cleaning”, whether it be that of the household or the over crowded landfills which pollute the Earth and harm people. Women are always looked at as the “maternal” figure and this collage reexamines this accepted idea. The woman who is covered with spots is holding headless snake in her hand. The head of the snake is bleeding and is being crushed by the high heel of the woman. This snake is a phallic symbol which suggests that women have the ability to abuse men, just as they abuse women, and that women are powerful creatures. Also the snake is also a biblical reference to Eve in the Garden of Eden. The fact that this snake is being killed suggests that all sin which was previously associated with Eve and all females no longer exists. Women now do not have to carry the baggage of necessarily being sinful creatures. As Wiebe Christable notes in her article, feminists as a whole “have examined and incorporated the feminist values that work for [them] while necessarily and healthily forging an identity of [their] own” (Christable). This quotation connects very much with this collage in the fact that this is an image of a powerful high heeled wearing woman. This woman is strong and has rights, but can still be sexy and choose to wear high heels if she chooses. Although these shoes are alluding to Western culture, they represent the fact that females can manipulate society and media to their advantage and do not always fall victim to such things as media.

The background of the collage is a pastel pink and the whole setting seems very whimsical. Now in the modern day art world, “‘Feminine’ materials and the color pink, orgasm, menstruation, childbirth, menopause, domestic labor, all took on a new rebellious significance as did central imagery and explicitly sexual imagery from a female view point”(Lippard). Women now use their art to express what they believe is feminine. Mutu uses this powerfully abused woman and places her in this fantastical pastel pink world. Mutu is saying that woman can be “pretty”, yet have complete control over their lives and what they want as human beings. There are also orbs and spheres sporadically placed throughout the collage. Some of them appear to be bullet wholes form war or genocide, but there is one that is pure and white. It almost resembles the moon which suggests that it is connected with females and their ability to procreate. This woman is strong and in control and can also give birth. This reveals that although childbirth is a huge part of a female she can still have other characteristics that are not directly related to being a maternal figure. This female has many options and will not be called a whore because she is wearing provocative high heels and also has a baby. She is a woman, and Mutu creates this image which allows females to no longer be judged. No longer is it a female’s job to give birth and “clean” up what society has dumped all over them. In the next collage childbirth is also addressed and Mutu will continue to reveal that women are now able to create their own identity.

Another collage, which is
Untitled, features a woman who similar to the first, is covered in spots which appear to be bruises or a skin disease. This woman is being stabbed through the stomach with what appears to be a stick. This suggests that the woman is facing domestic violence and is being hurt. There is also a butterfly which is beautifully draped around the woman’s only open eye. This image represents this woman’s ability to see the truth in the world and being allowed to have freedom. There is also a bird resting on her leg which also suggests that this woman has the ability to take flight and be free of the abuse and pressure of society. Mutu’s collage style is “…an esthetic that willfully takes apart what is or is supposed to be and rearranges it in ways that suggest what could be…”( Lippard). This quotation reveals that in this collage and all of the others women are taken apart yet are not left in pieces but rather, through images of butterflies and birds, suggest that they will rise above these obstacles. These collages show possibilities for women and that there is a bright future ahead. The female in this collage is also missing the bottom halves of her legs. One of them is replaced with a tree branch and the other with the head of a cheetah. They appear to be images from the National Geographic. Mutu states in an interview that, “In fashion, in porn, in National Geographic in all these places women are recycled constantly, they’re still underground. This is a way to keep the above ground”(Tate). This quotation clearly states that these collages are being used to keep people aware of female issues in society and letting their voices be heard. This woman although covered with bruises and gushing with blood will be free from turmoil and does not have to live by societies standards.

Mutu’s use of nature is clearly evident in all of her collages, but is especially noticed in another one of her
Untitled pieces. In this piece there is a woman sitting on a giant rock which is covered with butterflies. Her body, similar to the other collages is covered with white bruised like spots. In this collage her body is also composed of tree branches and what appears to be moss. She also is holding a bleeding snake and has a spider on her head. This connection with nature reveals that this female is very much connected with nature and is pure as nature. Feminist, Carol Duncan argues that, “Man/culture tends to be one term in a dichotomy of which woman/nature is the other: ‘Even if woman is not equated with nature, she is still seen as representing a lower order of being, less transcendental of nature than men”(Duncan). In this collage Mutu suggests that the idea that women are “less transcendental” than men is not true and that a female’s connection with nature and nurturing qualities in fact make them more transcendental beings. The female’s legs in this collage seem to be constructed of tree trunks or roots from a plant. This suggests that this woman, despite her bruises, will be able to grow and be strong. She also is wearing high heels which are an influence from Western culture. She is influenced by the West but not in a negative way. She is a woman who can be in tune with nature, abused, and still wear high heels. She does not have to choose or be categorized as a poor hurt woman; she has the ability to form her identity. The snake which she is tightly grasping in her hand represents men in society who have constantly dominated. This patriarch society that woman have always lived in has caused them to struggle but Mutu shows that now, this snake, or phallic symbol is no longer manipulating women. This woman is holding this bleeding snake and is not afraid of it. She seems to looking at it and saying, even though men have brought pain to women they will forgive them because females are stronger than the abuse that they have faced. The snake is also rather small compared to the rest of the images in the collage. The large mass which the woman is sitting is on is the largest image in the picture and it is covered with butterflies. This suggests that the snake or, negative male influence is no longer dominating this woman’s life. She is sitting on this mass, which is connected with nature and in a sense it will free her. These many butterflies suggest that she will be free and no longer be taken advantage of. The rock is composed of pure white spots and also a mixture of earth tones and a light pastel pink. This suggests that women can be pure and feminine, but still be connected with nature and be naturally sexual beings.

In the background there is blood dripping from the snake but there is also pink mist which suggests femininity. Also there is a large black spider enveloped on her head. This suggests that similar to the spider this woman has the ability to create her own identity or symbolically her own web of life. Spiders also symbolize rebirth and this clearly reveals that through these collages Mutu allows females to take a stand for themselves and start new lives in which they can decide who they will become. Also, sources have noted that when one sees a spider it can “…manipulate our thinking in order to construct the life we wish to live.” This statement directly relates with Mutu’s message and her beliefs about females in society. Mutu accepts the problems that females face but shows that women can “manipulate” society and abuse to their advantage and allow them to develop who they are as women. Also, female spiders have maternal qualities they spin webs and take care of their eggs. Spider’s functions are “limitless” as are the actions and functions of women.(“Spider Symbol Meaning”) This woman is feminine, powerful, abused, maternal and still sexual. She is one with nature, yet is not weak and passive. All of these women share similar characteristics: they will be free despite the regulations in which society has set.

Another collage, which is also
Untitled, is of a woman whose legs are bruised and spotted and her torso appears to be that of a Barbie doll. There is blood everywhere and it appears that this woman is living through a war or genocide. Many parts of her body are from magazine clippings which once again allude to the Western cultural influence. All of these “…stylized female bodies are metaphors for the discourse of war, representing crimes of genocide, rape, mutilation and a myriad of hardships”(Muhammad). This especially addresses genocide and war. There is a long orange image which almost looks like a canon or a bomb which has landed on a woman wearing high heels. The woman in the center although bruised appears to be strong. She is covering her breasts and has a look on her face which says this is her body and it needs to be respected. There is also another little female image which is attached to the back of the larger woman. This smaller woman has the hands of an insect and her legs are thin and she is wearing high heels. The most interesting part about this mini image is that there appears to be these entangled threads in the place of the woman’s genitals. This may be alluding to female genital mutilation. In Africa female genital mutilation often occurs and in a sense strips females of their sexuality.

An article from BBC News states that many Africans believe that “By allowing your genitals to be removed you are heightened to another level of pure motherhood-a motherhood not tainted by sexuality and that is why the woman gives it away to become the matron, respected by everyone.”(“Changing attitudes to female Circumcision”). This quotation reveals that in Africa females are basically thought to be mothers and to feel the pain of labor, but are not allowed to have the pleasure of sex. When a female becomes a mother she is no longer pure and virtuous and stripping them of their genitals allows them to maintain purity. This procedure should not exist and women should not have to endure this kind of pain. Women should not be judged base on their ability to have children. If a woman’s life is at risk than aborting the baby or removing the womb is necessary. Mutu uses this collage to reveal that despite these mutilations that are performed on women, they can still be strong and fight for their rights. The little woman who appears to have genital mutilation is holding on tightly to the larger woman and her facial expression suggests that she is not going to give in. Another article form BBC also states that “in Somalia…a hospital…was forced to shut down for five weeks following threats to a doctor who removed a woman’s womb”(“Is a woman worth more than her children?”). Women should not be judged base on their ability to have children. If a woman’s life is at risk than aborting the baby or removing the womb is necessary. Women are worth more than just their children and this needs to be acknowledged by society.

The larger woman’s eyes, lips and upper body are from magazine clippings and are parts of the “ideal” woman. Women are always told how to look and feel, and this woman, despite the affects of society is still beautiful in her own way. It is also interesting because there appears to be a dark foggy cloud surrounding the woman and the light in the collage seems to be coming from her bruises and mutilations. This suggests that all of these woman’s flaws which have been created by society can be used in her favor and can shine truth on the things that really matter. There are also butterflies which are flying through the blood form war and genocide. Women similar to these butterflies will eventually be free and will rise above their obstacles. This woman has suffered through war, genocide, abuse, and genital mutilation, yet she can rise above. Her scars will not make her unattractive but will remind her of her strength and that she has the ability to change her life. Another theme which Mutu touches upon is the fact that women are suppose to have babies but not be sexual and are suppose to be beautiful creatures while society uses and abuses them.

Another one of Mutu’s collages which is again
Untitled, addresses this theme. The woman in the collage is in a sexual center-fold pose. She is bleeding from her stomach and she has the uniform bruises and spots that all of these women have. She is composed of magazine clippings and car parts. The interesting thing about this woman is that despite the blood releasing from her body she appears to feel no pain. There is also a butterfly which is flying from her from her blood and wounds. This suggests that this woman will be freed from this pain and abuse and she will not allow it to weigh her down. Also, this woman despite, her bruises, blood and influences from the West she still appears to be strong and sensual. Many times in the art world, “the equation of female sexual experience with surrender and victimization is so familiar in what our culture designates as erotic art and so sanctioned by both popular and high cultural traditions that one hardly stops to think it odd”(Duncan). Mutu completely disregards the idea that this quotation suggests. Through her art Mutu reveals that women can be sexual and beautiful without having to look weak and passive. This woman in the collage, although she was clearly hurt she does not look as though she has been victimized. She looks sexual and powerful and does not have to surrender or be passive to be this way. Women no longer need to be the damsel in distress and are capable of being in control and satisfying their needs without necessarily having a man in their life. Another interesting part of this woman is the car parts which are attached to her body. This reveals that the fact that a lot of times, especially in countries such as Africa women are stepped upon through war and abuse. Their bodies are treated like objects in order for others to trade goods that they need for materialistic purposes. Mutu states in an interview that, “Females carry the marks, language and nuances of their culture more than male…anything that is desired or despised is always placed on the female body (Merrily).” This statement is correct, woman are desired by men as sexual objects, but are despised if they are overly sexual. Women are suppose to be these pure nurturing creatures, but yet are scolded if they are not beautiful or thin enough. This collage and all of them are giving a voice to women. They are suggesting that women may have to carry certain things with their body and culture, but they will not let it them control them and bring them down.

Women realize what society expects and has created, but women will no longer let any one or anything manipulate who they are. Mutu states that she “sees these goddesses as critiques that are very much embedded in the problematic itself. So some of them have issues that we haven’t broken through, but they’re also sincere about that and still strong”(Tate). Mutu is not using these collages to say that women’s problems are over, but rather is accepting these problems and allowing women to take control of them and allow them to create their own identity. The woman in this collage has clearly been hurt, but is now trying to free herself from pain and create a better life. All of these “goddesses” are staring war, abuse, genocide, rape straight in the face and are showing them that they can be beautiful powerful sexual maternal beings without any questions asked. They are human and feel the same as men do and have the same rights as men.

These disgustingly beautiful women all share similar stories and all live in a society which basically has been created for them by men. Through Mutu’s collages and allusions to Western culture she reveals that women are now able to create their own identities. Women are no longer either whores or virgins or pure or sexual. Women are now allowed to be powerful maternal and sexual beings. It is true that women have biological differences than men and other characteristics, but in the end females are human beings and should not be subjected to violence and abuse. Women all over the world, especially in Africa have suffered through abuse and are still living and are strong. There is an article which states, “ a female born in South Africa is more likely to be raped than to learn to read” (“Female only Trains for SA”). This statistic is appalling but artist Wangechi is taking a stand and is educating the world about women’s issues. She is giving a voice to every woman who has ever been hurt or injured through abuse and who has been pressured by society to be “perfect”. She is saying that women no longer have to face the dichotomy of whore or virgin. Women have the right the right to be free sexual powerful and strong. As Linda Nochlin feminist art historian stated, “Our desire is simply this: ‘To be sufficient to stand but free to fall,”(Christable).


Women want the basic rights that all humans deserve. Women want to be strong enough to be independent and want to be allowed to make mistakes and not questioned when something goes wrong in their lives. Women have been denied many things throughout history and Wangechi Mutu is allowing females to create things other than children. Women can create art, literature, music, and most importantly they can create their identity.


Works Cited


Aldaronado, Cecilia. “Ghada Amer & Wangechi Mutu: Minneapolis.” ArtPapers (2007): 66. Wilson Web Boston Public Lib. 23, April 2008
http://www.bpl.org.

  • This article discusses works of art by Wangechi Mutu and Ghada Amer. Both of their art focuses on the female body and how it is depicted in society.

“Biography.” Saatachi Gallery 14 May 2008 http://www.saatachi-gallery.co.uk/artists/wangechi_mutu_biography.htm.

  • This website contains biographical and other facts about artist Wangechi Mutu.

“Changing attitudes to female circumcision.” BBC NEWS 8 April 2002 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hihealth/1916917.stm.

  • This article discusses women affected by female mutilation and the steps that need to be taken to end it.

Christable, Wiebe. “What’s a Girl to Do?.” Border Crossings 26 (2007). Wilson Web. Boston Public Lib. 24 April 2008 http://www.bpl.org.

  • This article discusses the new “WACK!” exhibition of female art. Women are still fighting for equality through art, but are starting at a different place in history.

Duncan, Carol. “The Aesthetics of Power in Modern Erotic Art.” Feminist Art Criticism An Anthology. Ed. Raven. Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1998. 59-69.

  • This anthology discusses feminist criticism and how now women have many new doors open and will be able to explore the many sides of femininity that were often deemed unacceptable by society.

Duncan, Carol. “Virility and Domination in Early Twentieth-Century Vanguard Painting.” Feminism and Art History Ed. Broude, Norma. New York: Harper, 1982. 293.

  • This book focuses on art throughout history and how the art world has been dominated by males.

“Female only trains for SA”. BBC NEWS 2 July 2002. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/208420.stm.

  • This article discusses the creation of all female trains to avoid domestic violence in South Africa.

“Is a woman only worth her children?” BBC NEWS 4 June 2004 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/3774827.stm.

  • This article discusses a doctor who was threatened because he saved a woman’s life by removing her womb. In certain parts of the world women are believed to serve the purpose of childbirth and nothing else.

Kazanjan, Dodie. “Fierce creatures; Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu has brought her fresh and vividly energetic vision to figurative art-spinning fantastical tables of folklore and modernity.” Vogue (2006): 214. Infotrac. Boston Public Lib. 23 April 2008 http://www.bpl.org.

  • This article discusses the life of Mutu and how she discovered her love of art.

Lippard, Lucy. “Issues and Commentary: No Regrets.” Art in America (2007): 75-9. Wilson Web. Boston Public Lib. 24 April 2008 http://www.bpl/org.

  • This article discusses different perspectives of feminist art throughout history and where the movement is today.

Merrily, Kerr. “Wangechi Mutu’s Extreme makeovers.” Akrylic 27 April 2006. http://www.akrylic.com/articles/44/1/Wangechi_Mutu&%2339%3Bs-Extreem-Makeovers.

  • Wangechi Mutu is an artist who expresses ideas about females and their role in society as well as violence which occurs in war zones. Mutu creates disgustingly beautiful images of women. She creates women who have suffered in this world and remind people the tragedies which exist.

Muhammad, Erika Dalya. “Body Politic.” Art Review (2004): 60-63. Wilson Web. Boston Public Lib. 23 April 2007 http://www.bpl.org.

  • This article discusses Mutu’s work and how genocide, mutilation and wars have served as inspiration for her art.

Shabaka, Onajide. “Multilayered Wangechi Mutu.” Miami Art Exchange 31 July 2005 http://www.mimaiartexchange.com/miami_art_articles/miami_art_articles_2005/multilayerd_wangechi_mutu.html.

  • Mutu discusses how she creates her and where her inspiration originated. Her art reveals what life is like in other parts of the world and what other people especially women, experience.

“Spider Symbol Meaning.” Your Guide to Symbols and Signs 14 May 2008 http://www.whats-your-sign.com/spider-symbol-meaning.html.

  • This article discussed the multiple meanings of spiders and how they affect how one makes decisions in every day life.

Tate, Greg. “Regal Depravities and Other Cavities.” CODE Z http://www.codezonline.com/featurearticle/2007/04/regal_depravities_and_other_ca.html.

  • This article is about Mutu, her art and her view on hip-hop culture.

Works Consulted

Cotter, Holland. “ART REVIEW; An African Diaspora Show Asks: What is Africanness? What is Diaspora?” The New York Times 21 Nov. 2003 http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpag.html?res=9C8B638&scp=++Art++Review+An+African+Diaspora&st=nyt.

  • This article discusses the origin of African Modernism. It also reveals differences between European and African artists. Overall the article addresses the question of what African art is being considered in the U.S.

Dublin, Steven. “Continental drift: the largest exhibition of contemporary African art ever assembled, “Africa Remix” revealed a startling range of practice, much of it little know till now to the world at large”. Art in America (2007): 90. Infotrac. Boston Public Lib. 23 April 2008 http://www.bpl.org.

  • This article discusses the art show “Africa Remix”, various African artists and the purpose and messages of their art.

Freeman, Judi. Picasso and the Weeping Women The years of Marie Therese Walter and Dora Maar. Los Angeles: L.A. County Museum, 1994.

  • This book discusses Picasso’s fascination or rather obsession with weeping women and the state of the world in which he painted these works.

Harness, Kelley. Echoes of Women’s Voices Music, Art, and Female Patronage in Early Modern Florence. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2006.

  • This book discusses art such as music and paintings, during early modern Florence and the role of women in society at this time.

Isaak, Jo Anna. Feminism and Contemporary Art. New York: Routledge, 1996.

  • This book focuses on the many aspects of feminist art and explains how women have been portrayed throughout history.

Nochlin, Linda. Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays. New York: Harper, 1998.

  • This book analyzes many different works of art throughout history, how women are portrayed and later on when women begin to create art and how this affects their place in society.

Passeron, Rene. Introduction. Phaidon Encyclopedia of Surrealism. Trans. John Griffiths. New York: Dutton; 1978.

  • This introduction discusses Surrealism how it began and the many branches of it.

Puliti, Gea. “Wangechi Mutu.” Flash Art (2008) Wilson Web Boston Public Lib. 23 April 2008 http://www.bpl.org.

  • This article focuses on one of Mutu’s shows. It discusses how Mutu created beautiful, yet disgusting images of women to reveal the female’s everyday struggle.

Raven, Arlene, Ed. Feminist Art Criticism an Anthology. Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1998.

  • This anthology discusses feminist criticism and how now women have many women have many new doors open and will be able to explore the many sides of femininity that were often deemed unacceptable by society.

Sischy, Ingrid. “Letter from the editor.” Interview (2008): 100 Infotrac. Boston Public Lib. 23 April 2008. http://www.bpl.org.

  • This article discusses a photography show which focused on the issue of freedom and how people in society have progressed, but also digressed. Art, culture, and music are things which will help educate people in the future.

Valdez, Sarah. “Naked Truths.” ARTnews March 2003 http://artnews.com/issues/article.asp?art_id=1276.

  • In this article artist Wong challenges the stereotypes of females in the art world. She uses pornographic images and other images to suggest that women can be nor than how society views them.

Vogel, Lise. “Fine Arts and Feminism.” Ed. Raven Feminist Art Criticism An Anthology. Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1998.

  • This anthology discusses feminist criticism and how now women have many women have many new doors open and will be able to explore the many sides of femininity that were often deemed unacceptable by society

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