Head up the front steps to the studio in Wangechi Mutu’s Bed-Stuy brownstone, and the magazines catch your eye first: knee-high piles of Harper’s Bazaar, The Source, Trace, i-D, Elle, World of Interiors, National Geographic, Vogue. The stacks are there to be strip-mined, and their colorful ore will soon end up in the many, many plastic caddies and drawers that bear labels like JEWELRY, MACHINES, ANIMALS, LEGS, and PLANTS. Eventually, Anna Wintour’s spindly goddesses will be carved into fragments, their limbs, lips, flesh, and hair reconstructed in the collages of shape-shifting cyborgs Mutu painstakingly builds. Luminescent tableaux of alien worlds that are part ink, part pastiche, they are punctuated with these images, as well as others from ethnographic journals, medical treatises, and hard-core porn. Mutu casts clusters of cutout naked bodies as swaths of uneven skin; gemstones as ears; fossils, pythons, and flowers as braids; and motorcycles as platform shoes, all of which will be in evidence in a Brooklyn Museum survey this October, her first, a tightly edited selection of collages, sketches, sculpture, video, and a new animation featuring the electropop singer Santigold as a carnivorous Medusa-like beast.
She calls it “harvesting,” extracting and collecting imagery from the media and twisting it into something personal, something otherworldly, something new, something about women, race, place, bodies, and our culturewide fixation on stuff. “My work is often a therapy for myself—a working out of these issues as a black woman,” she says, as we talk downstairs, her 6-month-old daughter bouncing on her knee. “And a way of allowing other black women to work through this kind of stigmatization as they look through the images and feel how distorted or contorted they might be in the public eye.”
It was National Geographic, she says, that originally “unlocked that critical voice.” Her father was a subscriber when she was a little girl in Kenya, and, in scanning through his issues as they arrived, she remembers feeling a sense of “that’s not us you’re portraying in there. In National Geographic you always saw pictures of tribal Africa. And here I am sitting in Nairobi, in our suburban house, watching TV and thinking, Why is it always going to be these tribal people that are the ambassadors of our image?” It’s akin, she says, to the Amish becoming poster children for America.
Eventually, our conversation veers further toward seventies TV—specifically, The Fantastic Journey, a short-lived, high-concept sci-fi series starring Roddy McDowall that saw its protagonists trapped in the space-time continuum, unable to grasp where they were or to return home. It never made it to her in Kenya, but it did stick in the mind of Trevor Schoonmaker, curator of contemporary art at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. He told Mutu about the show; the artist loved it, and discovered in it connections to her own work and life.
The retrospective—which started at the Nasher before coming to Brooklyn—ended up with the title “A Fantastic Journey,” paying homage as well to Mutu’s own peripatetic life. Her 41-year journey led her from Nairobi to high school in Wales to college at Cooper Union to the prestigious M.F.A. program at Yale, and ultimately to Brooklyn, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. And, like the marooned characters of that old sci-fi series, she, too, was stuck in time and place. From 2000 until 2012, she was caught in a vicious snarl of immigration-paperwork hell, unable to leave the U.S. because she wouldn’t be allowed back in. Shows went up in London, Brussels, and Berlin without her; she couldn’t visit her Kenyan family. (“I called it a spell at some point,” she says.) Only a year ago did she finally get her green card.