Wangechi Mutu brings his sculptures to Storm King
Wangechi Mutu, the Kenyan-born multidisciplinary artist best known for her clay and bronze sculptures and collage paintings, has been visiting the Storm King Art Center in New York’s Hudson Valley since she was a student at Cooper Union, then Yale, in the 1990s. “It reminds people, like a place of pilgrimage,” she says of the open-air museum less than two hours from Manhattan, speaking via Zoom from her apartment in Brooklyn – her studio is in the same brownstone, although she also maintains a studio in Nairobi. Now, having completed the installation of eight large-scale bronze sculptures on Storm King’s Museum Hill, part of the complex’s 500 acres – which also house pieces by Lynda Benglis, Alexander Calder and Sol LeWitt, among others – she has closed the loop.
The centerpiece of her newly opened show, which runs until November 7, is “In Two Canoe” (2022), a mythical tree-woman fountain rendered in a mossy green patinated bronze, in which the pair of figures lead a ship to nowhere. . Inspired by the mangrove tree, they have heads wrapped in conical leaf masks and waving vines around their torsos and extremities. As the water flows in and around the boat, it appears simultaneously captured in motion and firmly anchored. “Mangroves are migratory,” says Mutu. “This plant has moved all over the place, made journeys like the ones that were abducted from Africa and taken to the Americas. Water seals this unified story that we have created for ourselves. We are all connected on this earth sphere and water is how we will find each other.
Five of the artist’s large bronze baskets are also scattered on Storm King’s Museum Hill. Two of them, both titled “Nyoka” (2022), appear to be filled with coiled snakes. A pair of turtles visible only by their shells inhabit two of the others, both titled “Kobe” (2022). The last basket, “Nywele” (2022), contains a pile of braided hair. With each, the viewer is encouraged to ask, “What elicits fear and what signals comfort?” We’re also reminded that there’s beauty, as well as rich history, in the “everyday technology” of baskets and braids, even though, says Mutu, “it’s not as strong or built as tall” as many modern wonders that threaten the climate.
“It’s scary how dangerously close we are to losing everything on earth,” she adds, her own tresses twisted into a bun. “We always do the most absurd things. I can’t believe a murder in Buffalo claimed 10 lives. White supremacy, the climate emergency, the war in Ukraine, we haven’t learned anything. Or maybe everything we learned – about sharing knowledge, humanity, and our connection to the world – is no longer important. If we continue to destroy nature, it will stop feeding us. She was clearly thinking about it when she did the earthworks – animal-like creatures and humanoids made from dirt, wood, pulp, horn and bone, all gathered around the Mutu’s studio in Kenya – exhibited in the galleries of the Storm King’s Museum Building alongside other his sculptures and two of his film works.
Mutu is an engaging if somewhat reluctant interviewee. Whether she’s talking about her surreal collages or her humanoid sculptures, which often go against traditional roles for women in art, she thinks any attempt to demystify her work risks flattening her. “Words have a way of connecting and obviously with a piece of art you don’t want it to be in a corset,” she says. “I also feel like the viewer is involved in the work, whereas the artists can disassociate themselves from it and are not in the space with the viewer.” Lately, therefore, she has reconsidered the way she talks about her plays. “I think sometimes the questions I answered and the way I did it crystallized things about the work and people refused to go any further.”
In a sense, making art is Mutu’s way of communicating – for her, it’s a form of meditation and prayer, a way of embedding her empathy into the earth and “passing on that love, that grief , this pain and this urgency to other people”. said. Another bronze piece, “Crocodylus” (2020), takes the form of a woman riding a crocodile; the patterned black finish that covers the reptile extends to the rider, giving the impression that these two seemingly disparate creatures are actually one being. As if to suggest resilience and change, ideas Mutu has been exploring in her work since becoming a mother of two daughters, the sculpture overlooks the southern fields of Storm King and slopes down to a nearby path. “We’re so elastic and adaptable,” she says. “We can survive because we are constantly changing.”