Global cultures 1980–now
- Identity Politics: From the Margins to the Mainstream
- Stephanie Syjuco, The Visible Invisible
- Wangechi Mutu, Preying Mantra
- Wangechi Mutu, The NewOnes, will free Us
- Marina Abramović, The Artist is Present
- Rineke Dijkstra, Odessa, Ukraine, August 4, 1993
- Maryam Hoseini's Every Day Abstractions
- Jordan Casteel Paints Her Community
- Luchita Hurtado's body of work
- Shirin Neshat, Rebellious Silence, Women of Allah series
- Kehinde Wiley, Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps
- Kehinde Wiley, Ice T
- Kehinde Wiley, Rumors of War
- Yinka Shonibare, The Swing (After Fragonard)
- Shonibare, The Swing
- Freud, Standing by the Rags
- Kiki Smith, Lying with the Wolf
- Kiki Smith Quiz
- Catherine Opie, Figure and Landscape series
- Stefanie Jackson, Bluest Eye
- Amy Sherald, Precious Jewels by the Sea
- Michelle Browder, Mothers of Gynecology
- Douglas Coupland, Terry Fox Memorial
By Dr. Shawnya Harris
Using the medium of collage, the artist Wangechi Mutu creates new worlds that re-imagine culture through the realm of fantasy. Mutu was born in Nairobi, Kenya and educated in Europe and the United States. Her art is global in nature and she clearly relishes complicating both and non-Western cultural norms, questioning how we see gender, sexuality, and even cultural identity.
Wangechi Mutu’s artistic practice includes video, installation, sculpture, and mixed-media collage. One of her recurrent themes concerns the violence of colonial domination in Africa (particularly in her native Kenya). Her images incorporate the female body, specifically an imagined "African" body, subjected to sexism and racism on a global scale.
Sources for Mutu’s collages include fragments from fashion magazines, pornography, medical literature, or even popular magazines such as National Geographic. Inspiration for her collages can be traced to the early of the German Dada artist Hannah Höch and the American artist Romare Bearden. Mutu appreciates Bearden’s use of collage—how it emphasizes community and the African American traditions found in jazz, while the spliced images in Höch’s photomontages reflect Mutu’s interest in disrupting societal convention in art. Mutu creates a space for exploring an informed consciousness about being "African" and female that incorporate these artists’ techniques yet develops a new visual vocabulary.
Preying Mantra centers on female subjectivity, , and the notion of hybridity—both in concept and imagery. Hybridity is a concept often used in postcolonial studies. It describes how mixing the cultures of colonized and the colonizer can produce a third space for newer and often disruptive understanding of cultural identity. Colonialism in Africa, which began in earnest in the nineteenth century, violently wrested power from Africans for the benefit of European nations through the enforcement of strict military and administrative controls. As colonialism waned during the mid-twentieth century, other social and political issues emerged. Mutu’s work was shaped by this complex history and by issues such as the rights of women that came to the fore at the end of the century.
In Mutu’s Preying Mantra, a female creature appears to recline on a geometrically patterned blanket that is sprawled between trees or perhaps on a tree branch. The blanket resembles a Kuba cloth (traditional fabric created by the Kuba people). Legs tightly crossed in front of her, the figure stares suggestively at the viewer with her right hand positioned behind her head, which is surmounted by a cone-like crown. Her relaxed posture is camouflaged by her skin, which appears dappled by sunlight and which mirrors the colors of the tree's leaves. Like the female body, the tree is emblematic of the creation myths found in many cultures, including Mutu's ancestors in Kenya. In her left hand, the figure holds a green serpent that rests on the blanket which fills much of the scene. The serpent, linked with the role of Eve in the biblical creation narrative, provides yet another cultural source for Mutu’s protagonist. The tree envelops the female figure, reinforcing links between history and fiction, African and Non-African cultural myths as well as natural versus unnatural phenomena.
The title Preying Mantra, recalls the praying mantis—an insect that resembles the protagonist in Mutu's collage, with her prominently bent legs. As a carnivorous insect, praying mantises camouflage themselves to match their environment, snaring their prey with their enormous legs. During mating, the female can become a sexual cannibal—eating her submissive mate. Such imagery and its association with natural phenomena creates a primal sensibility. Despite this reference to a real praying mantis, Mutu’s “preying mantra” is also vulnerable to our gaze, suggesting that the figure may be a victim that is “preyed” upon by “mantras." Mutu creates a natural, even primitive, fictional environment that entices and disturbs us even as she invites us to explore racist stereotypes about the African female body as explicitly sexual, dangerous, and aesthetically deformed in relation to Western standards. Given that elements of the collage are assembled from sociocultural documents found in popular literature from the West, the figure may be preying on the viewer’s own fears and desires.
Trevor Schoonmaker, Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey (North Carolina: Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, 2013).
Essay by Dr. Shawnya Harris
Want to join the conversation?
- What if I am younger than most other AP Art History students? What if we don't understand what you mean by "she invites us to explore stereotypes about the African female body as explicitly sexual... in relation to Western standards?" The piece is from 2006 and I don't recognize the stereotype. There are no examples of how she was discriminated, just commentary about colonialism. How does devouring a male relate? Did the artist experience a divorce that shattered her psyche into that of a skinned zombie?(3 votes)
- What does "Despite this reference to a real praying mantis, Mutu’s “preying mantra” is also vulnerable to our gaze, suggesting that the figure may be a victim that is 'preyed' upon by 'mantras'" mean? What are "mantras"?(1 vote)