March 01, 2013 by Azwad Rahman
The newly reopened Leonard Pearlstein Gallery held an exhibition of internationally renowned artist Wangechi Mutu and several of her engaging works Feb. 22 at its new location in the URBN Center Annex at 3401 Filbert St. The exhibition is set to show from Feb. 15 to March 30.
Mutu is an artist with an extremely colorful background. Born in Kenya and raised in Wales, she moved to New York and attended the New School for Social Research and Parsons School of Art Design to study anthropology. She moved on to receive her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from one of New York’s most prestigious schools, The Cooper Union, and then a Master of Fine Arts from Yale University. She received the Deutsche Bank award for “Artist of the Year” in 2010.
“It was a great way to kick off the gallery. It was a very diverse crowd, [including] members from the local community, the high-end art world and people from the University. It drew the kind of attention we were hoping for,” Joseph Gregory, the curator of the gallery, said.
The new Pearlstein Gallery is five times larger in square footage from the previous gallery located in Nesbitt Hall. It features Mutu’s spacious “Suspended Playtime” (2008), a large collection of black plastic bags fashioned into “surrogate soccer balls,” as Gregory said. It is hung around half a foot off the ground with twine from the Gladstone Gallery, and her other works were gallantly displayed for appreciators.
The “Suspended Playtime” piece gave the audience the urge to walk through it, causing the balls of trash-bags to swing and bump into each other. For instance, there were several people (mostly children) who tried to play a game by walking through it without touching the balls.
“Those are the products of African children who don’t have the resources to have toys, and it’s a tribute to their intelligence and will to have fun in the midst of war,” Gregory said.
When first walking into the Gallery, Mutu’s most representative piece of art from 2010, “Three Huggers,” greets passers-by with a striking 15-foot portrait of a woman hugging a tree made from ink, paint and collage on Mylar.
“That piece is most typical of her work. She certainly has a fractured biography from her different cultural backgrounds. Her native country, Kenya, recently made a nation-state, is suffering from the effects of post-colonialism. She was aware that these kinds of forces are crucial in one’s sense of identity,” Gregory said.
What makes the piece so wondrous is the gradient collage art that is on the woman. Starting from her feet, there is an array of collaged images of African jewelry and what looks to be the parts of animals. As you move up the body, you see the collage of African images strikingly less prominent, and it’s all pink.
“It shows Mutu’s feelings of a person’s identity being something that should be constantly put together. It shows the power of the African woman and how they have the power to present themselves,” Gregory said. The woman’s face is blotched with a trombone, shiny gold and silver images of parts of clothing, and other seductive parts of women. Her hair turns into a grotesque river, turning on her as a ferocious dog goes in to bite the woman. The piece greatly portrays Mutu’s strong motifs of how the feet lead to the “roots” of her culture, and as you go up the body, the Westernization is attacking that identity.
Mutu’s pieces generally revolve around the objectification of women in post-colonial culture, and they were extremely confrontational as to representing the female power.
Her pieces such as “Pin-Up” (2001), “The Ark Collection” (2006) and “Bedroom Masks” (2012) made strong statements about the objectification of women as sex objects. “The Ark Collection” from the Sender Collection and “Bedroom Masks” from Mutu herself are all postcard collages made from African pornographic magazines, jewelry and cultural images. “[In the ‘Ark Collection’] they’re like butterflies trapped in a case and categorized [in Western culture] which makes it a very important statement about women,” Gregory said.
Mutu’s video pieces, reserved in the side room to themselves, demonstrated her talent for working in media on multiple levels. Her most notable piece among it was “Shoe, Shoe” (2010) on digital beta cam from the Gladstone Gallery.
“It’s about anger. It’s about the greatest obscenity to cultural poverty. It shows the homeless on the streets, and it gives a feeling of empathy,” Gregory said. “Cutting” (2004), courtesy of Mutu and Susanne Vielmetter, was also the largest of the presented videos. “Wangechi shows herself on a crest of a hill with a machete. She cuts away at what seems to be a hollowed log. She doesn’t get very far with her labor. The machete in Africa has been a work tool, but it’s also been a weapon of genocide. ‘War and strife is forever,’” Gregory said.
The gallery was complemented by a dance performance choreographed by Tania Isaac, who represented female power with fierce dancers who pushed the audience back with their moves. The performance also featured outstanding poetry from an incredibly famous poet and professor, Sonia Sanchez. Mutu regarded her with high respect as a fellow “freedom fighter.”
Drexel has done a wonderful job highlighting an amazing artist, and it’s a definite recommendation for anyone. “We want to be associated to very serious art at the highest caliber, and Wangechi Mutu certainly fit the bill, and all the trouble and expense was well worth the while,” Gregory concluded.