Go past the notice about COVID precautions, enter the courtyard of the Legion of Honor, approach Auguste Rodin’s bronze The Thinker. And be jolted by Wangechi Mutu’s Shavasana I and Shavasana II. These twinned bronze pieces sit at the base of The Thinker. Each consists of a plaited yoga mat that doubles as a shroud and drapes a Black female body. Only the women’s arms and legs protrude. Both wear bargain-basement nail polish and shoes. Both are in yoga’s corpse pose, called the shavasana, done at the end of a session, often as a starting point for meditation.
Rodin first conceived of The Thinker as the poet Dante ruminating about his Inferno while observing souls agonizing in hell. By placing her pieces strategically, Wangechi Mutu gives The Thinker a somewhat different object of contemplation: the Black women who have been sacrificed to the ideologies that Rodin and Dante represent. Mutu’s exhibition, I Am Speaking, Are You Listening?, rattles assumptions about the narratives and ideas embodied by the permanent collection of San Francisco’s neoclassical palace. How fitting that it opens by engaging with the museum’s signature work.
Mutu then moves on to powerful, seductive, and self-possessed chimeras: creatures that marry animal, vegetal, mineral and human features. They partake of Afrofuturism, global consumerist culture, and a wealth of mostly African traditions. The first inside the museum is Water Woman, the exhibition’s presiding spirit. She reigns from a low platform in the museum’s foyer.
A fluke-tailed, mermaid-like creature, Water Woman, has fins for hands, a stylized African face, and a spiked hairdo. Mutu created her while thinking of the mythical sea nymph, the nguva, from the pantheon of traditional Kenyan cultures. The nguva traces to the real-life dugong, an endangered giant sea cow that lives off the coast of East Africa. Think of a giant manatee with highly developed teats. The dugong spawned the lore of the mermaid and the nguva, long a cultural force among coastal Kenyan peoples. Like the nguva, Water Woman speaks to the elemental power of the human/animal hybrid and to the ocean as a life source.
Such creatures’ grip on the human imagination may strike museum visitors as an oddity. However, it’s no more strange than that of, say, the winged Marianne, the embodiment of the French republic, in Rodin’s Call to Arms in the gallery next door. That Water Woman feels jarringly out of place in this Beaux-Arts setting signals her rightness for here and now, for this time of reckoning with US museums’ collections, practices, and demographics.
Indeed, the mythologies and narratives on which the Legion of Honor relies are so ingrained that they feel like the natural order of the cosmos in many people’s minds. And yet, the museum primarily surveys certain strains of Western art. Art history itself, in fact, is a 19th-century European invention. It assumes the purity of art and the periodicity of styles, evidenced by gallery labels such as “17th-century European Art.” Mutu disrupts such thinking by judiciously placing pieces in each of the period galleries that fan off the foyer. The point is to destabilize the ideological grounds of patriarchy, racism, humanism, positivism, and colonialism on which the museum’s collection sits. Not only is Mutu’s art tactical, it’s also impure, combining, as it does, materials ranging from soil to cast bronze and sources ranging from ancient lore to today’s fashion glossies.
A Kenyan American who works in Brooklyn and Nairobi, Wangechi Mutu studied at Yale with pioneers of institutional critique Hans Haacke and Fred Wilson. Her art draws on that methodology, along with an Afrodiasporic world vision and age-old African practices. Among them is the use of human bodies as outlets for creative expression and tools of communication. Traditionally, self-presentation has conveyed information about wealth, marriage status, and family ties. Mutu uses her chimeras to speak of other things. Scarification, self-adornments like lip plates and beadwork, and extravagant hairstyles — involving everything from rose quartz to feathers to swooping birds — show up here.
So, too, does the red clay soil of Kenya in Sentinel IV, located in the Spreckels Gallery. Positioned in a sightline with Rodin’s cast bronze, The Three Shades, Mutu’s piece acts as its foil. The French artist created his sculptural group of all-male nudes to crown the Gates of Hell. According to Dante’s Inferno, those gates bear the inscription “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” Rodin’s trio peers at scenes of damnation below them. Mutu’s Sentinel IV is also a gatekeeper — a pre-and post-human one. Her hoofs and her skirt/mane, made of synthetic hair, evoke pastoral traditions. So does her mud-and-wattle body, its limbs/branches packed into paper pulp and soil. This earth mother looks beat-up and haggard. Maybe pregnant, too. No less gestural than Rodin’s trio, she thrusts upward, not down, a vision of transmutation, distress, and possibility.
Further on, the mixed media Outstretched draws a bead on Eustache Le Sueur’s 17th-century oil, Sleeping Venus. Le Sueur’s version of this classic Western theme couples the blacksmith god of fire, Vulcan, with Venus, the goddess of beauty and love. Vulcan hammers away at his anvil while Venus reclines, passive and sexually available, her creamy flesh ripe for the picking. The cloth draped near her genitalia serves mainly as an enticement to pull that cloth off. Mutu responds with a creature as earthbound and autonomous as Venus is precious and submissive. Like Venus, this amphibious spirit has assumed a classic pose. But she owns her body. Nudity, as such, doesn’t exist in her world. Her skin is knobby and frog-like, her claws and face elegantly plumed. The fabric that winds around her seems to do so of her own volition. Mutu isn’t the first artist to counter the visual trope of the languid female nude. But Outstretched’s primordiality and site-specificity pack a wallop.
Mutu’s exhibition feels a bit like one of Cindy Sherman’s in that both trigger awareness of conventional narratives in our shared cultural imagination. After a big dose of Sherman, people’s self-presentations look more contrived than before; in Mutu’s case, it’s the Legion’s collection that does. That said, Mutu’s larger point is to spur people to look through other eyes and in different directions, to shift and expand their relationships with the earth and with each other, to know other pasts and imagine other futures.
“I Am Speaking, Are You Listening?” the artist asks. Listening is an intentional act. To listen well is to slow down, be present, and not impose one’s agenda. Mutu intends to awaken us to the imperative to do so.
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Wangechi Mutu: “I Am Speaking, Are You Listening?” @ Legion of Honor through November 7, 2021.
About the author:
Patricia Albers is a Bay Area writer, art historian, and editor. Her books include “Joan Mitchell, Lady Painter: A Life” and “Shadows, Fire, Snow: The Life of Tina Modotti.” She is currently working on a biography of photographer André Kertész.