A Short Introduction to the Afro-Futurist Collages of Wangechi Mutu
Afro-futurism is a cultural aesthetic that explores the fluidity of African diasporic identity through the emerging intersection with technology and its dissociation from humanist rhetoric. It is an inherently political art movement that seeks to abandon the humanist category which is under attack in our post-colonial times due to its “hegemonic assertion of enlightenment ideals of the liberal white male subject” (David, 2007: 695). Afro-futurist works of art, like those exhibited by Wangechi Mutu operate in what may be termed a ‘post-human universe’ where the bodies ties to racialized discourses and subjectivities are fractured and re-negotiated. Using this space to analyse the everyday experiences of black diasporic subjects has been linked to the rising ‘post-black’ aesthetic which rejects a unitary ‘blackness’, and instead nurtures a hybrid, fluid and futuristic black subject position that refuses to be disadvantageously constructed through a white gaze of humanist ideals. For this reason, and in support of the Afro-futurist movement, music journalist Kodwo Eshun writes of the ‘pointless’ and ‘treacherous’ category of the human in situating black identity (David, 2007), for black humanism remains tied to racism, slavery and colonization. As such, Afro-futurism provides a space to contest and re-negotiate Western humanism through the gaze of the contemporary black diasporic experience.
Wangechi Mutu work’s exhibit these ideas with abstract collages of particularly black women. She explores central themes of violence and misrepresentation bringing them into a new light that makes us aware of how they are written across and constructed through the black female body. She often pictures cyborg figures fitted together with anthropological, ethnographic, medical, fashion, and pornographic images. Mutu said of her work “I’m really trying to pay homage to the notion of the sublime and the abject together, and using the aesthetic of rejection, or poverty, or wretchedness as a tool to talk about things that are transcendent and hopeful… we really do have to pick up pieces and remake and rework things and translate them into something new and hopeful” (Mutu, 2010: np). One of her pieces, I Shake a Tail Feather (2004) which is pictured below, displays an unstable and contorted cyborg figure with the shoulder and neck replaced with a female body in an erotic context. The smoothness and shine of this erotic material contrasts with the mottled artificiality of the rest of her body. Uncontained in unitary or wholeness, her presence extends beyond the bodies bounds. She alludes to the way the female is already ‘amputated’ by processes of fetishization, already disconnected from the body and forced to adapt by discourses situated outside the subject itself. She says that it is for this reason that “I turn the body inside out, extending and reconfiguring it” (Mutu, 2008: 21). One must shift our bodies in order to exist. Mutu’s bodies display this, we are forced to question who her figures are, in what context do they live? We play a game of identity-assemblage and must quickly realize the complexities of placing any subject’s identity. We are written and re-written not only by ourselves, but from processes that are a whole lot larger than ourselves, that have a whole lot more power than ourselves.
Mutu’s works certainly complicate and present the complexity of talking of black, and female subjectivity. They elicit, and work in an identity free future whereby the liberal Western subject is seen through a radical black subjectivity. Releasing black identity from the confines of static representation, from the objectifying and homogenous discourses that have seen ‘blackness’ staged with ‘criminality’ in contemporary law enforcement and judicial systems, Wangechi Mutu and the Afro-futurist aesthetic certainly provide potential in providing a link between an imagined identity-assemblage future of liberation and the embodied identity of the black diasporic past and present.
David, M. (2007) Afrofuturism and post-soul possibility in Black popular music. African American Review, 41(4), 695-707.
Mutu, W. (2008) ‘Interview with Wangechi Mutu part I: The Body’, in Wangechi Mutu a Shady Promise, ed. Douglas Singleton. Italy, Damiani.
Mutu, W. (2010) Interview conducted by Aimee Reed for DAILYSERVING: An International Publication for Contemporary Art, ‘An Interview with Wangechi Mutu’. Available at: https://www.dailyserving.com/2010/04/interview-with-wangechi-mutu/