The best political art seduces. Using beauty as a lure, it tempts viewers to sidle up close enough for a message to sneak into their minds. Wangechi Mutu understands this well. Her collages sing to us across the gallery with their textured surfaces. Then a snake darts out from the sparkling underbrush and deftly punctures our bliss.
Her two-fanged assault envenoms callow daydreams about Africa and its women. She cuts out fragmentary body parts from ethnographic, pornographic, medical, wildlife and fashion publications and pastes them together into cackling, coiling banshees. Sexy calendar girls morph into monsters with toothy mouths and mismatched eyes. It’s as if westerners are being warned that their timeless fantasies of pliant, sexually available “primitives” will soon come back to assault them. Mutu wraps that ugly message in skeins of glorious decoration, tempering fury with prettiness, and forging decorative objects that detonate off the walls.
Born in Kenya and now living in Brooklyn, the 41-year-old artist is the star of an irresistible survey at the Brooklyn Museum that tracks her career from the mid-1990s to the present. The show isn’t arranged in chronological order, which makes sense since Mutu’s visual and political themes have remained fairly consistent. The bizarrely beautiful “Le Noble Savage”, from 2006, stirs together all her favourite ingredients. A woman with reptilian skin kneels amid eel-like grass. Her raffia skirt slithers, and snakes sprout from her bald head. The face, assembled from sliced-up magazines, is a puckered skull with a gaping grin. Like a ghoulish Statue of Liberty, she raises a palm tree with one arm, holding out the promise of tropical paradise and at the same time revealing its lethal horror.
Mutu mixes up myths and traditions as adroitly as she shuffles glossy body parts. Her “savage”, who reappears in other works in an assortment of sexual poses, obviously refers to colonialist dreams of docile natives and exploitable resources. But she’s also dangerous: an Eve on steroids, fused with the tree of knowledge; a Medusa of the savannah; an African Venus, armed with the power to seduce and destroy.
Females manufactured from human, animal and machine parts colonise all of Mutu’s collages, with serpents as their familiars. Snakes spring from scalps, glide from loins and coil lovingly around cyborg necks. Every now and then, though, the heroine turns on her sidekick. In “Yo Mama” she decapitates it and impales the head with the heel of her dominatrix boot. This Eve is based on a real person, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, the legendary Nigerian women’s rights activist, also known as “The Lioness of Lisabi”. Mutu shows her baring her claws, turning on her tempter and reasserting, in one violent gesture, her innocence and freedom.
With her jangling changes of scale, chopped-up bodies and monstrous masks, Mutu mashes up a host of influences. She adapts Romare Bearden’s bristling collage technique and lush, brilliant colours. She pays homage to the artistic ancestors she shares with Bearden: Hannah Höch and George Grosz, those connoisseurs of the grotesque who cobbled together barbarous bodies in response to the first world war. And she nods to the surrealist Max Ernst, who scoured scientific manuals for illustrations of strange plants and creepy implements to juxtapose in a delicate, ingenious manner. Like Ernst, Mutu is careful to hide the joins between morsels of cut paper, promoting an eerie interbreeding among plants, humans and machines.
These are powerful influences, yet she assimilates them with confidence, never stooping to mimicry or second-hand inspiration. Once you’ve seen one or two of her explosive pieces, you’d recognise the authorship from three blocks away. Best to skip the text panels at the Brooklyn show, which give the impression that her work is merely trenchant, hectoring or didactic; instead it transcends those dry academic mutterings with effusions of rapture and rage.
That intensity feels deeply personal and it resonates with the bewilderments of adolescence. In the catalogue, Mutu talks about the “shame and tension” she associated with growing up. “My body is changing and becoming this new thing. What does it mean?” she remembers thinking. “In my work, I’ve tried to play out fantasies about what young girls are thinking and going through.” Like the freaks of X-Men, her cadre of mutants embodies those agonising and empowering transformations.
The show reaches an early climax at “Family Tree”, a series of 13 sort-of portraits arranged like a genealogical diagram. This is where Mutu’s social, sexual, biological and family anxieties merge into gorgeous humanoid cornucopias. Each collage resembles a fabulously intricate Mr Potato Head toy, with lips, eyes, nose and ears plucked from a bowl and artfully mismatched. Mutu left Kenya, and her family, while still a teenager, and later moved to New York, so it’s probably not a stretch to see the piece called “Prodigal sun daughter” as a self-portrait. With her long neck and longer eyelashes, the woman could be a supermodel from Mars. A fusion of reptile and motorcycle occupies a corner of her head, suggesting a mind that is cold-blooded, cunning and mechanical. And yet there is hot drama in other details: a great ram’s horn dangling from her ear, the tiny antelope nuzzling her throat, and, above the tall grass, a burning crimson sky.
The other portraits, built around internal organs and visible veins, share that rococo complexity, so that the viewer sees not only what the subjects choose to express, but all their internal contradictions, too. This series has a ceremonial, theatrical quality, each character’s plumage as vivid and detailed as a Sargent socialite’s gown. But as a portraitist Mutu is too curious to be content with costume alone. Armed with virtuosity and insight, she discovers that she can go deep without ever abandoning the surface.