Provocative, visionary, and intensely engaging, “Intertwined,” Wangechi Mutu’s expansive mid-career survey (on view through June 4, 2023), fills the New Museum with dynamic polyphonic narratives and a disruptive critique that continues to resonate long after leaving the building. Two sculptures in the Lobby Gallery begin the journey. Human and plant intermingle in In Two Canoe as two figures wrapped in leaves alight from a canoe, their limbs transforming into mangrove roots. Water laps and pools, filling the vessel with poetic possibility as it becomes a fountain, a tub offering a restorative, healing bath, and a conduit of symbolic passage. Nearby, a tall sentinel figure fashioned from red soil, wood, glue, and bells (For Whom the Bell Tolls, 2019) stands ready to guide us and the couple in the boat in crossing over.
On the first floor, several early small sculptures assembled from found objects, rope, and wax highlight Mutu’s blending of African, diasporic, and European cultural traditions. Appropriation and quotation continue in small mixed-media collages made up of images cut from fashion and porn magazines and embellished with ink and watercolor to imagine strange, fantastic, and at times grotesque amalgamations of female, animal, and plant. Enticing and rudely confrontational, these collages overlay narratives of commodity and fetishization with a subversive interrogation of the effect of violence and trauma on women’s bodies, forcefully engaging our gaze with conceptual concerns that continue throughout the exhibition.
Other works focus attention on contagion and the pathology of the diseased body. Collages join heads and faces with depictions of mutant cells and uterine tumors, while multimedia works overlay watercolor, paint, and glitter on Mylar to form exaggerated, splotched, oozing bodies and strange organisms sprouting tendrils. Several large round sculptures made from Kenyan red volcanic soil, paper pulp, and glue reproduce the cells of the common cold, measles, and more infectious viruses like smallpox, dengue, and zika. Placed on poles at eye level, these sculptures bring the circulation of disease in the body politic up close, alluding to our shared fears and vulnerabilities as well as to how pathogens have been used as bioweapons.
Like the collages, Mutu’s sculptures combine a tactile, sensual naturalism with surrealist juxtaposition to create hybrid mythic and futuristic beings. The 31-foot-long Sleeping Serpent (2014), with its bulging mid-section and blue ceramic head resting on a lace pillow, references consumption, birth, and transformation to present an intimidating and powerful new procreative model. Other works call forth water-dwelling spirits and the deities of African, East Indian, and Mediterranean mythology. The lissome, mermaid-like Water Woman (2017) and Musa (2021) entice, offering the good fortune and bounty of legend while beckoning with the mysterious allure of a dark underwater world. One of Mutu’s most intriguing explorations of interspecies fusion and of the bonds between women and nature can be seen in Crocodylus (2020). Here, a cyborg-like female figure rides and embraces a life-size crocodile, their melded bodies forging a forceful and portentous union.
This accent on interconnectedness and reciprocity with nature is also the focus of numerous videos of Mutu in performance, where she floats in the ocean to “Amazing Grace,” cleans the earth, or strikes a machete against a log. A three-channel animated video, The End of carrying All (2015), follows the artist across a panoramic post-apocalyptic landscape. As she walks, the basket on her head grows increasing heavy as it fills with consumer items, then satellite dishes, oil rigs, buildings, and cities—until, bent over and overwhelmed, she turns into a molten mass and falls over a cliff to merge with the earth in a dramatic dystopian vision of our environmental future.