The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently awarded the inaugural installment of its new Fifth Avenue façade commission to the Kenyan American artist Wangechi Mutu. The NewOnes, will free Us consists of four bronze sculptures, individually titled The Seated I, II, III, and IV, inhabiting the long-empty niches of The Met’s 1902 façade designed by Richard Morris Hunt. Here, the artist speaks with Sculpture about her works, which are on view through January 12, 2020.
Sculpture: Can you tell us a bit about how the caryatids were conceived?
Wangechi Mutu: I’ve worked with seated female figures for many years now. Often, I’ve painted women’s bodies as they are carrying other people, animals, animal parts, or objects. For example, in The End of carrying All (2015), the woman walks across a landscape carrying a basket, which grows into an abnormal-size outgrowth of buildings, industry, and manmade disaster. These figures were always simulations of caryatids; they are symbolic of the work of holding up a weight. With The Seated figures, I wanted to dive back into this subject and investigate the caryatid as an emancipated character, liberated from her weight so that she represents a pillar and not a beast of burden…with unequal compensation.
Sculpture: Were there specific inspirations?
WM: African women and women whose work involves carrying and holding objects of immense weight; Luba staffs from the Congo; Makonde stools from Mozambique; Chokwe stools from Angola; Modigliani imitations of African sculptures, especially caryatids.
Sculpture: Why did you choose bronze for The Seated figures?
WM: For years, I’ve been working in collage and painting in two dimensions. Recently however, I began to make sculptures in which I assembled different objects onto structures that I bonded and bolted together with my adhesive papier-mâché clays and cements to create fully integrated objects and figures—for example, Poems by my great grandmother I (2016) and the “Sentinels” series. I’ve fused together crystals, shells, glass beads, animal bones, mirrors, human hair, ribbon, roots, and branches.
I’ve also been molding these clays to produce hybrid figures reminiscent of my two-dimensional work. I’ve been able to set a few in bronze, and since The Met wanted the works to be exhibited on the outside façade next to their busy entryway, I needed to make them from a material that was weather resistant and could withstand the outdoors.
Sculpture: Can you tell us about the coils? Is the mix of horizontal and vertical coils a design choice, or do they signify different things?
WM: The molding of clay and earth is one of the most primal, elemental, and satisfying methods of making sculpture and pottery. Clay objects are often created using coils and coiling to build shape, texture, and form. I wanted to use a very simple and yet dynamic technique that would be reflective and legible from a distance. I also wanted the coils to function as garments and as armor at the same time. They’re inspired by the majestic coiled jewelry of the Masai, Samburu, Kikuyu, and many others, as well as the lovely fat rolls of Bundu masks from the Mende and buttress roots and branches of giant sacred fig trees.
Sculpture: What about the disks?
WM: The polished-bronze disks were in my original drawings. They are intended to represent supernatural phenomena and were inspired by body-augmenting adornment, which, in my opinion, represents a powerful tool for communicating across time, space, and dimensions. Each figure has a disk positioned differently on her head—a round, golden mirror able to reflect light, images, and energy. Like in ancient sun-worshipping traditions, these disks represent the power of the figures as they radiate reflected sunlight back onto the viewers and people below.
Sculpture: Why are the caryatids seated rather than standing?
WM: I was inspired by old photographs of traditional African royalty. I’ve long been obsessed with pictures that depict women and men of high status: chiefs, queens, and elders, who are photographed seated on their royal stools and thrones with such dignity, comfort, and aplomb.
Sculpture: Could you discuss the hybrid nature of the works and the significance, for you, of hybridity?
WM: I’ve drawn, painted, and animated hybrid human creatures in many, many works. I’ve always felt both connected and disconnected to different places as a multinational artist. The idea of a hybrid for me represents human potential, super-human powers, and the feeling of being in transition as well as being alienated. Over the years, I’ve worked with hybridity to the point where I’ve found ways to embrace feelings of complex identity and to create empowered characters that captivate us, even as they remain unknowable.