Primal Pain and Buried Beauty- Wangechi Mutu

Primal Pain and Buried Beauty:  The Enculturation of African Women Through the Eyes of Wangechi Mutu

A Reflection:  by Annelysse Eggold


Wangechi Mutu was named 2010 Artist of the Year by Deutsche Bank’s Global Advisory Council on Art, following a fifteen year evolution of artistic creation which has erupted on the stage of contemporary art as a stunningly mysterious, beautiful, horrific and almost ineffable display of the primal pain and buried beauty of African and African-American women who, over the course of four hundred years, have been mutilated physically, emotionally, and spiritually under the grinding wheel of colonialism, western culture and the mass media.

Whenever one writes of the creative force in another’s life that has led to works of power, passion and depth of meaning, it is well advised to understand the origins of that person’s world-view.  We need to, if at all possible, see through their eyes, hear through their ears and connect deeply with their perceptions.  Without this understanding, and a certain humility that precludes our judgments of another’s life and work, we are apt to grossly misperceive, distort and deny the suffering, pain, truth and beauty of the mentors of our world.  Without this understanding we will be unable to fulfill the ultimate purpose of this cultural analysis essay, which is to…develop an understanding of why the text (the life and art of Wangechi Mutu) exerts a particular power in a specific cultural context.


Born in Nairobi, Kenya, in post-colonial 1972, and of Kikuyu tribal ancestry, Wangechi Mutu was sensitized at an early age to the prevalent and still pervasive Western stereotypes of African women as exotic, erotic, primitive, dangerous, hypersexual, and uncivilized(Smith).  As Mutu intuitively states:  “It is an instinct to categorize what we are afraid of.” (Mutu. This You Call Civilization? p.98).   Mutu, after eighteen years of age, was educated in England and the United States, attaining an MFA in Art and Sculpture at Yale University, while also attaining a realistic idea of how artifacts are used to construct cultural narratives.   Nicole Smith, in her MFA theses on Mutu and feminist collage, comments: “Mutu’s interest in exploring the weaknesses and deceit of stereotypes, particularly those of feminine and ethnic others…continues in her later collages of female figures.”   Mutu’s primary medium has evolved into large works of collage which combines elements of glossy magazines and journals, prevalent in the western mass media, along with graphic images of African men, women and children in the strangle-hold of colonialism and also of Afro-American women in the more subtle grasp of Western culture that blend together seamlessly in incongruous human forms of beauty and pain, both sensual and repulsive. The collages “are mirrors that reflect the western viewer’s gaze of the African woman.” (Mutu. This You Call Civilization? p100).  Mutu’s collages allow her to “piece together” the origins and effects of colonialism, tribal strife, mutilation, genocide (as depicted in the film Blood Diamond and incited through the power and greed of western colonial culture not only in Sierra Leone but also in Rwanda, Angola and Kenya), and a dominant Western culture and Western mass media, upon the bodies, emotions, and self image of African women through time.  “Living in the U.S., which consumes 65% of the world’s diamonds, only heightened my sensitivity to how the consumption of luxury and materialistic greed can fuel the fighting that maims civilians, trading one person’s sense of beauty for another’s well-being.  Refugees were in need of prosthetics…I began thinking: diamonds, decadence, civil war, scarring, reddened limbs—collages were a formal solution for how I viewed the world.”  The artist states that her collages represent “the survivors of all these moments in history that we’ve been through as a race.” (Smith)She sifts through Western media to find the answers, expressed through her art, to the questions posed in the proposal of this essay: 1. What is the primal pain and buried beauty of African women?   2. How did this painful distortion of the natural beauty of African women occur?  3. Why does this distortion and pain persist?    Mutu helps us to understand her process: “The kinds of things I use in my collage have a very particular resonance for me…(in the media I utilize, I want to know) what is its purpose and how are women’s bodies used in them.  As a woman of color, how I am represented in these publications is of absolute importance and relevance because it tells me where I stand in that culture.  You can tell what mainstream American culture is thinking by looking at a newsstand.  For the most part, there is a lot of misogynistic material.”(Mutu. This You Call Civilization? p.16).  “Mutu weaves beauty myths, African folklore and body modification with critiques of colonial history, consumer greed, racialized stereotypes, and sexual violence…suturing together these tension filled subjects while dismantling the Eurocentric and Enlightenment scaffolding upon which bodily ideals and hierarchical myths stand”.  Laurie Firstenberg recalls a conversation with Mutu in which Mutu states:  “Standards of female beauty circulate ubiquitously in popular culture, creating an enormous pressure to modify one’s appearance, whether as consumers of the latest fashions and beauty products or by more extreme measures (plastic surgery).  These standards are often defined in ways that omit the majority of the female population…while the media offers a never-ending supply of digitally altered images by which to judge real female bodies as inferior.” Mutu brings a transcultural perspective to what has been regarded as an American contemporary form of art by…”addressing the realities of Africa and its Diaspora in a manner that can be described as both oppositional and critical while also being transformative and uplifting” (Cox).

Rather than attempt to persuade, indict, or educate through the written word, Mutu uses the medium of collage, a visual vocabulary, to create a language of the body that speaks directly to the heart of the viewer, to the collective repressions of Western culture, and to the primal pain and buried beauty of the African and African-American woman.  The artist reminds us: “…the body has the ability to describe and be a language of its own.  Pain, surprise and dependence can be described by using just the figure.  In the end, the image has a beauty”(Mutu. This You Call Civilization?).  Such consciousness of the affective role that her contemporary art can play in raising public awareness is what defines Mutu’s artistic genius and simultaneously shocks the collective Western consciousness.  Why does it shock the collective Western consciousness?  Why does the buried pain of African-American women persist?  Because the Western consciousness is numb (my emphasis) to much of the suffering that occurs within other races…”One of the worst effects of racism is the way it numbs human sensibility (my emphasis).  Horrendous things can be done to a section of the population without other sections registering the horror, because their feelings have been numbed (my emphasis) to a point where they are unable to see, or hear, what is in front of their eyes and ears”(Thiong’0).   Wangechi Mutu’s art confronts the Western collective consciousness with a visual vocabulary of the primal pain and buried beauty to which our senses have been numbed.  “I’m interested in powerful images (my emphasis) that strike chords embedded deep in our subconscious.” (Mutu. This You Call Civilization? p.52).  Sleeping Heads, a series of eight collages of “…grotesque yet seductively beautiful corpse-like busts that evoke real world images of tortured bodies, war dead, bodies ravaged by HIV/AIDS, …with reference to the use of rape as a war strategy…and the everyday acts of violence, domestic and otherwise, perpetuated against women worldwide” (collage included in the epilogue to this essay) exemplifies the origins of the primal pain of African and African-American women in the powerful images of Mutu’s artistry (Mutu. This You Call Civilization? p.58).

Just as Wangechi Mutu’s collages weave together beauty and bestial, harmony and conflict, dignity and disgrace, human and machine, so this essay weaves through and weaves together the elements of her art as represented in her prolific reading and careful understanding of the African woman’s Trail of Tears during her studies in cultural anthropology. Colonialism, in contradistinction to its often-romantic overtones of exploration and adventure, was largely a patriarchal exercise in power, domination and greed.   African women were viewed through the oppressor’s eyes, and gradually through their own eyes, as the Other, —–a commodity to be utilized for menial but arduous labor, an object to be treated as an animal; enslaved, whipped, degraded in body and wounded in spirit. Mutu’s art calls to mind a “…history of objectification which links physical bodies to judgments of character, intellect, and basic human dignity…(she) engages the concept of how one sees race, consciously or unconsciously, and how one can internalize the way others see them.” Mutu references her reading from Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa:                

  “White traders and state officials were kidnapping African women and using them      as   concubines.  White officers were shooting villagers, sometimes to capture their women, sometimes to intimidate the survivors into working as forced laborers, and sometimes for sport.  Your majesty’s government is excessively cruel to its women prisoners, forcing them for the slightest offense to the chain gang where the ox-chains eat into their necks and produce sores around which the flies circle, aggravating the running wound.” (Mutu. This You Call Civilization p.110).

Mutu indicates that her questioning of the hypocrisy and violence and domination which has been a part of what …”you call civilization” has been an integral part of her thought and work and she feels strongly that the fear and ignorance of ecological and ethnic diversity has forced many ethnic groups, and nature itself, into a long cycle of self-annihilation and re-enacted colonization.

Mutu’s art is a visual description, or portrait, of  a post traumatic stress syndrome, a primal pain, a buried pain; buried side by side with the dignified beauty of the African women who have traversed the Trail of Tears from their ancestral homeland through colonial and post-colonial oppression and now through the more subtle but equally powerful oppression of Western culture where she has been captive to a superficial concept of beauty and femininity sculpted by the mass media and driven by profit—far from her roots.  Mutu emphasizes this possibility…”the body has ways of interpreting stress and abuse into a self-destructive cycle, women in particular are constructed to behave in this way.”  Here again we attempt to answer the question: Why does this pain persist?  Lorraine Cox furthers our understanding of the question…”Mutu’s bandaged, burned and disjointed bodies metaphorically reference psychological trauma along with actual bodily violence by those who are negatively judged and victimized because of their physical marks of difference or bodily ‘imperfections’(emphasis mine),  a daily toxin of traumatic stress magnified by a societal microscope of hate and exclusion”.   Mutu is never neutral and at times she:

“offers the visual equivalent of an indictment—stacked bodies—are they hybrid…how are we to know?…they comprise the larger female figure in the collage “This You Call Call Civilization.” They are representative of Mutu’s protagonists: tribal and technological, wonderfully proud yet ceaselessly oppressed…beneath even her seemingly quiet works one senses a simmering rage that may be a metaphor for the energy within all of Mutu’s work—a certain urgency propelled by a political necessity for fairness, a perpetual struggle to amend historical, racial and social inequities. (Mutu, This You Call Civilization p.6).

WangechiMutu’s art is her text, and its underlying ideology is fluid, intentionally, to contradict the dogmatism of the cumulative ideologies of imperialism, colonialism with its slavery and racial domination, post-colonial economic domination, racism, and modern Western culture with its materialism and consumerism.  These have led the African and African–American woman into bondage.  The ideology of Mutu’s text in art reflects all of the above ideologies, as they are parts of the African and African-American woman.  These parts form a whole that is vividly expressed in her collages that visualize the parts that are often hidden from view under the glamorized view of the African-American women in the mass media.  “Mutu projects a critique which looks into the imagination and history of the female subject and portrays her body as a violent and violated construction site…the body is fragmented, cut up (parts) and reconfigured into a fantastic super being—a Hollywood African for 21’st century consumption.  She depicts a body here which will continue to absorb the abuses that have been visited upon it throughout world history.” (Mutu, This You Call Civilization. p.32).  Mutu’s underlying artistic assumptions, or more appropriately, convictions, reveal an inherent dignity, beauty and courage of the African and African-American woman that has been largely buried under the weight of centuries of repression, degradation, prejudice and more recently, the confusion, distortions and stereotypes imposed upon them by the Western mass media.

“Mutu speaks to the representation of the African body as a mythological image torn apart throughout history.  And yet to look again at her heroine is to also see an image of strength, on undying female power, which emanates from this form despite its trials of physical and psychic abuse.  Mutu makes cognitive the female subject’s essential power, which has also been her greatest liability within a patriarchal world reality”(Mutu, This You CallCivilization p.33).

The Trail of Tears is my own metaphor, which refers to the historical forced march of over 50,00 Native Americans from their homeland to an arid and distant reservation, through savage rains, floods and freezing weather in which thousands died of exposure and starvation, due to the colonialism and greed for more land by the newly formed United States and its Indian Removal Act of 1830. Similarly, African-American women, as seen through the artistic text of Wangechi Mutu, following a similar Trail of Tears through hundreds of years, now live enclosed within the arid reservation of western materialism and consumerism—enclosed through the force of remaining prejudice, misperceptions and their artificial glamorization in the mass media.


Mutu’s artistic text of assumptions and underlying competing ideologies are interpreted, understood and assimilated in her art according to the intellectual, emotional, ethical, and spiritual maturity of the viewer.  For those who remain largely trapped within their misperceptions, prejudice and dogmas, Mutu’s art will likely evoke a sense of shock and rejection at the incongruities which speak to the viewer’s subconscious of the suffering which led to these distortions of the African-American woman.  For the more attentive, mature and open hearted viewer, Mutu’s art will reveal itself as a complex assimilation of the historical elements which compose the image of woman as seen both by herself and others.  Ultimately, the artist’s creation is ineffable, a mystery which only intuition and deep understanding can penetrate.  It is as mysterious and complex as each human being is; shadowed by insecurities and filled with incongruities, searching for meaning.  Victor Frankl, prominent psychologist, survivor of the Nazi death camps, and author of Man’s  Search for Meaning, cited three answers to the search for meaning, one of which was to “create a work.” Certainly Mutu has done this through her work, both for herself and for others.  Mutu’s art, her text, is an evolution of meaning from the primal, silent, human dignity emerging from the mists of the Serengeti Plain through the degradation of colonialism and now to a distorted re-enculturation in an alien culture driven and shaped by consumerism, materialism and the media.  This evolution, both for Mutu and the world, continues, and is increasingly integrated with the element of hope—hope that nations, cultures, ideologies and individuals will come together on egalitarian and peaceful terms to heal the world.  To illustrate this concept, Mutu created The Ark Collection, composed of thirty-two postcard-sized collages that “…invoke a narrative of preservation in the midst of imminent catastrophe (like the biblical Ark) …a contemporary trans-cultural rendering that visualizes…the forged possibility of a new unity.”(Mutu. This You Call Civilization?p19)  In the clerestory window of WangechiMutu’s Brooklyn studio is a poster of Barack Obama on which the word HOPE is written– from the pre-election days of 2008.  For Mutu, whose father emigrated from Kenya because of political unrest, this hope of  “…political and social progress is a blazing light at the centre of her artistic project…resolute in her hope that civilization may yet be redeemed.”(Mutu. This You Call Civilization p.8)

Despite the varied expert opinions and interpretations by acclaimed curators of art, Mutu’s work remains, in many ways, enigmatic, and the questions this essay has posed remain, as does her art, vivid, compelling, silent, and evoking an individual response within the mind and heart of the viewer. Certainly, Mutu’s artistic analysis of culture is powerful and compelling in its visual text.

Within and beyond the art, and the artist, is five million years of human evolution that has led both to the beauty of our art and the pain of our conflicts.  We are not unlike Mutu’s text, her art—we are often an enigma to ourselves and to others, enclosed within the façade of our culture.  Gradually, with great effort and the labor of a deeper understanding, we are all unearthing our buried beauty. Albert Einstein spoke to the questions of this cultural analysis text when he stated: “A problem cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” The problems posed by Mutu’s art necessitate a transformation of consciousness in which the Other is seen as an illusion created out of our fears and our greed.  Mutu speaks of this solution to the questions posed in the introduction of this cultural analysis essay: “Camouflage and mutation are big themes in my work, but the idea that I’m most enamored with is the notion that transformation can help us transcend our predicament”

It is important for the reader to understand that the entirety of this essay is neither an analysis of WangechiMutu’s art, nor her life, nor the validity of her world-view as represented symbolically in her art.  Mutu’s art is a symbol of her thought, her emotion and her intuition, and is a fluid movement in time and space, not to be defined by words.  WangechiMutu’s art and the message contained within, explicated in part by the artist, resonates with the diversity of life and it is here that we can find common ground with the artist and her art…the shared ground of our humanity

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: