Feminism & Collage: Wangechi Mutu

Over the past few months, developing a solid artistic technique and style have been personal goals of mine.  One of  my latest "turns" has involved using the early 20th century technique known as collage.  Although the process, which literally means "to glue," is a hallmark of the modern art movement, its early forms in Art History are most often associated with Cubism, and with its primary figures--Pablo Picasso or Georges Braque.

Recently, a new friend suggested I check out the collage work of Wangechi Mutu.  Originally born in Kenya and currently working in New York, Mutu's work expresses a regal approach to collage and distills the many nuances of identity as we understand it.  As soon as I saw her work, I was reminded of Hannah Hoch's work and the concept of a "cultural self-portrait." Most of her subjects are female, and she has been quoted as saying "Females carry the marks, language and nuances of their culture more than the male. Anything that is desired or despised is always placed on the female body."

Wangechi Mutu. Adult Female Sexual Organs. 2005. Image courtesy of Saatchi Gallery Online.
What I admired about this piece from Wangechi Mutu, Adult Female Sexual Organs, is that it is a reexamination of imagery in pop culture while at the same time calling up early "modern" imagery that distorted race, sexual, and values in the public realm.  In fact, the image above is a multimedia collage that was superimposed upon medical illustration paper.  What does that suggest as a point of departure?

A lot. Especially when the connection is made to African culture. Does anyone recall the unfortunately recent repatriation of the bodily remains of Sarah Baartman, better known as the colonialist oddity, "Hottentot Venus"?

These early pseudoscientific documents prescribed animalistic features or drives to women of color. They were accepted as guidelines for understanding unfamiliar body types, skin color, and whole cultures. Many of the stereotypes still influence popular belief systems, and are actively informing social interactions.

Contemporary artists before Mutu have examined this idea, and have taken on a performance-based approach to dispelling the absolutist beliefs about womens' identities. From Carrie Mae Weems to Grace Jones, there is much to discuss and see about this complex visual history.

Each of these artists have placed themselves in the role of subject and creator, which erases the monolithic and omniscient quality of early racialized imagery.  Jones used androgyny and cyborgian chic to question the "uncivilized" image of African culture, and I think that Mutu's Uterine Catarrh mirrors this form of cultural critique.

Wangechi Mutu. Uterine Catarrh. 2004. Image courtesy of Saatchi Gallery Online.
“There's this constant movement towards historicising Africa, turning it into this archaic place.” Wangechi Mutu explains in Saatchi Gallery's profile of her. "Part of my challenge…is to envision, not so much blackness as a race, but the existence of African elements in culture in the future and how is that possible.” The figure in Mutu’s Uterine Catarrh is both shaman and cyborg.

Watch this video for "Demolition Man" and consider how Mutu's Uterine Catarrh utilizes collage as a cultural pastiche--what are the "opposities" or "realities" that are being momentarily suspended and altered?  What does Weems' work do regarding the image of the woman in Art History? What genre is she updating?

Please add any artists that you can think of, whom are questioning and elaborating upon popular notions of identity about women. I am particularly interested in researching Latina women who may be good examples of these techniques and subject matter. Any suggestions?