Wangechi Mutu “can go deep without ever abandoning the surface,” said Ariella Budick in the Financial Times. Since the mid-1990s, the Kenyan-born artist, now 41, has specialized in ornate figurative collages that together mount a dazzling assault on the fetishization of Africa and its women. Mutu culls heads and limbs from medical illustrations, wildlife journals, fashion magazines, and pornography, then “pastes them together into cackling, coiling banshees,” each with the grotesque air of a George Grosz portrait and the “lush, brilliant” colors of a Romare Bearden collage. “These are powerful influences,” yet Mutu “never stoops to mimicry or secondhand inspiration.” Her work also transcends politics, or at least wraps political rage “in skeins of glorious decoration.”
The Mutu show at the Brooklyn Museum “gets right down to business,” said Holland Cotter in The New York Times. Riding Death in My Sleep (2002), a large collage assembled from cut paper, paint, and ink, depicts a female figure with a shorn white head, thick red lips, and a black body adorned in raffia. “Bejeweled, reptilian, and diseased,” her skin itself scrambles stereotypes. Scores of her surreal kin follow: “intensely aestheticized cyborgs, bodies that won’t stand still, won’t be pinned down.” Occasionally, Mutu references real, specific people. Yo Mama, from 2003, was inspired by Nigerian activist Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. “Here, she is symbolically depicted as the biblical Eve taking charge of her fate, decapitating a serpent and reclaiming her right to paradise.” In their ethics as in everything else, “Mutu’s women are ambiguous, and rarely benign.”
Though Mutu often reworks the same themes, “her work is far from stagnant,” said Chiwoniso Kaitano in The Guardian (U.K.). In recent years, she’s produced strong work in video. In 2012’s “terrifying but mesmerizing” Eat Cake, she’s featured as a witch-doctor-like figure. In The End of Eating Everything (2013), singer-songwriter Santigold has slithering, Medusa-style hair and shows a voracious appetite as she floats across the screen. It’s a shame that more of Mutu’s non-collage work didn’t make it into the show. Then again, the artist clearly has many more tricks up her sleeve, so it would be premature to call any survey of her work complete. “The well from which her inspiration springs is deep.” It appears likely to keep flowing.