Today sees the opening of a great new retrospective exhibition of the works of Wangechi Mutu at the Wiels Centre of Contemporary Art. The exhibition is a wonderful array of installation, painting, collage and video, which together represent Mutu’s incredible perception of the world around her. Born in Kenya and currently based in New York, Wangechi Mutu offers a distinctive view of the world.

Words Renasha Khan

Mutu, Intertwined

Mutu, Intertwined, 2008

Surrealism characterises this exhibition in which painted female forms coagulate organically with magazine cutouts of motorcycle parts and animal heads. On my first viewing much of the work was quietly shocking with its overt female sexuality, embodied in the images of splay-legged figures, collaged breasts, full lips and glazed eyes. This all lends to the idea of female sexual power, but at once, we are also invited to consider the frailty of this apparent power to exploitation with the vivid distortion of these feminine forms. I went back the same evening to see if the work had the same effect. On second look, much of the art seemed more beautiful, losing the shock the random and eclectic collage pieces and magazine cutouts had had on initial inspection. Now, all that struck me was the beautiful array of colours, shapes and figures highlighted by the use glitter and accenting the surreal and dreamlike quality of much of the work.

Mutu, The Bride who married a Camel's Head, 2009

Mutu, The Bride who married a Camel's Head, 2009

The installations traverse the shanty towns and slums of Cape Town, Rio with their makeshift environment of improvised shacks made from leftover building materials and plastic refuse to the clinical with nascent consumerism in Mutu’s own experiences of post-1990 Berlin. With this broad context Mutu tackles issues of needless waste and pervasive commoditisation with images of glamour, glossy magazine cutouts and other more mundane materials such as refuse sacks, felt and twine. Mutu uses these materials and media, which extend outside what the artist describes as the ‘White Cube’ of western modern art, without making her African heritage the basis of her work. Instead much of the exhibition speaks of alienation and transience of people in the modern age and the residual dilution of cultural identity rooted, traditionally, in historic and nationalistic and even racial constructs.

Wangechi Mutu, the artist in her studio

Wangechi Mutu, the artist in her studio

As Deutsche Bank’s Artist of the Year, Mutu has created in My Dirty Little Heaven something more than a retrospective, something special, which has the power to comfort, excite and at times, disturb. Go see it at Wiel’s Centre for Contemporary Art from 25th June to 12th September 2010.