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Wangechi Mutu: This You Call Civilization?

Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto Feb 24 to May 23 2010
Wangechi Mutu  <I>Sleeping Heads 4 of 8</I>  2006  Courtesy the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co
Wangechi Mutu Sleeping Heads 4 of 8 2006 Courtesy the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co

Wangechi Mutu Sleeping Heads 4 of 8 2006 Courtesy the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co



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In her first solo show in a major North American institution, the Nairobi-born, New York–based artist Wangechi Mutu presents a collection of arresting videos and visceral, large-scale collage works that manages to rival the cinematic drama and blockbuster sheen of the Art Gallery of Ontario’s concurrent “King Tut” exhibition. Provocatively titled “This You Call Civilization?,” Mutu’s work takes on a nexus of complicated themes—including race, consumerism, body image, gender and the lasting effects of colonialism—through a hybrid practice that combines images from fashion magazines and biology textbooks with soil, sequins, pearls and watercolours in a startling array of configurations.

While some have found the results overly gruesome, Mutu’s works are not without their literal and figurative bright spots. Her ferocious female protagonists, often cobbled together from animal, human and machine parts, meet the viewer’s gaze with equal parts seduction and cruelty—they compel us to take second and third glances. Dense layers of sparkly, feathery materials laid onto works such as Pearl Teeth draw us in close, if only to repel with a provocative truncation of limbs and defacing of portraits. The dramatic installation of the series Sleeping Heads reinforces this paradoxical effect of attraction and repulsion by presenting the eight framed heads on a sky-blue “wounded wall,” punctuated at regular intervals by eerily life-like sores.

Though her large-scale, intricately wrought works are the show’s main draw, Mutu, who was recently awarded Deutsche Bank’s inaugural Artist of the Year prize, is at her best in series where a rapid accumulation of images mirrors the artist’s critique of the effects of mass-media image bombardment. The Ark Collection, for instance, comprises four vitrines displaying altered postcards that combine pornographic images with exotic views of women from the glossy pages of a National Geographic–type periodical. Though many of the scenes are difficult to look at, Mutu’s collages serve as potent reminders of the ways that supposedly outmoded representations of women continue to shape our cultural imagination today. (317 Dundas St W, Toronto ON)

This article was first published online on March 18, 2010.

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