Wangechi Mutu: I Am Speaking, Are You Listening? @ Legion of Honor, San Francisco
Above a promontory locally known as Land’s End, sits the neoclassical Legion of Honor. On a gray, overcast day, it’s veiled in a foreboding foggy bottom fantasy. On a startlingly clear, sunny day, from its wide steps, it beams the spectacle of the Golden Gate Bridge, uniting the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay. Rodin’s The Thinker lords over the atrium entrance, pondering and carrying the weight of the world. But we all know it’s not just Lords doing the heavy lifting.
When acclaimed artist Wangechi Mutu came to town, and in her exhibition, I am Speaking, Are you Listening?, she urges The Thinker to peer through the mist, pay attention and engage. Engage before there are more victims like the pair of bodies who have joined him on either side, two Shavasana sculptures memorializing Nia Long, murdered on a BART Train. The two victims lay covered and supine, their bright, varnished nails and especially, their colorful stilettos, bold and poignant reminders of lives snuffed out. But steps away in the courtyard, presaging hope, are two glorious avenging angels, bronze hybrids in the form of Mama Ray and Crocodylus, whose collective strength offers courageous hope at the entrance to this artistic journey. Wangechi Mutu: I Am Speaking, Are You Listening?, a site-specific show opens this week, transforming San Francisco’s Legion of Honor into an earthy, mythical, and provocative landscape of history and hope.
Inside the entrance, Water Woman greets us, a smooth shining creature, both organic Natural Woman and mesmerizing mermaid. Despite the confines of the museum, she looks out to the ocean, exquisitely challenging her surroundings, as well as the oceanic expanse before her. Strong and beautiful from every aspect, Mutu graces her with a suppleness that gives new meaning to backbones! In the title piece, two faces formed from red soil and paper pulp, engaged in dialogue. Their ears replaced by shells, their skin mottled in allusion to scarification, the conversation is both ancient and ongoing, reinforced by surrounding pieces from the Legion’s permanent collection. In Mirror Faced, Mutu speculates on communication and vision, how we see ourselves and others. Again, soil, pulp, and beads emphasize the primal, common forms that can both separate and unite us. In Dreamcatcher, Mutu has modulated the soil with her thumbs and creates an uplifting aspiration for hope in the beautiful, crystallized crown, in her words, creating a “journey of hope.”
Leading into My Cave Call, in the nave of the museum’s main Rodin gallery, large strands of beads, Prayers, provide a provocative entrance into the Mutu’s new film, where the artists herself celebrates Earth, Creation, Women, Healing-Life -within the Suswa Cave in Kenya’s Rift Valley.
Wangechi Mutu was born in Nairobi, received her MFA from Yale University and now, once again, resides in Kenya. She achieved notoriety with her dramatic collage work, which is displayed in this show, and has embraced sculpture, which she explains has “given a way of working from representational abstraction” and a tactility that “has a different kind of humanity, or worth … that brought me back to my love of what beauty really means.” —Gwynned Vitello