Kenyan woman makes history at New York Met museum with her bronze sculptures of regal African women

Theodora Aidoo September 27, 2019
Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu. Pic Credit: The Met/Twitter

The American Metropolitan Museum of Art’s facade intended to house free-standing sculptures was designed by Richard Morris Hunt and completed in 1902.

117 years later, this intention has been fulfilled by Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu with an installation dubbed, “The NewOnes, will free Us.”

Located in New York City and popularly known as “the Met”, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is the largest art museum in the United States and the third most visited art museum in the world.

Over the years, the museum’s collection has grown to represent more than 5,000 years of art from across the globe, thanks to the efforts of generations of curators, researchers, and collectors.

Despite its ample space and vast collection, the museum has done nothing with its historic façade which has stood empty for 117 years.

“We have a collection of such wonderful scope and size that we are always looking to make the most out of every nook and cranny of our over two-million-square-foot building. Yet, amazingly, we haven’t used the facade to display art beyond the sculptural elements that currently exist on the exterior”, Met Director, Max Hollein, said in a release.

This September, the museum unveiled four bronze sculptures by Nairobi-born and Brooklyn-based artist Wangechi Mutu for the building’s exterior fronting Fifth Avenue.

The work is the first of The Met’s annual commissions “intended to not only enliven the structure’s historic Beaux Arts exterior but to affirm the museum’s commitment to showcasing a more contemporary and diverse repertoire,” reports The Architect’s Newspaper.

Mutu’s sculptures are individually titled The Seated I, II, III, and IV (2019). She is the first artist to inaugurate the collection and honour the Met’s invitation.

Mutu was born and raised in Nairobi before she moved to the United States where she received her BFA from Cooper Union in 1996, and subsequently her MFA in sculpture from Yale University in 2000.

Apart from sculpture, she creates paintings and collages that integrate a range of themes, from femininity, violence, consumerism and excess to the rift between nature and materials.

Describing her sculptures, the museum noted that “Simultaneously celestial and humanoid, each sculpture is unique, with individualized hands, facial features, ornamentation, and patination. Mutu’s embellishments take a great deal of inspiration from customs practiced by specific groups of high-ranking African women…”

According to Mutu, “The poised, stately figures I have created for The Met facade derive inspiration from my interest in ancient and modern practices that reflect on the relationship between women and power across various traditions, including the weighty symbols and adornments worn within certain African traditions as well as the cumbersome burdens of ornately clad caryatids.”

“I look at the contradictory aspects of such human expressions, in which women are respected for their strength, resilience, and wisdom and yet suffer for it, too. Often the wealthier the women, the higher their status, the heavier and more enormous the marks and objects they carry.

“These insignia in The Seated, belonging to no one place or time, become dimension-bending tools and time-traveling mechanisms. The mirrorlike disks are instruments that trigger reflection and beckon futures in which there is hope for decency and empathy, and triumph over inequality and prejudice,” Mutu added.

The Met said “Mutu’s sculptures reference the canonical figure of the caryatid, a prevalent theme in both classical and African Art. Whereas the caryatid has traditionally been a sculpted female form acting as structural support or embellishment, Mutu has brought her own mediation on the trope. Instead, her sculptures carry their own weight and emanate autonomy and regality.

The sculptures represent four seated or kneeling figures with reflective golden disks (configured as a coiffure in one instance), bearing down on a head or covering a mouth and eyes in others.

These disks show both a weighty burden, as well as, a display of status and nobility inspired by the traditional dress of African women.

In a statement about the inaugural commission, Met’s director, Max Hollein said: “What I am most grateful to Wangechi Mutu for is how this grand, temporary installation enables the Museum to continue our momentum on the important path of rethinking what an encyclopedic museum can and should provide, and how it can engage with the important notion of contemporaneity in a meaningful way.”

Mutu’s sculptures will be on-view on Fifth Avenue until January 12, 2020.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: September 27, 2019


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