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.
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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.
NOW ON VIEW—For the first time in 117 years, the niches on the facade of The Met Fifth Avenue display sculptures, as they were originally intended.— The Met (@metmuseum) September 9, 2019
Wangechi Mutu’s “The NewOnes, will free Us” inaugurates a new annual artist commission series. #MetWangechiMutu #MetFacade pic.twitter.com/r7z9fkWvGd
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
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.
On view through January 12, 2020, Mutu’s four bronze sculptures, each individually entitled “The Seated I, II, III, and IV,” engage in a critique of gender and racial politics that is as pointed as it is poetic and fantastic. #MetFacade #MetWangechiMutu https://t.co/nJbTtAdNsZ pic.twitter.com/n3kSdZk8PR— The Met (@metmuseum) September 9, 2019
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
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.
“Here, the caryatids have been liberated from their supporting role: these magnificent, commanding figures assert their power and independence, and directly engage with all who visit the Museum.” —Max Hollein, Director of The Met #MetFacade #MetWangechiMutu pic.twitter.com/od72FPtD4c— The Met (@metmuseum) September 9, 2019
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.