Wangechi Mutu and the revelation of inequities
Marcus Field discovers a work at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, acquired with Art Fund support, that raises questions about colonialism, race and gender.
Made in 2004-05, Wangechi Mutu’s Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tumors comprises 12 individually framed collages, the number referencing the months of a pin-up calendar. Each collage takes the form of a fantastical portrait, with the composite eyes, nose and mouth torn from magazine photographs. The features and hair of Black women appear in most of the images.
Only on closer inspection does it become clear that the collages are in fact made on the loose pages of a 19th-century medical folio illustrating conditions of the uterus. Titles such as Uterine Catarrh and Cervical Hypertrophy can be read at the top of each portrait. For Mutu, these stark diagrams of female disease suggest a colonial system of categorisation and control, one which is accentuated by several appearances of a speculum opening up the body for examination. The work can be seen in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art's (SNGMA) current exhibition ‘New Arrivals: From Salvador Dalí to Jenny Saville’.
By using materials such as glitter, fur and found images to interrogate and disrupt these documents, Mutu draws attention to issues of female commodification and eroticisation. ‘The interplay in my work of repugnant and seductive aspects renders approachable, tactile and highly visible inequities in gender and in medical research — things we might otherwise avoid or ignore,’ she has said. One of the collages, Ovarian Cysts, features a particularly disturbing photograph of a white male anthropologist studying a collection of skulls.
Over the past two decades, Mutu, who was born in Nairobi, in Kenya, in 1972, has established a reputation as a pioneer of Afrofuturism, the cultural movement that explores the experiences of the African diaspora through science fiction and fantasy. Her practice is informed by her past studies in fine art and anthropology in New York, and an MFA at Yale University School of Art. She now lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Mutu has worked in collage for many years, originally in part due to a lack of resources and the easy availability of materials cut from magazines. Journals such as National Geographic have been a particular focus for the artist, who had long questioned why African people are so often represented as tribal and exotic while her own reality was of sitting in her suburban home in Nairobi watching television. ‘I go to these magazines for material and doing that allows me to critique them by breaking them apart and kind of vandalising and dissecting them,’ she has previously said. ‘I pull apart their structure, literally and physically and conceptually, and then reinterpret it for my own purposes and my own interests.’
Soon after Mutu completed the series, Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tumors was bought by Charles Saatchi, and later featured in the 2006 Royal Academy exhibition ‘USA Today: New American Art from the Saatchi Gallery’. The collector sold it at auction in 2014. SNGMA traced the work too late to include it in the 2019 exhibition ‘Cut and Paste: 400 Years of Collage’, but its eventual discovery in the hands of a London commercial gallery led to its acquisition. Previously, Tate’s You were always on my mind (2007) was the only work by the artist held in a British public collection.
Like many other UK museums and galleries, over the course of the past year SNGMA has been reviewing the diversity of its collections, particularly in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. While it was found that male artists of colour were well represented, the process highlighted an underrepresentation of female artists of colour, which the acquisition of Mutu’s work now helps to address.
Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tumors also makes an important addition to SNGMA’s world-class collection of collage, which includes work by Pablo Picasso, Man Ray and Hannah Höch – an artist particularly admired by Mutu. Its status as a major work is supported by the fact that at least two museums in the United States now hold digital inkjet reproductions of this original, printed in an edition of 25 in 2006.
Other recent additions to SNGMA’s collection that will be on display in the exhibition ‘New Arrivals’ are works by Leonora Carrington, Salvador Dalí, Dorothea Tanning and Toyen, all of which were acquired by the museum with support from Art Fund.
A version of this article first appeared in the autumn 2021 issue of Art Quarterly, the magazine of Art Fund.
‘New Arrivals: From Salvador Dalí to Jenny Saville’, will be on at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, from 28 November. Free to all, 50% off paid exhibitions with National Art Pass.