Identity and Femininity in Flux: An Examination of Collage Figuration by Wangechi Mutu

By: Madi Shenk ’19, a Humanities major.

The following work was created for ART 394: Women Artists.

Brief description: “This paper explores contemporary artist Wangechi Mutu’s collage works as a means of exploring female identity and cultural stereotypes. Shenk compares Mutu’s works to those of early-20th century collage artist Hannah Höch in order to extract the specific properties of collage which lend themselves to these discussions of identity and gender. Through this comparison and specific analyses of Mutu’s works, Shenk contends that Mutu’s use of collage allows her to directly manipulate iconographic forms and create commentaries on gender and cultural binaries within Western society.”


Collage works by contemporary artist Wangechi Mutu are often described as reinventions of portraiture which deconstruct and reassemble the female body into a disturbing yet sexualized figure. Through an examination of Mutu’s work, we can observe how collage functions as a malleable artistic platform for her cultural and psychological exploration, unburdened by the preconceptions that are attached to conventional physical forms. This paper examines Mutu’s use of collagic form to break with misconceptions of female identity based on binary constructions of gender. This is done through the examination of Mutu’s specific works, My Mountain, My Wind (2005) (fig. 3), Riding Death in My Sleep (2002) (fig. 4), and One Hundred Lavish Months of Bushwhack (2004) (fig. 5). In addition, this paper will address the discomfort that arises in reaction to Mutu’s implementation of discordant imagery within her works. By inserting elements of coded feminine beauty into a figure that is simultaneously alluring yet disturbing, Mutu reveals rigid representations of identity, gender, and race that are cultivated by mass media. Drawing upon existing images from pornography, fashion magazines, and ethnographic photography, her composite figures combine elements that are simultaneously grotesque and beautiful, vulgar yet sexual, forcing the viewer to question the implications that come with specific iconographic forms.  By integrating imagery of the commercialized and exoticized female figure into conflicted aesthetic representations, Mutu creates allegorical figures of femininity which exemplify a modern understanding of identity and a break from binary constructions of gender. Using collage as a form of social critique, Mutu manipulates images of women and incorporates them into her own dreamscapes, consequently subverting the viewer’s ability to visually categorize her figures. The images within her collages are altered as a result of their interactions with one another, just as the viewers who engage with the work are transformed as a result of their exposure to Mutu’s representations of the interconnectivity of life and identity.

Mutu’s awareness of the multiplicity of modern identity comes out of her own experiences as a woman and an immigrant.[i] Born in Nairobi, Kenya in 1972, Wangechi Mutu acknowledges that she grew up in a country that has been long been exoticized by Western media.[ii] After attending United World College in Wales, Mutu came to New York in the mid 1990s to pursue her passions for art and anthropology at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. Mutu went on to study sculpture in the graduate program at Yale University; however it was during this time that she began to form her relationship with collage.[iii] In an interview with Robert Enright, Mutu explains how her attempt to understand her identity as someone from Kenya residing in New York led to her experimentation with discordant visual representations of identity. [iv]

I was thinking in terms of two histories; I was moving from seeing myself as a person from Kenya in America, to seeing myself as a fusion of the two. When two ideas come together, it doesn’t always create a very logical result, it doesn’t add up to what people expect, and you can’t tell where one begins and where one ends.[v]

As Mutu considered her identities as a citizen of New York and a woman from Kenya, she came to the understanding that such a static understanding of self no longer fits into the modern global schema. In creating her collages, Mutu is not concerned with critiquing the individual sources within her work, but rather seeks to create forms that disrupt the binary labels that are embedded into Western cultures. She does this by juxtaposing figurative elements of exoticized and sexualized images of women with sickly textures and unexpected body parts. Subsequently, the viewer is reminded of desirable female stereotypes while being exposed to elements of disease and decay.

To better understand how Mutu’s collages operate as a contemporary artistic critique of visual stereotypes of femininity, we might look at a historical precedent to this practice from modern and contemporary art. Curator and art historian Richard Flood describes how collage rose to popularity in the early twentieth century with the advent of mass media and the growth of industrialization.[vi] Through its capacity to incorporate elements from popular imagery and the spaces of everyday life, such as newspapers and magazines, the contemporary medium of collage provided a release from stagnant artistic structures and a visual platform for social commentary.[vii] The malleable medium became associated with twentieth century vanguard movements such as cubism, Dadaism, and surrealism.[viii] As a result of the growth of industrialization and advancements in technology in the West, society was becoming increasingly individualistic and image-oriented. In reaction to these changes, collage offered artists a break from traditional composition and a movement away from centered authorship.

In addition to lending itself to innovations in formal artistic qualities, the emergence of collage allowed artists to comment on specific social structures by incorporating elements directly from popular media into their work. While Mutu interacts with multiple themes within her collages, her use of fragmented and sexualized female body parts directs the viewer’s focus to the spaces that women occupy in society, both historically and currently. In considering how Mutu’s work is effective in demonstrating the restrictive binaries that are associated with familiar iconographies, we may first look to the collage work of German artist Hannah Höch, a major figure of 1920s and 1930s Dada art, who made a similar effort to disrupt the viewer’s preconceived conceptions of aesthetic forms, especially those pertaining to the female body. In her study of Höch’s work, art historian Maude Lavin explains that Höch created ambiguous figures by blending stereotypes of gender and race. Höch used collage to critique culturally based notions of femininity by extracting female personages from mass media publications and reinventing them.[ix] Lavin also draws attention to Höch’s tendency to render figures using images of varying scales, disrupting the viewer’s sense of seamless and proportionate beauty.[x] This further blocks the viewer from making oversimplified assumptions about the identities of the subjects.

One example of Höch’s work that we may compare to the allegorical collage figuration of Mutu, is Deutsches Mädchen, or, German Girl, from 1930 (fig. 1). The title prompts the viewer to assign characteristics of a stereotypical German woman to the figure, which are quickly disrupted by the work itself. Höch uses a fragment of a female face with softly smiling lips, and a neck wearing a shining pearl necklace. Höch attaches a small, forward-looking eye to the left of the figure’s nose, which looks comically tiny in comparison to the other features. The figure’s other eye is from yet another source, and it is not quite clear whether it belongs to a male or female. Höch also incorporates a styled hairdo cut from a photograph of a traditional Japanese woman. The resulting figure constitutes a break from Western ideals of beauty and female portraiture. While the fragments themselves may be cut from pictures of women who represent traditional notions of femininity, the way in which Höch combines them creates a figure that is jarring in proportion and awkward in shape, revealing the arbitrariness of conventional beauty.

Another collage by Höch which supports this narrative is Fremde Schönheit, or Foreign Beauty, from 1929 (fig. 2). A photograph of a lounging female nude is suspended over a vivid background of red, orange, and blue watercolor. The body is positioned according to the viewer’s gaze, turning it into an object for visual consumption. Instead of a head, Höch attaches a gnarled mask, superimposed with a pair of eyeglasses. A set of dark squinting eyes peer out at the viewer from the round lenses. The title of the piece suggests that Höch is attempting to create a female figure that does not fit within the confines of conventional ideals of beauty. Lavin explains, “By rendering beauty strange…Höch revealed the representation of beauty as a cultural formula rather than a natural given. By combining the beautiful and the grotesque, Höch blurred the boundaries between different aesthetic categories of representations of the body.”[xi] By studying examples of Höch’s work, we can better understand how collage fits within the art historical narrative of art as cultural critique in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. In addition, examining these works allows us to discern the formal qualities of collage that disrupt our perceptions of modern society through visual fragmentation.

The properties of collage itself are highly important to the creation of the non-binary figures which Höch and Mutu portray in their works. The process of collage involves a literal fracturing and reimagining of a variety of images, which are then combined within a single work, forming a nuanced meaning as a result of their interactions with one another. In so doing, the artist dismantles the original structures of these images, as well as the ideas associated with their iconography. Schoonmaker also suggests that Mutu’s use of collage provides her with an advantage in confronting binary structures of identity related to femininity and race.[xii] Abandoning conventional modes of representation, Mutu’s work resists stereotypes and false assumptions of identity by calling attention to issues of gender norms, race, and hierarchical societal structures. [xiii] The disruption of visual forms through collage subverts those assumptions that have become attached to specific imagery within popular culture and media. As Mutu dismantles and re-appropriates images of women within her work, the resulting scene can be interpreted as a visual representation of the objectification of women’s bodies throughout history.   

One collage that I will use to examine Mutu’s subversion of portraiture specifically is My Mountain, My Wind from 2005 (fig. 3). The position of the figure is reminiscent of a typical pose used in portraiture. The figure’s upper torso faces the left side of the image field, while the head is turned three-quarters of the way towards the viewer. The face reveals a set of dark, glossy lips with massive white teeth, and two small eyes taken from different sources. The feminine features of the figure recalls images of sexualized women found in fashion editorials and pornographic magazines. Instead of airbrushed skin, Mutu engages the grotesque by using ink on Mylar to create a vibrant, splotchy surface reminiscent of decaying flesh, which she then embellishes with glitter, cut-outs of rhinestones, and various body parts. The open mouth of an ambiguous creature envelops one of her eyes; its fangs threaten to cut off her vision. A wild tuft of hair grows from the figure’s head, doubling as a tangle of tall grasses for a smaller figure to dance upon. A small orange moth pulls the viewer’s eye towards this smaller figure. The resulting composition reveals an amalgamated, yet unmistakably female figure. Art historian Eleanor Heartney calls attention to how this “strange mix of recognizably human elements in the collage only serves to emphasize the figure’s distance from conventional Western standards of beauty and femininity.”[xiv] The multiplicity of form that comes out of Mutu’s use of collage has the ability to simultaneously evoke a sense of beauty and horror, wonder and disgust.

The diversity of Mutu’s material sources accentuates this idea of multifaceted identity in her work. Her hybridized female forms do not fit into oversimplified stereotypes and restrictive classifications of gender and race. Instead, they articulate a modern global sensibility of forms that refuse to fit within a prescribed category or societal role. Mutu does this by pulling from a wide range of sources, including languid models in high-profile fashion magazines, ethnographic imagery from National Geographic, and hypersexualized female bodies from pornography. These images carry their own connotations individually, which Mutu then undermines by juxtaposing them with one another. Art historian Sarah Jane Cervenak suggests that Mutu’s refusal to define her figures’ identities creates a “fugitive field of unowning.”[xv]  The physical act of collaging involves taking images from one source, reinventing them, and pressing an entirely new meaning upon them through context and composition. However, the individual elements do not entirely conform to their new space, and instead retain their original identity while simultaneously taking part in the larger narrative of the piece, thus creating a dynamic intermingling of shapes and ideas.

Mutu deliberately uses pictures of female models from fashion magazines and pornography to acknowledge the marginalized spaces in society where women are conceived of as objects. When asked about her frequent utilization of cut-outs from pornography in her work, Mutu explained,

It’s the one place where the varieties of black-and-brown-skinned women that you find in the real world will be represented realistically…rarely will you find the body types, the skin variation and the realistic representation of women who look like me, except in the most degraded form.[xvi]  

Alternatively, the images Mutu takes from fashion magazines represent the unattainable ideal of beauty that exists in the present era of plastic surgery and supermodels.  While the sources themselves represent larger issues of sexism and racism, Mutu subverts the meanings that are attached to these images by incorporating them into her own domain.  As a result, fetishized, exotic images of women comingle with images of decay and mutilation, resulting in a figure that is simultaneously repulsive and alluring.

An example of a figure that embodies this diversity of form can be found in Mutu’s Riding Death in My Sleep (2002) (fig. 4). In this work, as Schoonmaker has suggested, Mutu subverts notions of racial identity through a careful combination of incoherent imagery.[xvii] Sitting among a small forest of mushrooms and the head of a bald eagle attached to a pair of talons, the figure poses in a hunched position which simultaneously implies sexual prowess as well as the prepared stance of an animal searching for prey. Mutu includes imagery from a variety of ethnic types in the figure’s face, creating an ambiguous racial identity. Her hair, which Schoonmaker draws attention to as a key ethnic signifier for women, has not been included; instead, we see a bald head which accentuates the face even further.[xviii] The multicolored splotches that cover her body can be interpreted as a tight, patterned jumpsuit and simultaneously as disease-ridden skin in the late stages of decay, while her heeled boots act as both a fashion statement and the furry legs of an exotic animal. The resulting figure is an allegory for femininity that deconstructs binary constructions of gender and race. The individual elements, which had originally been attached to rigid forms found in popular media, are combined into a powerful female figure who embraces her highly nuanced identity. Her gaze directly meets that of the viewer, suggesting her own self-confidence and freedom from objectification.

Mutu’s use of images of female body parts in her collages is highly important to her critique of binary notions of black female identity and femininity. In an interview with curator Lauri Firstenberg, Mutu explained the marginalization that has historically been experienced by women across cultures, which she alludes to in her work. 

Women’s bodies are particularly vulnerable to the whims of changing movements, governments, and social norms. They’re like sensitive charts—they indicate how a society feels about itself. It’s also disturbing how women attack themselves in search of a perfect image, and to assuage the imperfections that surround them.[xix]

For Mutu, collage can be used to dismantle the hierarchies under which women have been oppressed, by intervening with the iconography that represents them. Art historian Sarah Jane Cervenak writes that Mutu’s work “actively withholds, subverting the racial, sexual, and ontological hierarchies that make possible the taxonomic categories of ‘noble’ and ‘ignoble.’”[xx] This subversion is accomplished through her use of coded female body parts extracted from magazines featuring images of women that embody the objectification and over sexualization that Mutu then subverts via her compositions.  The resulting figure embodies the complex intersectionality of race and gender that exists in Mutu’s conception of the modern, dynamic woman.

Just as the individual material elements are important to Mutu’s feminist narrative, so are the overarching qualities attached to the medium of collage. Lavin explains that “the fragmented nature of photomontage can encourage…an awareness of fetishistic operations and of the viewing mechanism itself. Therefore, when montage is used astutely to represent gender, it can encourage questions in the viewer vis-à-vis the gender identities portrayed.”[xxi] In other words, the artist’s use of collage can create an inherent awareness of the viewing process. One may note the specific materials that are found in the collage and actively consider the implications that the individual images have on the identity of the subject. Within the context of works by Höch or Mutu, the use of female iconography may lead the viewer to question the relationship between gender and identity in the figure. Just as the fragmented pictures within the work are appropriated and made to conform to a specific idea, so are the women who are objectified and exposed to societal hate and exclusion around the world. In this way, Mutu’s commentary on the marginalization of women is made richer by the chaotic form of collage.

Mutu’s One Hundred Lavish Months of Bushwhack (2004) embodies the contrasting formal qualities which arouse such apprehension in her viewers (fig. 5). The piece depicts a female body that is simultaneously beautiful yet violent in nature. Standing among a jumble of tall grasses, one foot wears a black leather stiletto while the other explodes into a mess of motorcycle parts and red paint resembling blood. Her mottled torso is enveloped by a grass skirt that can also be interpreted as being made of snakes. The face features a set of delicate pink lips and two small eyes, which look to the left of the composition. Splattered red paint sprays from a point on the figure’s head, intermingling with another fragment of a motorcycle. While a few of the figure’s features are taken from female sources, there is little to suggest a designated gender apart from one foot and a pair of pink lips. The rest of the form is made up of decaying skin and the disembodied fragments of animals and motorcycles. The result is a figure to which viewers are unable to assign a stagnant label. This anxiety that the viewer feels as a result of Mutu’s incongruent composition plays a role itself in the narrative of the work. In a contemporary society which encourages certainty, this leaves the viewer feeling largely uncomfortable and grasping for a definitive meaning.

Over the last century, the medium of collage has emerged as a means of taking control of artistic forms and reimagining their connotations in response to societal fractures. By looking at the work of Hannah Höch we can confirm that collage has historically served as a vehicle for commentary on the harmful effects of binary stereotypes. Through the combination of simultaneously intriguing and repulsive imagery within her amalgamated figures, Mutu presents an alternative, multifaceted conception of female identity as it exists without the burden of oversimplified categorizations. The resulting figure, as art historian Jordan Kantor suggests, acts as a model of the modern interconnectivity that has emerged as the world has become more globalized. “These unstable, or mobile, points of reference in Mutu’s work bespeak the multitude of positions that exemplify not only the artists own truly global biography, but also the ever-shifting ground of postmodern media-culture.”[xxiv] Mutu’s collage figurations serve as a fantastical representation of this modern way of understanding the world around us, as well as a non-restrictive composition in which the subject is not defined by its beholder.   

Endnotes

[i] Wangechi Mutu, interview by Robert Enright, “Resonant Surgeries: The Collaged World of Wangechi Mutu,” published in Border Crossings, vol. 27, no. 1 (February, 2008), 32.

[ii] Lauri Firstenberg, “Perverse Anthropology: The Photomontage of Wangechi Mutu,” in Looking Both Ways: Art of the Contemporary African Diaspora, edited by Laurie Anne Farrell (Gent, Belgium: Snoeck, 2003), 141.

[iii] Wangechi Mutu, interview by Robert Enright, “Resonant Surgeries: The Collaged World of Wangechi Mutu,” published in Border Crossings, vol. 27, no. 1 (February, 2008), 30.

[iv] Wangechi Mutu, interview by Robert Enright, “Resonant Surgeries: The Collaged World of Wangechi Mutu,” published in Border Crossings, vol. 27, no. 1 (February, 2008), 32.

[v] Wangechi Mutu, interview by Robert Enright, “Resonant Surgeries: The Collaged World of Wangechi Mutu,” published in Border Crossings, vol. 27, no. 1 (February, 2008), 32.

[vi] Richard Flood, “Tear Me Apart, One Letter at a Time” in Collage: The unMonumental Picture, by Lisa Phillips, Richard Flood, Laura Hoptman, and Massimiliano Gioni (New York, NY: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 2007), 8.

[vii] Richard Flood, “Tear Me Apart, One Letter at a Time” in Collage: The unMonumental Picture, by Lisa Phillips, Richard Flood, Laura Hoptman, and Massimiliano Gioni (New York, NY: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 2007), 8.

[viii] Richard Flood, “Tear Me Apart, One Letter at a Time” in Collage: The unMonumental Picture, by Lisa Phillips, Richard Flood, Laura Hoptman, and Massimiliano Gioni (New York, NY: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 2007), 8.

[ix] Maude Lavin, Cut with the Kitchen Knife: The Weimar Photomontages of Hannah Höch (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 153.

[x] Maude Lavin, Cut with the Kitchen Knife: The Weimar Photomontages of Hannah Höch (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 128.

[xi] Maude Lavin, Cut with the Kitchen Knife: The Weimar Photomontages of Hannah Höch (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 166.

[xii] Trevor Schoonmaker, “A Fantastic Journey,” Introduction to Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey, Edited by Trevor Schoonmaker (Durham, NC: Duke University, 2013), 21.

[xiii] Trevor Schoonmaker, “A Fantastic Journey,” Introduction to Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey, Edited by Trevor Schoonmaker (Durham, NC: Duke University, 2013), 21.

[xiv] Eleanor Heartney, “Art & Deformation: Celebrating Human Imperfection.” In Art & Today (London: Phaidon, 2008). 197.

[xv] Sarah Jane Cervenak, “Like Blood or Blossom: Wangechi Mutu’s Resistant Harvests,” in Feminist Studies vol. 42, no. 2 (2016), 397.

[xvi] Wangechi Mutu, interview by Robert Enright, “Resonant Surgeries: The Collaged World of Wangechi Mutu,” in Border Crossings, vol. 27, no. 1 (February, 2008), 40.

[xvii] Trevor Schoonmaker, “Collage as Repair,” In Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey, edited by Trevor Schoonmaker (Durham, NC: Duke University, 2013), 26.

[xviii] Trevor Schoonmaker, “Collage as Repair,” In Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey, edited by Trevor Schoonmaker (Durham, NC: Duke University, 2013), 26.

[xix] Lauri Firstenberg, “Perverse Anthropology: The Photomontage of Wangechi Mutu,” in Looking Both Ways: Art of the Contemporary African Diaspora, edited by Laurie Anne Farrell (Gent, Belgium: Snoeck, 2003), 141.

[xx] Sarah Jane Cervenak, “Like Blood or Blossom: Wangechi Mutu’s Resistant Harvests,” published in Feminist Studies vol. 42, no. 2 (2016), 420.

[xxi] Maude Lavin, Cut with the Kitchen Knife: The Weimar Photomontages of Hannah Höch (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 204.

[xxii] Kirsten Stiles, “Wangechi Mutu’s Family Tree,” in Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey, edited by Trevor Schoonmaker (Durham, NC: Suke University, 2013), 69.

[xxiii] Kirsten Stiles, “Wangechi Mutu’s Family Tree,” in Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey, edited by Trevor Schoonmaker (Durham, NC: Suke University, 2013), 69.

[xxiv] Jordan Kantor, “Wangechi Mutu,” in Vitamin D: New Perspectives in Drawing (London: Phaidon, 2005), 214.

Figures

Fig. 1.  Hannah Höch. Deutsches Mädchen (German Girl), 1930. Photomontage. 20.5 x 10.5cm. Image source: ARTstor Slide Gallery: http://libraryres.washcoll.edu:2154/asset/ARTSTOR_103_41822000661239

Fig. 2.  Hannah Höch. Fremde Schönheit (Foreign Beauty), 1929. Photomontage with watercolor. 11.3 x 20.3 cm. From the series From an Ethnographic Museum.

Image source: ARTstor Slide Gallery: http://libraryres.washcoll.edu:2154/asset/ARTSTOR_103_41822003045406

Fig. 3.  Wangechi Mutu. My Mountain, My Wind, 2005. Ink, acrylic, collage, and contact paper on Mular. 37 x 28 in. Image Source: Eleanor Heartney, “Art & Deformation: Celebrating Human Imperfection.” In Art & Today. (London: Phaidon, 2008), 199.

Fig. 4.  Wangechi Mutu. Riding Death in My Sleep, 2002. Ink and collage on paper. 60 x 44 in. Collection: Wangechi Mutu. Image Source: Artstor Digital Library: http://libraryres.washcoll.edu:2154/#/asset/AWSS35953_35953_24034647

Fig. 5.  Wangechi Mutu. One Hundred Lavish Months of Bushwhack, 2004. Cut-and-pasted printed paper with watercolor, synthetic polymer paint, and pressure-sensitive stickers on transparentized paper. 68.5 x 42 inches.

Collection: The Museum of Modern Art. Image source: Artstor Digital Library: http://libraryres.washcoll.edu:2154/asset/AWSS35953_35953_30226852


Madi Shenk is a Chestertown-native and Washington College senior, majoring in Humanities and minoring in Studio Art. Madi is an intern at the Kohl Gallery and art editor for The Collegian.  She plans to pursue a career in arts administration and curation following graduation, and also hopes to continue her studies of 20th century and contemporary art history.

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