Creating a critically-charged dialog with a historical museum collection has now become a matter of necessity, due to the fact that the majority of those holdings are a result of Western colonial and white-centric yearnings. Whether exposed to a curatorial or artistic reinterpretation, a collection can unravel hidden narratives that tell much about our current state of affairs in terms of race and gender.
For that reason, the Kenyan-American artist Wangechi Mutu was invited for a solo exhibition as a reaction to the collection of the Legion of Honor, part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Known for a multidisciplinary practice rooted in feminist agenda with the specific focus on the representation of Black women and the general investigations of gender, race, and colonialism, Mutu is an exceptional choice and someone capable to work with the given context.
Under the title I Am Speaking, Are You Listening?, Legion of Honor will host the artist’s new and recently commissioned sculptures, collage, and film.
The upcoming exhibition curated by Claudia Schmuckli tends to critically question the permanent collection with a special take on the neoclassical architecture of the Legion of Honor, a museum that holds the masterpieces of European art history led by Auguste Rodin's The Thinker. It will spread through the entire first floor of the museum, with an array of oddities created by Wangechi Mutu for the occasion, such as hybrid beings and fantastical landscapes to disrupt and dismantle art historical and mythological canons.
Alongside five bronzes, the artist will also present sculptures made of natural materials (trees, soil, ash, and animals) and reminiscent of traditional African craftsmanship techniques used in the making of battle shields, sculpture, ornaments, and protective talismans.
The director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Thomas P. Campbell, briefly underlined the importance of this exhibition in the following statement:
Wangechi Mutu’s powerful voice, urging us to reassess colonial legacies and societal power structures, will ring out loud to Bay Area audiences at the Legion of Honor. This important new installation in the Fine Arts Museums’ contemporary art program will remind us of the potential of art to challenge outdated narratives and uncover underlying truths.
Four out of mentioned five bronzes will join The Thinker in the museum’s outside atrium; two Shavasana sculptures featuring limp, veiled bodies with brightly colored stilettos and polished nails will reflect the violence and bloodshed of colonial conquests and indicate the shameful context of art history of the Western world, while the other two newly commissioned works Mama Ray and Crocodylus featuring part animal, part woman goddesses will act as powerful gatekeepers welcoming visitors to the artist’s narrative.
The galleries inside will include sculptures like Mirror Faced, Outstretched, I am Speaking, Can you hear me?, and Sentinel IV that call the viewer to think of the possible worlds marked by care, understanding, and protection of both humans and the planet.
Last but not least will be Mutu’s new film called My Cave Call that tells a story of a horned mythical creature (performed by the artist) eager to receive wisdom from the bowels of the Suswa Cave, a holy cave in the Rift Valley of Kenya.
Wangechi Mutu: I Am Speaking, Are You Listening? will be on display at Legion of Honor, part of the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco from May 1 to November 7, 2021. This exhibition is organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
Featured image: Wangechi Mutu - Shavasana II, 2019. Bronze, 84 x 59 x 10 in. Edition of 3. Courtesy of the Artist and Gladstone Gallery. All images courtesy the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.