Nairobi, Kenya is a city where millions are born in this city, as like in all cities throughout the world. Wangechi Mutu is an artist born and raised in Nairobi. She creates intricate mixed media pieces of art and has done so for over 20 years to date. One of her works is a piece called ‘Riding Death in My Sleep’, which she made in 2002 using ink and collage. She has gone on to become a prominent contemporary artist, especially in the African realm of art.
In terms on context, the work that Mutu creates is a direct response to a situation she found herself in when she came to the realization of the art world. When Mutu was about to embark on her career as an artist while studying, she had the stereotypical idea of what her pending career would be like. In Rebecca Morrill’s (2015) book, Mutu states that she expected “that there was a structure that each artist could fit into, with mentors and a community” (228). Her expectations were not outlandish for her to have because of this stigma, which Mutu stated, that the art world comes with. But Mutu quickly found herself in a situation where she realized that the stigma was false, and that her expectations were high. According to Rebecca Morrill, Mutu continued to state that she concluded that she would need to create her own structure, mentorship and community. She realized that there was no one besides herself that could create the artistic career that she wanted for herself. In response to this situation, she developed her own aesthetic style to what has now become her signature style. This newfound sense of freedom liberated Mutu because she did not feel as though she needed to fit into any type of existing artistic mould, and she felt free to could dive deeper into her ideas and aesthetic style.
In terms of formal attributes, in the piece, ‘Riding Death in My Sleep’, her now core aesthetic is prominent. This core aesthetic being part-human and part-creature like figures set in a conflicting time realm, is visible in this piece. The materials include ink and collage used in this piece. She may have used these materials to introduce layers into the piece. I also feel that the use of ink and collage help play into the ideas she’s wanting to portray by having the material be the personification of the idea; complex yet simple.
In relation to the composition and how the piece of art occupies the space, there is a figure that resembles a mainstream alien which I feel has a feminine quality to it. However, I still see the figure as an ‘it’ as opposed to a ‘her’ or ‘she’ despite the femininity of it. There is a feminine quality in the figure through the full lips and seductive eyes because I see those two features as being linked to typically feminine physical features. The figure is seen squatting down on a mushroom globe, that to me appears to be situated in the middle of nowhere due to the plain beige background. There are elephant-headed flying tailed creatures, an eagle head and two insect-like creatures occupying the space of the image alongside the figure. This may be to allude to the idea of the creature being situated in an altered complex universe that opposes the world we are conditioned to.
The face of the figure is intriguing to me, it shows a light-skinned face with teasing eyes and full plump lips. I feel that the physical features represent Mutu’s play on African female physical features, being that full plump lips are particularly associated with African females. I do however, feel that this portrayal is not as transparent as I see it. I believe that because since I am an African woman myself, I can identify the homage but I feel as though those aren’t of African descent or who have no knowledge of African features will not identify the tribute. I feel that this is a weak point on the piece. However, through my recognition I still think that Mutu plays with the idea of the African female anatomy. While contradicting that, with the color of the figures face and the color palette in general. The piece is made up of an earthy toned color palette, with vibrancy and contrast which plays into the ideas the piece brings about. Which are ideas of hybridity, physical difference and the hyper-sexualization of the female body. These ideas are depicted through the figure in the piece. Hybridity is explored through the part-human and part-creature figure in its entirety. Mutu explored physical difference by having the contrasting African physical features accompanied by the contrasting skin tone and color palette.
By making the figure resemble the clichéd aesthetic of a mythical creature, I feel that Mutu is questioning features that are typically identified as being feminine. This is a significant strong feature in this piece; the idea of Mutu being able to convey her approach to questioning society so seamlessly. She is questioning me as the viewer to recognize what it is that makes me look at the figure and see femininity rather than masculinity. I view the entire piece of art as one vast question. The answers can then play out in our own individual daily lives rather than having a specific singular answer. I feel that this is how the entire piece is supposed to be viewed because Mutu has left it open to interpretation by the way the ideas are shown. The piece was originally made in 2002 but was a part of a 2013 to 2014 exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum entitled; Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey. The other pieces in the collection play into similar ideas and the formal attributes are similar. The entire collection explores difference and questions viewers. When artists like Mutu question their audience in the indirect way that she does, it makes the collection and individual pieces have more importance and relatability to current social circumstances. Despite it being made in 2002, I feel that Riding Death in my Sleep responds to current social conditions surrounding physical difference between one another. As well as addressing the way that women are viewed today which is beyond just being hyper-sexualized, it now stems deeper into the way the role women play in society is viewed and often ignored. This just shows how timeless Wangechi Mutu’s art and ideas are.
In terms of why it is that I chose this piece and that made me go “ah, this one”, the simple answer is the lips. As absurd as this might sound, the lips are what caught my attention. As I stated previously, I see the figures voluptuous lips as being Mutu’s ode to the African female’s physical features. By seeing the figure have such a distinctive African female
feature, I concluded that the figure itself is a play on an African female. What I then realized was that, Mutu is depicting an African female with no hair. Having no hair may seem irrelevant but in African culture, hair plays a significant part. Natural African textured hair is often frowned up by society outside of the African culture. But African hair, the choice of style and the empowerment it brings an African woman is inimitable. So, by Mutu creating the figure with no hair is a powerful statement about African culture that re-emphasis the power that hair plays in African culture. And in the hyper-sexualization of women through hair. This concept made me think about the representation of African females today and how Mutu’s form of representation is so important. Being an African female, I feel that there is a definitive lack in the depiction of African females in mainstream media and art. The importance of having the depiction of African females in mainstream imagery is so that there is a reference point for African females, like myself, to refer to. To provide imagery that reflects an African woman in a way that reflects our beauty and power accurately.
With Mutu being an African woman herself, she has a unique perspective that she brings to the depiction of African women. She has the visualization and awareness to create
accurate and intricate reflections. I feel that we’re shown imagery of European women regularly which means that as African women, we’re forcefully faced with this which makes us feel that we must adapt to the European standards of what a woman is and what a woman looks like. So, we change the natural texture of our hair, we become ashamed of the color of our skin, or we become embarrassed of the physical features that are specific to us. We need to see the representation to avoid the conformity and reflect the beauty instead. The way that Wangechi Mutu represents African women is in such a way that highlights our specific features but she integrates them with universal feminine features that aren’t specific to any ethnicity. Femininity is commonly inaccurately portrayed or portrayed to only a certain point showing only a limited amount of the potential it possesses. In Naomi Wolf’s (1991) book, she addresses how women are isolated. I relate this to how women are isolated in our depiction and through that our beauty is also isolated. Because I feel that we’re often only evaluated on our beauty rather than our characteristics. So by Mutu referencing not to only African female beauty, but to feminine beauty and femininity as a whole, creates a powerful feminist statement and influence. Therefore, I chose this image. Consequently, I think that as a society, considering the current state of our society, we should all choose this image.
In conclusion, Kenyan contemporary artist Wangechi Mutu creates complex pieces of work. One of them being Riding Death in My Sleep, which she created in 2002. The piece is made up of a mythical creature-like figure, perched upon a mushroom filled globe with fictional animal creatures in the frame as well. I think that everything in the piece of work was done deliberately to imply a range of ideas. Despite having created this piece 15 years ago, the ideas explored are very relevant with today’s current situations. Making Wangechi Mutu’s work timeless, among various other things, but mostly timeless.
 Morrill, Rebecca. Akademie X: Lessons in Art + Life. London; New York: Phaidon Limited, 2015. Print
 Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used against Women. 1st Anchor Books ed. New York: Anchor, 1992. Print.
Caruth, Nicole. J. “Wangechi Mutu (Kenyan, B. 1972). Riding Death in My Sleep, 2002, Ink and Collage on Paper, 60 X 44 Inches (152.4 X 111.76 cm). Collection of Peter Norton, New York.” Art21 Magazine. Art21 Magazine, 10 Jan. 2014. Web. 02 May 2017
Enright, Robert. “Resonant Surgeries: The Collaged World of Wangechi Mutu.” Border Crossings. Border Crossings, Feb. 2008. Web. 10 May 2017
Figure 1: Mutu, Wangechi. Riding Death in My Sleep. 2002, Art21 Magazine. “Wangechi Mutu (Kenyan, B. 1972). Riding Death in My Sleep, 2002, Ink and Collage on Paper, 60 X 44 Inches (152.4 X 111.76 cm). Collection of Peter Norton, New York”, by Nicole J Caruth. Web. 02 May 2017
Figure 2: Bieber, Jordie. Neighborhood Friends. 2009. Photograph. Diepkloof Ext. Soweto. Auckland Park, South Africa: Jacana Media, 2010. Print.
Figure 3: Charinda, Mohamedi. Drawing Water, Drinking Beer. 2002, enamel oil paint on canvas, British Museum, London. Angaza Afrika: African Art Now, by Chris Spring. Print.
Hooks, Bell. Art on My Mind: Visual Politics. New York: New: Distributed by W.W Norton, 1995. Print.
Ioannou, M., A. Iōannou, Kyriakidou, Christiansen, Iōannou, Maria, Kyriakidou, Maria, and Christiansen, Adrienne. Female Beauty in Art: History, Feminism, Women Artists. 1st ed. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2014. Web.
Kaitano, Chiwoniso. “The Afrofuturism of Wangechi Mutu.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 13 Nov. 2013. Web. 05 May 2017.
Morrill, Rebecca. Akademie X: Lessons in Art + Life. London; New York: Phaidon Limited, 2015. Print
“Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey.” Brooklyn Museum: Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey. Brooklyn Museum, n.d. Web. 05 May 2017
Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used against Women. 1st Anchor Books ed. New York: Anchor, 1992. Print.
Everyday we’re given tasks in our life, that we’re required to carry out. Except sometimes the task is tedious or unappealing. Not only are tasks like this, but there are pieces of art like this. There is so much art out in the world being produced at such a rapid pace, that you will come across ones that aren’t appealing. Wangechi Mutu is a Kenyan contemporary artist, whose work I genuinely appreciate. There is a piece of work by the name of Forensic Forms, 5 of 10. This piece of work was a part of a series of 10 works made in 2004 using collage and mixed media. Mutu is such a diverse and alluding artist, that her works can be interpreted in various ways, such as my interpretation of this piece of work. Due to my interpretation, it makes this piece of work challenging.
In terms of the formal attributes, the series Forensic Forms, Mutu uses collage and mixed media to create the pieces in the series. For this specific piece, which is 5 of 10, Mutu appears to be using a piece of paper which seems to be from a magazine of sorts. On the magazine paper, there is what looks to be tape all over it, to make up the background. Over the top, she places a face underneath a layer of glitter, with only the eyes and mouth being revealed. I feel that Mutu deliberately only revealed the eyes and mouth to create a narrative of sorts, of a mysterious nature. There is a strange beauty to the face though, which indicates to me that my personal perception of beauty may simple be that beauty lies within the eyes and mouth. This makes me question my perception; why is it that it is? A question that I have no answer to.
Contextually, the glitter used to cover the face, is said to represent the African illegal diamond trade and its effects according to The Saatchi Gallery. Mutu herself is of African descent. Mutu being an African woman, portraying African knowledge, whilst living in the United States, means that she faces issues that others may not ever imagine having to deal with. At the time that this piece was made, 2004, the racism issue within the United States was peaking. African women played a huge role in inspiring their minority to question and not comply to the social inequality the society was in at the time. Mutu being one of them through her art. By her referencing the African diamond trade in her work shows that she was aware of her history but also had the knowledge and insight to address such a topic in a powerful and uplifting way to her like-minded people. With Mutu being of African descent, her portrayals show more comprehension than the portrayals in popular media at the time, which just enforced stereotypes rather than reality. With the society at the time becoming more and more image driven, Mutu’s depictions and references resonated deeper with fellow Africans and African Americans due to its relatable factor for those facing the same hardships despite the Civil Rights movement. When I view this piece of work, it is hard for me to see all these things though despite being of African descent myself.
This piece of art is very difficult to discuss. Discussing its attributes and context is problematic and tedious because I don’t necessarily see a piece of art. Although its function is to be a piece of art, but I view it philosophy, as an idea and concept contained within something that is much greater than a piece of art and greater than ourselves. Therefore, it’s so challenging to discuss it as an artwork because I don’t solely see it as such. To me, this piece addresses the idea of not knowing who we are as human beings. Generally, when asked ‘who are you?’ we’re inclined to describe ourselves rather than to answer the question with transparency. I see this idea through the covering of the face with the glitter; as if the covering of the face is to reference how we tend to hide from ourselves. Even though Mutu’s intentions in covering the face was to address underlying messages relating to the racial issues at the time, I believe that she intended to create a piece of profundity; a piece to consider not just look at.
The idea that I see that Mutu is addressing is how it’s human nature to want to know the truth of this world. But one thing that we as humans find challenging, is to find out the truth about ourselves. In Osho’s book (2012), he states that “things are, but they do not know that they are” (pg. 3). I believe that us as human beings, have the intelligence to be and have the awareness to exist but we do not have the mental capability to know and understand who we are within our being. I imagine that we do not have the mental capability because our intelligence dampens our opportunity to question our being. So, before we’re even able to ask the question, we’re given answers through passed down and learnt knowledge. We then believe these answers without asking the question, making the unwanted answers our truth. By having this truth, we skip the journey towards finding the answers through the question. Instead we’re left with implanted answers and end up gathering more and more answers making the question that much more irrelevant to ask because we are under the impression that we already know the answer. Mutu’s covering of the face suggest that there is more than what meets the eye. I feel that she is challenging us to bring the question back into relevancy. The face, although covered, has an innocence to it. The way that the eyes are not directly looking at the viewer resembles a guilty child. At an institutional level, there might not be a direct link between the eyes and my ideas, but I sense that Mutu is daring us to look past the institutional illusion, and for me, to take inspiration from it to extend my initial idea. I trust that she wants us to adopt innocence back into our human nature. To do so, we must distance ourselves from the implanted answers and allow room for innocence to creep back in after being lost along with our childhood, since I see innocence as being linked to childhood. It’s human nature to shy away from innocence as we grow older but I think that there is a beauty to innocence and the vulnerability it comes with.
I realize that I may be overanalyzing the entire piece, but I may also be down playing it. I feel stimulated by this piece for that reason; Wangechi Mutu has created something, not just a piece of art, that is so open to interpretation that it’s bigger than us. It’s bigger and greater than us as an audience, to the point where we will never be full capable to understanding it because it goes beyond our mental capability as human beings.
 Gallery, Saatchi. “Wangechi Mutu.” Wangechi Mutu – Artist Profile – The Saatchi Gallery. Saatchi Gallery, n.d. Web. 10 May 2017. <hhtp://www.saatchigallery.com/artists/wangechi_mutu.htm>.
 Osho, O.I., Foundation, and Foundation, Osho International. Every Human Being Is a Seek of Truth. Osho Media International, 2012. OSHO Singles. Print.
Boston, Jonathan. Safeguarding the Future: Governing in an Uncertain World. Wellington, New Zealand: Bridget Williams Limited, 2017. Print. BWB Texts
Darder, Antonia, and Rodolfo D. Torres. After Race: Racism after Multiculturism. New York: New York UP, 2004. Print
Enright, Robert. “Resonant Surgeries: The Collaged World of Wangechi Mutu.” Border Crossings. Border Crossings, Feb. 2008. Web. 10 May 2017
Figure 1: Mutu, Wangechi. Forensic Forms 5 of 10. Digital Image. Wangechi Mutu. Wangechi Mutu, n.d. Web. 07 May 2017
Gallery, Saatchi. “Wangechi Mutu.” Wangechi Mutu – Artist Profile – The Saatchi Gallery. Saatchi Gallery, n.d. Web. 10 May 2017
Melchizedek, Drunvalo. The Ancient Secret of the Flower of Life: Volume 1. Sedona, Arizona: Light Technology, 1999. Print.
Mutu, Wangechi. Forensic Forms, 5 of 10. Digital Image. Wangechi Mutu. Wangechi Mutu, n.d. Web. 07 May 2017
Osho, O.I., Foundation, and Foundation, Osho International. Every Human Being Is a Seek of Truth. Osho Media International, 2012. OSHO Singles. Print.
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Talbot, David. The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America. New York: Hot, 2016. Print.