I have always had a thing for paintings, even though I cannot for the life of me, name any surrealists or tell you anything about Jackson Pollock. I, however, am perpetually fascinated by how artists as the ‘seers’ of a society document cultural events and transitions. Coupled with my new-found obsession for all things Afrofuturistic, I have been exploring contemporary expressions that depict a futuristic African society that consists of a transfusion of African traditional philosophies into our current reality. I found this in Wangechi Mutu’s art.
One of my favourite paintings, The Bride who married the Camel Head, is especially outstanding. Its aesthetic quality only adds to the already profound meaning it conveys. The fun part is, It’s not just the painting itself but also the method with which she chose to articulate her expression that struck me as quite symbolic, I’ll get to that in a bit, first lets dig into the piece.
The painting is of what appears to be a human being, somewhat androgynous, sat on an earthy surface with surrounding vegetation. It features plants, leaves and flowers mostly on the head and face, and subsequently scattered on the arm, waist and lower abdomen down the pelvic area. You can also spot some snake-like animals which emanate from or are part of the plants on the head. The ‘being’ sits calmly holding what looks like a set of gums, gushing out blood. From the onset, I picked up on the resounding fixation on the theme of oneness and connectivity as everything in the painting is intertwined, overlapping and conjoined. It’s hard to tell where one thing begins and the other ends.
Let’s take the androgyny of the ‘being’ for instance; here Mutu expresses the idea of wholeness. She implores us to imagine one human body, and to disregard the conventional binary thinking that would have us differentiate and draw lines between the Male and the Female. This is important in a world where difference has been used negatively as a basis for prejudice and hierarchical relations consequently breeding a world of inequalities. Needless to say latter goes hand in hand with oppressive and tyrannical systems, case in point, Capitalism.
Mutu also depicts a close proximity and eventual intertwining of the ‘being’ in the painting and its environment. One notices that the vegetation and snake-like creatures not only surround the ‘being’ but they also fuse together to form one body. In a sense, this echoes Wangari Maathai’s philosophy on the links between us and our natural world. In her memoir, ‘Unbowed’, Wangari talks about the deep bond between man and nature that was exhibited in traditional African societies. She specifically alludes to the Mugumo (Fig) tree and its sacred place in her community when she was a child. People used to say that it’s a tree of God, so they didn’t pick fire wood out of or around it. She later learned of the connection between the fig tree’s root system and their ability to facilitate the formation of water bodies such as streams and lakes, as well as to prevent soil erosion. She writes;
In such ways, without conscious or deliberate effort, these cultural and spiritual practices contributed to the conservation of biodiversity (2006:46).
This link between the spiritual and the physical brings us to a critical point of introspection. The sitting ‘human form’ possesses a smooth, brass/metallic bracelet encasing its forearm down to the elbow, holding that set of gums jutting out blood, even the ‘being’ remains whole. In my view Mutu, appeals to our sense of duty to cut out those long held perceptions and beliefs that become cancerous and compromise our spiritual, physical and psychological wholeness. I am speaking here of both the individual body and the collective i.e. the society.
The bracelet is representative of any modifications we would apply to make these changes. Personally, I think it could be in reference to combining technology to our African traditional beliefs to elevate ourselves. Then again, I’m a bit of a techno-enthusiast. Marimba Ani’s concept of self (2005:42) elaborates the notion of ‘adaptation to wholeness’ quite profoundly. She asserts that we are cosmic beings who are involved in a ‘continual process of transformation’ and we have a role to ‘fulfil the self’ considering our connectedness to the Whole.
As if to reiterate the theme of connectivity, Mutu picked out this painting and made it into a puzzle project, when she worn the Deutsche Bank Award, Artist of the Year 2010. She got her audience involved by having them bring together different pieces of the artwork in order to eventually come up with a complete model of the original painting. She did this to make her work accessible and to actively engage in them in her creative process. In an interview with Daily Serving, she says, “I think if people actually make the puzzle, you sort of see this wonderful thing…You find the little figures and the incredibly tiny detail of things that come together to create this microcosms of an image”. Clearly the mode with which she chooses to showcase her work is also an effective method to illustrate its theme and have people internalize its message- connectedness and wholeness (Reed 2010).
The stronger and more predominant message for me is the role of artists as the ‘seers’ in a community as Wangechi Mutu has demonstrated. Painters, Photographers, Poets, Writers, name it; we have a role to document, decipher transitions and use our art to provide meaning and enlightenment. To do so we must experience this sense of ‘oneness’ or connectedness within ourselves- no binaries. Our thoughts and feelings cannot be divided; we can’t perceive one as the object and the other as the subject, so that one part dominates the other. We can’t disconnect from our expressions anymore, we don’t have that luxury (Marimba 2006). If ours is to be a revolution of the consciousness then our art and words should project from a place of ‘oneness’ only then can our expressions intercede towards mending our society and effecting the much needed connectedness.