Today’s post comes from Claudia Ashworth,  Class of 2019, and Art Center Docent.

When I first entered the Art Center’s new exhibition The Secret of Girls, I was surprised. Being a relatively new docent, I hadn’t yet encountered works from the collection that were created with a political message in mind. I quickly discovered that the Loeb holds and has exhibited many works that could be placed in the category of “Political Art”. The Secret of Girls features the collages and photographs of five contemporary artists whose work discusses race, gender, sexuality, and the body. Although I spent time with each of the pieces, I found myself sitting in front of Wangechi Mutu’s twelve-piece collage Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tumors (2006) the longest.

The work of Wangechi Mutu was new to me. I found from a quick web search that in recent years she has been applauded and acclaimed as one of the most important contemporary African artists by the upper-echelon fine arts world. Although I believe that the art elite like to categorize artists of color solely by their race and label their art as political regardless of whether the artists intended it to be, Mutu has verbally explained that her work explicitly discusses and makes statements about biologically female African and black identity.

Wangechi Mutu (Kenyan, b. 1972), Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tumors, 2006, One set of twelve, Digital print and mixed media collage, Gift of Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, 2016.35.1i

Like many of Mutu’s works, Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tumors is composed of a combination of different materials. Each of the individual collages was constructed from the pages of an old medical textbook that contains diagrams of diseases of and practices done to biologically female body parts—particularly those of the uterus. Using the images as a material starting point, Mutu creates the image of a face using body parts cut out from popular culture magazines. As in the case with one of the individual sets on the right, the faces can be perceived as distorted as the drawing of a cervical hypertrophy occupies the center of the image. For Mutu the work speaks to the historical over-medicalization and persistent objectification of the biologically female black body. According to interviews with the artist and articles written on her work, Mutu represents the emotional burden and confusion that is internalized because of the societal tendency to prioritize biologically black female anatomy in discussion of black identity. Although she uses images of biologically female body parts to compose the collage, the completed work is not gendered as she does not explicitly indicate whether the faces are those of a woman. Mutu is not representing something that all women feel—rather she is depicting what is felt by biologically female black people who are not necessarily women, such as transgender men or non-binary people, but who feel the effects of being viewed and understood solely by the anatomy with which they were born.

Wangechi Mutu (Kenyan, b. 1972), Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tumors, 2006, One set of twelve, Digital print and mixed media collage, Gift of Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, 2016.35.1i

Many of the magazine body parts that Mutu uses in the individual collages are those of biologically white females. By doing this Mutu is perhaps intentionally commenting on the fact that most mass media representations of the body are of white ones. According to her own explanations of different work and observations made by others, the decision to use white body parts to construct the face of a black person addresses the internalized distortion of identity that biologically black female people may feel as they compare themselves to the popularly visualized white model. This can be seen in the collage on the left, as an image of a white woman occupies the central part of the person’s mind. Mutu is commenting on the way that both the lack of and twisted and objectified representation of black people in the media can influence one’s understanding of their identity.

Mutu’s piece is complex and beautiful. The more time I spent with it the more I appreciated the visible care that went into its creation. It conflicts with and complements the other works on view through August 2017 in The Secret of Girls, and, for me, provides a compelling introduction to the Art Center’s more overtly political art.