Critics’ Picks

View of “Wangechi Mutu,” 2014. From left: Sleeping Serpent, 2014; Nguva, 2013.

View of “Wangechi Mutu,” 2014. From left: Sleeping Serpent, 2014; Nguva, 2013.

London

Wangechi Mutu

Victoria Miro Gallery | 16 Wharf Road
16 Wharf Road
October 14–December 19, 2014

Luscious pools of rose and cyan might lure viewers close to the surfaces of Wangechi Mutu’s latest collages, but once there, they would confront the gaping, fanged mouths and scaly skins of the figures inhabiting each piece. These works are inspired by the nguvas of East African coastal folklore—siren-like creatures who tempt and threaten fishermen—and by the erotic and sinister connotations of snakes in biblical mythology. In addition, a new sculpture and video signal the artist’s interest in the rich symbolism of the ocean as a mysterious and life-giving environment, whose currents also sustained colonial trade routes, casting new historical meaning on the sometimes-violent rendering of bodies across her work.

The motif of water allows Mutu to experiment with fluidity on both formal and thematic levels. Collaged elements such as knives and masks float freely through the washy, painted fields that spread and congeal over their vinyl grounds. Life cycles and transformational states also feature strongly throughout, as in Sleeping Serpent, 2014, a fabric and ceramic sculpture of a snake with a woman’s head—a bulge at the center of its thirty-one-foot-long body may connote either pregnancy or satiety. The exhibition also debuts the video Nguva, 2013, in which the aquatic temptress is born from the sea and explores the world above land. The work’s mythical ambience is countered by contemporary details like the nguva’s bright-purple fingernails that sensuously graze the crevices of tree bark. The jewel tones and earthy hues that make up the video’s mise-en-scène are echoed throughout the exhibition and seem to imply a duality between the mystical and the worldly, or fantasy and reality.