Nguva na Nyoka (Sirens and Serpents) by Wangechi Mutu | Review

The immense representation of the feminine, the political and the cultural is very palpable and striking in Wangechi Mutu’s latest exhibition entitled Nguva na Nyoka (meaning “Siren and Serpents” in Swahili). Staying true to the title, her collage paintings are of grotesquely deformed underwater creatures which screams surrealism with the contrasting elements of humans, animals and machines. They also manifest hyperbolism and diversity through the way she forced together an overload of materials, themes and references which you don’t ordinarily see together. Despite the initial jarring sense that her works present, they are both seductive and eerie all at once. 

The exhibition spans the two floors of Victoria Miro’s Gallery in London, showcasing the art works of this New York-based artist with Kenyan origins. Mutu uses a variety of media – mixing both textiles and art materials – to create her hybrid creatures with magazine cut-outs, watercolours, beads, feathers and fabrics. These distorted chimaeras do not only emulate the mythologic core of the exhibit’s theme, but their faces made up of big eyes and lips lifted from fashion magazines also satirise the stereotypes and preconceptions of women’s images and identities in the society. 

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Killing You Softly

Born in Nairobi, Mutu expresses her ethnic roots which are most stark in ‘Killing You Softly’. A curtain of black and green fabric thinly veils a terrifying siren holding another bleeding  creature beneath a thriving city of a native Maasai tribe. It also shows the artists’ inspiration from folk tales mixed with a depiction of urbanisation and globalisation – and pollution as their by-product. This is also evident in ‘If we live through it, She’ll carry us back,’ which is obviously based on Noah’s ark with a boat containing different kinds of animals above the blue ocean. The emphasis, however, lies in the body of a woman floating among repeated patterns of black and white laces representing trash and contamination.

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If we live through it, She’ll carry us back

Mutu is very consistent throughout her compositions and she is not afraid to show her own opinion of individuality and diversity through her dark and emotive art. Nevertheless, ‘Even’ depicting a creature with a body of different animal skins wearing high platform heels is perhaps the exhibition’s best. The monster here is a clear allusion to what women are expected to look like including the stereotypes of what is beautiful and sexy. Rose cut-outs are scattered across a garden with knives for thorns, which symbolises the harmful and even violent patriarchal pressures and cultural expectations put upon women.

The upper floor of the gallery is dedicated to her film, ‘Nguva’, which tells of a siren who emerged from the sea to roam on land. It is accompanied by her sculpture of a snake with a female face fusing together her two subjects from the title.

In a carnival-esque sense, each painting and work cements the sinister and restless theme of the exhibition. It exercises a qualified freedom which can be associated with the experience in the carnivals during the medieval era. Carnivals serve as a magical performance places where hierarchy is disrupted and social strata is dismantled. Mutu do just that with her collages, which suggest irony in combining and forcing together contrasting materials and textures to create distinguishable shapes. They cleverly satirises and subverts sexism and cultural oppression of the post-modern society.