WANGECHI MUTU: I Am Speaking, Are You Listening? Response to Colonialism Takes Over the Legion of Honor in 2021

  • SAN FRANCISCO, California
  • /
  • November 03, 2020

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WANGECHI MUTU, Detail of ​I am Speaking, Can you hear me?,​ 2020. Paper pulp, wood glue, soil, charcoal, bone, feathers, shells, wood, metal stands 22 1/8 x 32 1/2 x 14 1/8 in. (overall). Courtesy of the Artist and Vielmetter Los Angeles. Photo Credit Robert Wedemeyer

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco has announced WANGECHI MUTU: I Am Speaking, Are You Listening?, a sprawling, site-specific exhibition (February 6 – August 1, 2021) of new and recently created sculpture, collage, and film by visionary Kenyan American artist Wangechi Mutu. Staked out from the Court of Honor through the entire first floor of the museum, the artist will invite visitors into an alternate universe of powerful female characters, hybrid beings, and fantastical landscapes, challenging traditional art histories, mythologies, and conventional techniques of archiving and remembering. Part of the Museums’ contemporary art program and three years in the making, I Am Speaking, Are You Listening? responds to the permanent collection and neoclassical architecture of the Legion of Honor; a museum built for the presentation of European art history, and presided over by Auguste Rodin's The Thinker

“Wangechi Mutu’s powerful voice, urging us to reassess colonial legacies and societal power structures, will ring out loud to Bay Area audiences at the Legion of Honor“ states Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco “This important new installation in the Fine Arts Museums’ contemporary art program will remind us of the potential of art to challenge outdated narratives and uncover underlying truths." 

With roots in Kenya and the United States, Mutu moves voraciously between cultural traditions to challenge colonialist, racist, and sexist worldviews through her work.  At the Legion of Honor, the artist will introduce a group of works that merge the histories, conventions, and traditions of her Western formation with those of her East African origins. Alongside five bronzes, she will also present sculptures made of soil, trees, ash, animals, and gems indigenous to the Kenyan landscape and reflective of techniques used in the making of traditional African sculpture, ornaments, battle shields, and protective talismans. 

“With a rare understanding of the power and need for new mythologies, Mutu breaches distinctions among human, animal, plant, and machine” says Claudia Schmuckli, Curator in Charge, Contemporary Art and Programming at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “At once seductive and threatening, her figures and environments take the viewer on journeys of material, psychological, and sociopolitical transformation.” 

WANGECHI MUTU, Back of ​Water Woman,​ 2017. Bronze 36 x 65 x 70 in. Edition of 3. Courtesy the Artist and Gladstone Gallery. Image provided courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Four bronze sculptures will disrupt The Thinker’s splendid isolation in the museum’s outside atrium; the Court of Honor. Flanking The Thinker on either side, two Shavasana sculptures — limp, covered bodies with polished nails and brightly colored stilettos — will lay bare the violence and bloodshed of colonial exploits as the unacknowledged subtext for the stories of triumph and victory of the history and art of the Western world. In doing so they give new meaning to the context of The Thinker's creation as part of The Gates of Hell (1880-1917), a sculptural monument to Dante Alighieri‘s Inferno. Two new creations; Mama Ray* and Crocodylus* — two spectacular hybrid bronze goddesses that are part animal, part woman, and part alien — will complete the new posse of powerful gatekeepers greeting visitors to the artist’s universe.

Legion of Honor, Court of Honor with Auguste Rodin's "The Thinker." Photograph by Steve Whittaker, ©FAMSF. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Dispersed throughout the galleries inside the Legion of Honor, sculptures like I am Speaking, Can you hear me?Mirror Faced, Outstretched, and Sentinel IV will invite the viewer to contemplate the possibility of a world defined by understanding, care, and protection of both people and the planet. My Cave Call; a new film by Mutu features the artist in the guise of a horned mythical creature seeking wisdom from the bowels of the Suswa Cave — a holy cave in the Rift Valley of Kenya. Acknowledging the enormity of the task ahead, her performance is both a dance and a prayer. In concert with her installation — large strands of beads titled Prayers — in the nave of the museum’s main Rodin collection gallery, the film gives shape to Mutu’s belief in, and love for, the divinity of the Earth, the power of woman, and the capacity of art to challenge established worldviews, and heal age-old wounds.

*Mama Ray is commissioned by Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, and Crocodylus is commissioned by Prospect New Orleans. Both installations premiere to the public at the Legion of Honor.

Wangechi Mutu: I Am Speaking, Are You Listening? is organized by Claudia Schmuckli, Curator in Charge of Contemporary Art and Programming at the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco. 

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