Renewal and Wisdom

Wangechi Mutu is a Kenyan-American, New York–based artist who works in film, painting, print and sculpture. Her practice engages with critical topics of today including environmentalism, femininity, globalisation and overconsumption. In her extensive oeuvre, the artist creates a world filled with mythical creatures and dreamlike landscapes, drawing inspiration from multiple cultures. This month, she presents My Cave Call at Saint Louis Art Museum, a short film that navigates public and personal Kenyan histories. Mutu prompts a deeper exploration of how seemingly opposite concepts intersect, broaching traditional divides of beauty and ugliness, East and West and religious and secular. Rather than relying on binary oppositions, the work challenges viewers to reconsider these divisions and think more expansively.

Mutu is widely known for her elaborate collages and sculptures that explore and subvert cultural preconceptions. Nguva na Nyoka (Sirens and Serpents), previously on display at Victoria Miro, engaged in a celebration of hybridised female figures. Writhing forms – human, hyena and snake – appeared both in print, and in bronze casting, incorporating other materials such as batik fabrics, feather, Kenyan soil, sand, synthetic hair and tea. Mutu’s practice has been described as a form of myth-making, drawing on East African coastal mythologies such as nguvas (dugongs) or water women. This interweaving of fact and fiction is also conveyed in My Cave Call. Set at Mount Suswa, a holy site in Kenya, the film imagines the artist as a mythical creature seeking wisdom in a holy cave in Rift Valley. The piece is narrated by the off-screen voice of a young child who questions the ways in which humans have become disconnnected with the earth. It’s a representation that is disturbing and transfixing, both complex and strikingly direct.

The film is a lens to view the past, present and future. It engages in oral traditions that recite figures that are important to Nandi and Kipsigis history, such as Orkoiyot, a spiritual and military leader, as well as Mugo wa Kibiru, a Kenyan sage from the 18th and 19th century. The piece presents moments of frustration, but also hope, leaving space for a renewal of wisdom that has been lost. Charlie Farrell, the 2022–2024 Romare Bearden Graduate Museum Fellow explains, “And for me, it’s a way to think about what it means to reclaim lost histories and connect with humanities that have been, not just underserved, but really underprivileged in how we investigate our own personal histories. What I found most intriguing about the film is how grounded it is and Kenyan ways of knowing specifically.”

Wangechi Mutu: My Cave Call | Until 31 March

Image Credits:

Wangechi Mutu, Kenyan (active United States), born 1972; My Cave Call (still), 2021; single-channel video, color, sound; duration: 12 minutes, 35 seconds. All stills courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery; © Wangechi Mutu.