Thirteen Kinds of Violence
Wangechi Mutu: Intertwined at NOMA

 There are at least 13 kinds of violence on view at the New Orleans Museum of Art. A day or two after seeing Wangechi Mutu: Intertwined, I tried from memory to count the types of violence depicted or alluded to in the work that represents about four decades of the Kenyan American artist’s practice. For years I superficially associated her work with Tony Oursler’s, due to the shared aesthetic of enlarged divergent eyes. But, in the years that followed my first exposure to Mutu’s work, the artist moved beyond small-scale, large-eyed collages to include sculpture, installation, and video. Her work addresses issues of race, gender, and power in a language that leans on illustration and storytelling more than canonical traditions of art like painting or portraiture. When I view such a sprawling show, I sometimes fixate on one question or angle, a lens through which to deepen or cultivate understanding. I returned to the exhibition with a notebook to get an exact count of the kinds of violence represented in the work.

Approaching the lobby outside the exhibition, I heard a high-pitched noise, a saturated sound accompanying the large projection of Mutu’s animated film, “The End of Eating Everything.” A woman’s head in profile, open-mouthed, snaps at a tiny flock of birds like a dog snapping at flies. The sound, loud to my ears, made me anxious. Sound enters the body and affects its chemistry. In my notebook, I write down 1: SoundViolence.

Is eating violence? I thought. Before going further, a definition might help. In her 2017 lecture “Etymological Root of the Word ‘Violence,’” Jennifer Woodhull, who teaches in Cape Town, South Africa, defined violence as “a combination of aggression and othering. It’s aggression performed on an other. The other could be oneself actually…” The acquisition of food and the act of eating requires violence and othering. We pick and hunt food, we cut and chew, but not our own species. 2: Food-Violence.The walls inside the exhibition are painted dark tones and the intricate surfaces of large-format collages seem to glitter in the dim light. Non, je ne regrette rien, a large collage, depicts a snake coiled next to a biomorphic form. A single human leg wearing a high-heeled shoe extends from the right side of the form, composed of splattered ink, cut magazines, glitter, and pearls… Are pearls violent? These pretty things are taken by force, the oyster violated for its sole possession. 3: Acquisition of Pearls-Violence.

However, these are plastic pearls. Is plastic violent? There are documented health risks posed by the production of plastic. These include fertility issues, hormonal disruption, cancer, heart disease, and stroke, among others. So yes, 4: Pollution-Violence.

In Untitled (Tumor), collaged elements create a form with patches of hairlike tendrils. In Margaret Atwood’s short story “Hairball,” a woman keeps a hair-covered cyst in a jar. I felt a similar nausea looking at Untitled (Tumor) as I did reading that story years ago. Are tumors violent? Some tumors take up residence in the body relatively harmlessly while others are cancerous. Cancer, the development of abnormal cells, can plunder healthy tissue in the body. 5: Some Tumors. Collaged into the mass are cut-out pictures of body parts, mostly women’s legs. Is collage violent? When images of women’s bodies are cut and left in pieces or grafted into uncomfortable forms, I’d argue collage can evoke in one’s body a tremor of threat. 6: Violence of Cutting Images of Women’s Bodies.

 “I like this one,” a woman said to her young daughter approaching a piece titled Yo Mama. The pink background of this large, two-part collage makes the piece seem pretty at first glance. “The snake’s head’s cut off!” the little girl said as they looked more closely. 7: Decapitation. A stiletto heel stabs the decapitated head. 8: Stabbing. Mutu made this piece to honor the mother of Nigerian musician and political dissident Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Soldiers burned the musician’s home and threw his mother, an activist herself, from the building. 9: Defenestration, the act of throwing a person from a window, a word with a strange and political history.

The next wall is pocked with sores, gouges in the drywall, red and pink. Can one do violence to a museum? What about an apartment building or hospital? A city? The artist calls it a “wounded wall.” 10: Violence to Buildings and Cities and Walls. On the wounded wall, there are eight mixed-media collages collectively titled Sleeping Heads. The series was inspired by the 1994 Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi ethnic minority. Is genocide violence? Of course it is. 11: the Violence of Genocide.

In the middle of the gallery there is a group of sculptures, orbs of differing surface character. The orbs are roughly globe-sized and are made of a mixed material that includes red volcanic soil from Kenya. They represent 11 viruses including dengue 3, corona 1, and smallpox 3. Are viruses violent? Mutu chose to represent viruses that have been “bioweapons of colonialism” as well as those associated with geopolitics and the spread of fear. 12: Viruses as Bioweapons and Propaganda.

 A series of small collages, some of the earliest work in the show, are based on pin-ups, soft pornographic images of nude or semi-nude women. One might not notice at first that the figures are missing limbs, arms or legs, rounded and red. These amputations recall the atrocities of the war in Sierra Leone. 13: Amputations as an Act of War.

The meaning of the word “violence” began to buckle under the weight of repetition, of all that violence. I was seeing violence everywhere. I closed my notebook. The sound of metal hitting metal can be heard throughout the exhibition. A film projected wall-sized in the semi-dark middle gallery shows a woman at a distance in silhouette. She repeatedly hits what looks like a machete against metal or maybe rock. In a film on the adjacent wall, a woman, the artist, futilely scrubs a floor to the sound of metal hitting metal from the other film. Is cleaning violent? In MUD, a series of small collages, mud paint partially covers images of women’s bodies cut from pornographic magazines. Is pornography violent? Is the hungry gaze violent? Is covering bodies violent? Works from NOMA’s collection, sculptural works from Africa, are displayed throughout the show, integrated with Mutu’s three-dimensional works. Is recontextualizing violence? Appropriation?

In the gallery farthest from the entrance-exit, the turnaround point, water is a dominant theme and the walls are white. There’s water gurgling in sculptures on the floor. What looks like water damage details the base of the walls and there’s an ocean in the film of a woman wading into the surf. Is water violent? Here, we know it can be. A voiceover, a woman’s voice, sings “Amazing Grace.” I can still hear the machete in the previous room, though quieter. Amazing Grace isn’t violent, is it? I thought. The song ends and then the same voice sings “Amazing Grace” in an unfamiliar language, one I was told came from Africa. I listened and I wondered, is English violent?

Why count the kinds of violence? What benefit comes from statistics? What isn’t violent? Before I left the exhibition, I looked at a small collage titled Intertwined, showing two figures with hyena heads and women’s bodies. The breasts of one of the figures are bared. They seem to glitter like white sequins in light. Breasts aren’t violent, I thought. 1: Breasts aren’t violent at all.

Wangechi Mutu: Intertwined will be at the New Orleans Museum of Art through July 14. For more info, check out
Top: Yo Mama, 2003 (Photo: Robert Edemeyer)

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