Mermaids and Pumpkins: Wangechi Mutu and Yayoi Kusama at Victoria Miro (London)

A black figure emerges from a calm sea… it does not look like any other fish, or creature, its black membrane is being beaten by the early wind: sometimes it is still sometimes it stirs… it is a “something”: a dark matter, a metamorphic creature indecisive between being near the water or advancing towards the land. In the next scene, the creature is now standing and two limbs reveal the presence of “feet”, yet the print on the sand is more like a dragging tail. Later, the creature is indeed a woman, a wild being now exploring the vegetation, struggling to find her way through thorny bushes, the branches hurting her body while she struggles to go through, she tires, she gives up, she growls and she meekly recedes, wandering through. Once the night arrives, the creature is alive and dancing, it is menacing and seducing, it is golden, watery and fiery. This mermaid, is not “disney cute”, nor it sings like in a Greek story, it rather growls and scream, it seduces and entices, yet, it is terrified and it terrifies… what to make of this uncanny creature? it is this arcane “wild femenine” the creature of water depths?

This film is the creation of Kenyan born artist Wangechi Mutu, titled Nguva na Nyoka, at Victoria Miro in London. It translates roughly “mermaids and serpents” referring to the East African coastal mythologies of nguvas or water women. As in previous works by this artist, the work goes beyond the surface by challenging assumptions about the African body, the female body and their representations in media and advertising. She works with collages, waving pieces of advertising, with fabric and paint, using original substrates like Mylar, vinyl and linoleum, creating very tactile paintings and 3D effects. The gallery itself is transformed into a grey aquarium of concrete and underwater apparitions. The “nguvas” stand alone, there is a feeling of isolation and terror in their demeanor, they are menacing, yet they are threatened. There is a feeling as if the nguvas are being purposely adorned to become the wicked seducer: the false eyelashes, the plump lips, the hair extensions, the tanned sculpted body of big bosoms and kardashian bottoms (a TOWIE stereotyped “gal”?)… these are visual devices that work as well as the folk tales, talismans and other narratives. For instance, our contemporary seductive Nguyen may include: the glamour model type of girl, the high flying executive (both efficient and feared/despised), the yummy mummy (in the glorification of an economic type of motherhood), the single young girl out in town, or any other of the “seductive” images of what it means to be a woman. And at the same time, their eyes look sad, twisted, trapped. They menace and devour but I feel they rather play with other nguvas and stop using so much make up. Is this what is trying to tell us? Just writing this on the train back from London, I peek on the newspaper about a “banker who left his glamour model for a new life”, the picture shows him with one of the scantly dressed big boobs lady, and a new picture of him with a down to earth, normal girl. I felt sorry for the glamour model, because she is the fantasy girl of Page3, tempting the male reader, but she is isolated, caged in the confines of the Page3, without any other possibility of “being” in her whole complexity.

Similarly, the paintings of Wangechi Mutu include lace and underwear material, mixed with “snake-like” leathery fabric: the eternal reminder of the “tragic” consequences of being expelled from the Garden of Eden because of the tragic friendship between Eve and the Serpent, both representing the feminine evil. The nguva lies deep in the water, almost dead, while a Noah’s type of Ark, like a floating city of perfectly coupled animals escape God’s punishment. Mouth wide open, the Nguva swallows the sins, the waste and the indignity of being alone… Later in other of the paintings, a “bird like” creature stands alone in a rock, she is observed and try to cover her defenseless body, who is looking at this a “bird” (as the slang word for a lady or a woman who can be trapped/caged/admired and observed), and who she wants to hide from? Is the nguva condemned to be seducer, isolated, caged? Is the glamourisation (as sexualisation) of women part of the disciplining machine of “everyday sexism” serving a male gazer? High heels, lipstick, pearls, and lingerie… do we really need to stay within the “shades of grey”, passive subjects of male desire, resigning our own capacity for pleasure by obeying a stereotyped and heavily influenced by a “youporn” way of experiencing sexuality and expressing femininity?

On the other hand, when left alone, the Nguva wanders the sea, goes deep and surfaces, it expands and it find refuge, in the multiple possibilities of oceans and floating. But how many opportunities does she have to go back to her roots and find her deeper self? The problem is as many have explained that the multiplicity of roles that “liberate” women, can be also quite repressive. Talking to a dear friend last week she remarked about questions of self-worth when the “reproductive” role of women, is replaced or augmented with their “productive” role? What is really scary in this exhibition is how powerful these images can work in revealing the duality and dilemmas of liquid identities, multiplicity of roles and what means to be a “woman” in a hyper sexualised, consumerist, capitalistic environment.

These are big questions Ok? Questions that are constantly in my mind as a female artist and female academic, and for me this has been a constant threading on this blog. Indeed, the other artist exhibiting at Victoria Miro, the wonderful Yayoi Kusama, has been a pioneer of this questioning of “being a woman” from the early 60s, preceding contemporary female artists. Yayoi Kusama is rather famous for her “dots” as revealed by the great retrospective at Tate Modern (2012 ) including big paintings, installations in domestic settings, wonderland looking glass, sculptures and more recently, the dots at the Louis Vuitton windows in Bond Street London. This time, the artist chose to bring some ” dotted pumpkins” challenging the other side of the “nguva/mermaid”… what happen to the other type of women, the non seductive, not motherly one, the “left-overs”, the “singletons”, the rebels, the independent women… referred in Japan as “pumpkins”! Here is where Yayoi Kusama continues to surprise and challenge: who are the pumpkins? what makes us a pumpkin? how certain women who do not conform to the seductive Nguven: which is most of women, because in fact one size does not fit all! Indeed, as many recent articles about a new type of feminism claim, we really need to re-examine the gender inequalities that have become more subtler, yet more sinister and pervasive? How art: literature, media, painting, film, can re-signify the Nguven going beyond easy cliches of seductress or temptress to reveal the complex nature of femeninity? Some of the articles remarked how the popular chick-lit of the 1990s does so little to challenge the spinster image: Bridget Jones only become happy when she bagged her Mr. Darcy… So the question, how art can also question the inner rich life of women and our possibilities to choose! Yes, one day we can be mermaids, liquid and seductive, others we can be birds, or mother earth, or whatever we choose to be! How can we become conscious that we can choose actively, and not let the “system” let choose for us, while we think that because we “consume” we are really choosing…. How to be a pumpkin does not need to be a deadline (as cinderella’s carriage turns into a pumpkin at midnight), how a pumpkin can be rich, bright (yellow, orange and light greens) and take its time to be or to become!

I really feel energised and challenged by a deep look at the beautiful pictures. They need not to be aggressive, obvious, dirty or overtly confessional (to the point of narcissism), but in their subtle deep beauty reveals the dilemmas of being and becoming, colours that entice but also makes you wonder, stop, and think; sculptures that entertain you, playful objects in the wide space, that also make you explore what are the possibilities, what are the stereotypes and how you/me contribute to the perpetuation of these gilded cages through omission, consumption or mindless repetition. At the end, I felt sorry for the Nguvas, wondering at the same time what are those inner metamorphosis or liminal stages in which women (and men) live in our contemporary times.

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