The Seated I

Wangechi Mutu Kenyan-American

Not on view

The Seated I is one of four bronze sculptures created by Mutu for The Met's facade in September 2019, part of a commission titled The NewOnes, will free Us. The works consist of two kneeling and two seated female figures, simultaneously celestial and humanoid, strange and familiar. In the case of The Seated I, one of the figures' knees is raised, while the other meets the floor. The arms and hands rest gently on the legs. The head and fingers are attenuated, the facial features stylized. The figure is graced with a variety of embellishments, including abstract ornamentation on its head and ears; a polished disc at its mouth; and horizontal coils sheathing most of its body. The coils, which respond with great sensitivity to the curve and slope of the figure’s musculature, animated by virtue of the single bent knee, serve as garment and armor all at once. When conceiving the figures' adornments, likewise the proportions of their necks and heads, Mutu took inspiration from a variety of customs practiced by high-ranking African women, such as beaded bodices, circular necklaces, lip plates, crowns, hair styles, and skull elongation. The body of work from which The Seated I derives was also inspired by the tradition of load-bearers, sometimes referred to as caryatids, frequently but not always women carved out of stone or wood and designed to physically or symbolically support either buildings or male rulers. Female load-bearers appear in various guises across times and places, and they are omnipresent in The Met's Greek, African, American, and European collections. In the case of The Seated I, Mutu has staged a feminist intervention, liberating her load-bearer from the tasks she was historically assigned to perform. Belonging to no one time or place, the sculpture is stately, resilient, and self-possessed, announcing her authority and autonomy. When considered in the context of the original commission, moreover, The Seated I represents the "new ones" who bring word of new ideas and new perspectives, encouraging viewers to look forward to a better, more just future. Here the polished disc plays a key role, serving as a beacon that brings visitors into conversation with the sculpture, either by reflecting light or reflecting them back to themselves, occasioning moments of intersubjective conversation and critical self-awareness. A work of great importance in the context of Mutu’s career, The Seated I represents the culmination of two decades of sustained artistic experimentation and rigorous research into the relationship between power, race, gender, and representation.

The Seated I, Wangechi Mutu (Kenyan-American, born Nairobi, 1972), Bronze

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