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Perspectives Power and Privilege

Science Fiction, Migrancy, and Wangechi Mutu’s NewOnes

Mutu muses on her sculptures’ relationship to migrancy and science fiction.

Oct 30, 2019

A bronze figure sits in the Metropolitan facade

When The Met was expanded 117 years ago, the architects of the facade had this idea to represent what they considered to be the four most important art-historical moments. At the time, the Museum overlooked a lot of what today we consider to be important global art. But, as fate would have it, they didn't have enough funding to make these artworks, and the niches have remained empty ever since. So in a way, we bypassed that fiction.

When I made these four sculptures, I was looking at caryatids, which are female bodies that have been given a deep responsibility to hold up buildings and empires. How are these women supposed to do that for the entire history of humanity? I thought about them as important characters, and I started to think, well, perhaps they have superhuman powers that are beyond our understanding, maybe extraterrestrial powers.

I've always thought about how aliens are represented, and how in the United States foreign nationals are referred to as "aliens." One of the things about human representation of aliens is that we don't actually know how to represent an alien that doesn't look humanoid. They always have remnants of who we are and how we see ourselves.

I think that in this moment—with all of the migrants moving around, looking for a life that is better for them and their families—it's so important to think about what it is that makes us uncomfortable about others. So I'm exploring the idea that these characters represent us perfectly, and yet make us uneasy because they resemble us and yet they're not. Why are they here? They're only unfamiliar because we haven't allowed these conversations to happen.

Wangechi Mutu (Kenyan, born 1972). The Seated I (detail), 2019. Bronze, 79 1/8 x 31 3/4 x 42 1/4 in. (201 x 80.6 x 107.3 cm). Work of art courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels. Right: Wangechi Mutu (Kenyan, born 1972). The Seated II, 2019. Bronze, 80 3/4 x 31 3/4 x 37 1/4 in. (205.1 x 80.6 x 94.6 cm). Work of art courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

When I make sculptures, I usually find a way for them to express themselves in a wide space. Casting the four figures in bronze brought them to a position that is more resilient and permanent, but, unlike caryatids, they're not attached to the building; at the end of the exhibition, they'll come down and be able to move around. That mobility is part of my own story as an immigrant, as a dual citizen. And in the way we installed them, they basically arrived overnight, as if to communicate something that hasn't been allowed to be spoken.

I titled the exhibition The NewOnes, will free Us, and for me, the new ones are new immigrants, children, women, and all these people who are bringing new ideas. They're activists and environmentalists who present a different approach for the future, because none of the amazing works of art and language and theater that we've created throughout the history of humanity will matter if we're not here as a species. The four seated figures present the urgency of this moment and help us to understand that we can do something different. We can change up who we think should lead us, who should speak for us.

— As told to Will Fenstermaker

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