The bizarre performance-art video from Wangechi Mutu, "The End of Eating Everything," is the first of many dispatches from an unsettling world of erotic female androids, androgynous plant monsters and grotesque animal hybrids. The Kenyan artist's eight-minute video depicts a floating female figure with Medusalike hair, played by the pop musician Santigold, whose mouth opens to devour a flock of black birds. Her sluglike body swells like a fattened turkey primed to explode, and then she finally does.
Projected against a wall in the darkened Pavilion Gallery at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, the looped, immersive video is isolated from the main MOCA building, which contains the rest of Mutu's midcareer survey "A Fantastic Journey." There's a reason for that. On a tour of the exhibition, opening Thursday, Mutu says the main gallery is plenty immersive on its own.
Large paintings of female figures hang on walls that are coated with a rough, gray, fabric wallpaper. The columns have been transformed into veiny, brown, tree-trunk sculptures, all flanking the show's room-filling centerpiece: "Suspended Playtime," a series of 200 makeshift black soccer balls suspended from ceiling wires, each built from packed garbage bags bound with twine.
"A football is $2, $3 here, and that's two meals in Kenya, a place where kids live in a bad economy and make do with makeshift footballs," Mutu says. "I was raised middle-class, but poverty is not unfamiliar to me. Repurposing objects — what people call recycling — is related to my upbringing in Kenya. You take empty cans of food and turn them in lamps. It's a cobbled togetherness that comes out of a poor country aesthetic. It's second nature to us."
Family, heritage and her childhood in Nairobi figure prominently in Mutu's collage paintings, which combine Mylar, ink, spray paint and stickers. The figures here are meant to look androgynous, ethnically ambiguous and almost human, as in the collage, "Once Upon a Time, She Said, 'I'm Not Afraid,' And Her Enemies Began To Fear Her. The End." Against a gray backdrop is a gazellelike woman, whose arms and legs are magazine cutouts of motorcycle parts. Every part-animal, part-machine figure in her collages is charged with themes such as the eroticization of the black female body, African colonialism and feminism, she says.
"I obsess in magazines a lot about how women are featured, especially African women," says Mutu, 42, who lives in Brooklyn. "I think motorbikes are actually female machines made for men to satisfy their erotic quests. But I also try to dehumanize the female form, and by doing that, I give her power."
Found objects of another sort can be seen in the adjoining gallery, site of "Virginia Overton: Flat Rock," also opening Friday. The site-specific minimalist display from the Nashville-based artist sources materials from around North Miami and from the museum's storage closets. Installed in the vast gallery are roughly 10 random objects, including a tractor-trailer tire from a local junkyard, an industrial fan used for drying paint and a light box bearing the words "MOCA, North Miami."
Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey and Virginia Overton: Flat Rock
When: Thursday, April 17, through July 6 (talk runs 7-9 p.m. Friday)
Where: Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami (770 NE 125th St.)
Cost: $3-$5 general admission, $10 on Thursday, $10 for Friday event includes talk with Wangechi Mutu
Contact: 305-893-6211 or MocaNomi.org