I recently encountered two similar works of art, one in L.A. and the other online: the first is by an artist with a 40+ year career who has self selected out of the U.S. art scene for over 2 decades and the second is from a Kenyan born artist with a Brooklyn based practice who is celebrating a peak in her 20 year career. Jimmie Durham and Wangechi Mutu have created bodies of work that tackle American and African colonialism. While these works in repose were created 10 years apart and are physically separated by 2,451 miles, they wryly call out contemporary art’s fascination with marginalized pain. Both are reclining disembodied heads resembling Brancusi’s “Sleeping Muse”. For me, these works bookend a current sense of frustration among many artists of color about the price of pain on canvas.
Jimmie Durham’s show at the Hammer is an exploration into America’s history with colonialism and capitalism while Wangechi Mutu’s latest show at the Gladstone gallery tackles similar themes with a surrealistic sensibility that’s grounded (literally) in its material composition. While Durham’s point of view is centered on the historical treatment of Native Americans, Mutu’s is focused on African interests under the guise of Afrotuturism. Both artists used natural media and found materials that connect the work to the earth: Durham’s show features totems and large-scale installations that address the socio-political ravages of invasion, land seizure and genocide, while Mutu’s exhibition spans cellular and celestial spaces exploring and recasting the environmental effects of colonialism and appropriation. Durham’s “Head” and Mutu’s “This Second Dreamer” capture forlorn expressions in dramatically different contexts; both works embody the ramifications of colonial rule.
Durham’s “Head” 2006, is made from wood pulp that looks like rough-hewn adobe clay fashioned into a bust. The juxtaposition between the mismatched eyes (one turquoise and one marble stone) and thinning decaying hair on a head served up on a glistening silver platter is a stark imagining of revenge and reward that recalls the story of the beheading of John the Baptist. Meanwhile Mutu’s, “This second Dreamer” is cast in a shiny bronze and is in a dreamy state that more closely resembles Brancusi, an avant-garde artist influenced by African artifacts including masks. Here, Mutu’s beautiful bronze with chunky goddess braids offers up an alternative reinterpretation of the African mask that properly aligns it with classic sculpture and releases it from its historic tethering to Europeans as souvenirs of conquest. This piece transforms the African mask from artifact to art. That transformation is painful, exhausting and powerful.
For artists exploring historical pain through their work, a by-product becomes the audience’s fascination and attachment to it. Mutu’s early collage works deal with this pain by specifically having women emerge triumphant from it; they are some of her most critically lauded works. Her latest show was panned by the NYT and the Observer, both pointing to the absence of her early collage works which portrayed a more grim, sinister, dystopian view of the historical legacies of colonialism. This troubles me because these critiques come with an expectation that pain must be explicitly demonstrated. Durham’s own practice reached a tipping point in the 1980’s when he realized that the pain dredged up from reconciling our country’s past had commercial appeal.
“As he began showing his artwork more frequently in New York, he struggled with its reception. One series from 1982, canvas paintings incorporating documentary photographs of Indian hardships, proved too popular with a mainly white audience — “too easy, too entertaining,” he said. ‘The paintings were always semiabstract, and the photos were always horrible things happening on or around Indian reservations.’” New York Times, March 10, 2017
There’s a disconnect between how artists are shaped by their identity and how they are ultimately perceived by the art world. Durham’s solution to this paradox was to disengage—the artist moved to Mexico and currently lives in Italy. As we engage in debates over who has agency over how our pain is portrayed, lines become blurred when we argue for domain, but are viewed solely through that lens. There’s a fatigue that comes from depicting the vast complexities of our past while struggling against being solely defined by them. For me, that weariness is embodied both of these works by Durham and Mutu.
Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World, January 29 – May 7, 2017
Wangechi Mutu, Ndoro Na Miti, January 27 – March 25, 2017