Wangechi Mutu: I Am Speaking, Are You Listening?
Through November 7, 2021
By EMILY WILSON, July 2021
The site-specific Wangechi Mutu show, I Am Speaking, Are You Listening? at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor Museum starts in the atrium outside the museum. Two sculptures of women’s bodies, Shavasana I and II, lie on the ground under Rodin’s The Thinker. Covered by a blanket with their arms and legs sticking out, their nails are painted and colored stilettos are falling off their feet.
The murder of 18-year-old Black woman Nia Wilson who was stabbed at an Oakland BART station in 2018 inspired the sculptures of the women on the ground.
Claudia Schmuckli, Curator in Charge, Contemporary Art and Programming at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, says having The Thinker, an iconic sculpture of modern European art, looking down at these women is an important gesture.
“This is an attempt to broaden the canonical understanding of art history and to make visitors aware that this museum is telling a very particular story of art history, one that is exclusive, linear, and the only version of art history that was propagated in the West,” Schmuckli said. “The Thinker represents an ideology, and by trying to draw his attention onto the two Shavasanas, Wangechi is also asking us to contemplate the subtext of this history.”
Two more of Mutu’s bronze sculptures, Mama Ray and Crocodylus, stand in the atrium. Schmuckli describes them as sort of hybrid goddesses – part animal, part woman, and part battleship — which face the museum and look ready to charge the institution.
In an April lecture at the museum, Mutu talked about how with sculptures like these she wants to combine myths she’s heard and create something unknown, meant to uplift us and trick us into feeling invincible.
“It’s so important to make your own new mythologies,” she said. “If you don’t make mythologies, then it gives others license to create your fears.”
More of Mutu’s works, made of feathers, clay, ash, and other natural materials which can be found around her studio in Nairobi, Kenya, are throughout the first floor of the museum. In the museum’s nave with the main Rodin collection, Mutu’s installation of large strands of beads made of soil and paper pulp, called Prayers, hang. Schmuckli points out that in the chapel like space, Mutu’s playing with the idea of a museum as church.
In the entrance to the Legion, the viewer is confronted with the bare breasted Water Woman, Mutu’s take on a mermaid, which is part of the mythology of almost every culture, Schmuckli says. But rather than being portrayed as a murderess out to trap men, Water Woman appears serene and contemplative.
“You can see she doesn’t look like a tempting spirit,” Schmuckli said. “Rather Wangechi has cast her as a very innocent, introspective, sort of alluring but not consciously seductive figure.”
Mutu also turns the trope of the reclining nude on display for male viewer’s desire inside out and upside down with Outstretched, placed right in front of Eustache Le Sueur’s provocative 17th century Sleeping Venus,
“She’s anything but passive, available, desiring,” Schmulkli said of Mutu’s figure. “She’s all hard surface armor, a figure that is wounded and yet resilient.”
In her lecture, Mutu said that art is about communication. The sculpture, I am Speaking, Can you hear me? seems to show the difficulty of that with the two female figures who have conch shells and wood for ears, looking just past one another.
The exhibition also features a new film by Mutu, My Cave Call, with the artist as a mythical creature seeking wisdom in a holy cave in Kenya’s Rift Valley.
In her lecture, Mutu says art is “a weapon of deep compassion if used the right way.”
Mutu said when she’s in her studio, she often thinks about how she feels privileged to be an artist.
“Because in a way, art is not anything. Art is a symbol. Art is a way to stop time. Art is a way to create a memorial of a moment,” she said. “Art is just a human uttering their humanity.” WM
Emily Wilson lives in San Francisco and writes for different outlets, including Hyperallergic, Smithsonian.com, Daily Beast, 48 Hills,, Latino USA, Women’s Media Center, California Magazine, and San Francisco Classical Voice. For many years she taught adults getting their high school diplomas at City College of San Francisco.view all articles from this author