The racial reckoning that has swept the US for the last year has touched many institutions, high and low. But it’s only now, as the country reopens, that the results are becoming visible.
Fine arts museums have grappled with questions of representation and cultural equity, as well as their historical role in imperialism and outright theft, and now their public programming reflects these discussions.
A new exhibition at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor, Wangechi Mutu: I Am Speaking, Are You Listening?, speaks to this moment. A concerted effort to decolonize the museum as it reopened this week after a Covid-induced hibernation, it consists of recent works by the Kenyan-American artist situated throughout the Legion’s galleries, rather than in one or two rooms. There, her works exist in dialogue with the Legion’s Eurocentric permanent collection, a reflection of the sensibilities of the industrialists who endowed it a century ago. In all, I Am Speaking is a pulse of transgression throughout this staid secular temple.
The 19th-century French sculptor Auguste Rodin’s work has pride of place throughout the museum, crowned by a cast of The Thinker in the courtyard. Mutu’s large-scale sculptures and mixed-media paintings complement the Rodins even as they question western art’s fascination with neoclassical aesthetics. From her choice of materials – paper pulp, wood, earth, and hair, as well as bronze – to the mythic subject matter, her works evoke a kind of matriarchal divinity rooted in African myth.
“When I began working in the world, it was honestly still a little exotic to be a Black artist and definitely an African woman artist,” Mutu told Interview magazine last year.
This exhibition flows from that. Depicting Black women in all phases of life, Mutu endows them with a raw presence.
Some sculptures may be assertively grotesque, and they always exude power. The most audacious are Shavasana I and Shavasana II, bronze figures of Black women underneath woven yoga mats – “shivasana” is the corpse pose – like corpses. They lay supine in the courtyard, high-heeled shoes half off their feet, as if The Thinker were coolly contemplating their fate.
“In light of the current reckoning with systemic racism, I Am Speaking, Are you Listening? is one of the most important exhibitions anywhere right now,” said Thomas P Campbell, the director of the museum.
It is certainly a demonstration of a museum’s yearning to move beyond guilt with concrete action. But even that is colored by other events. In one of his last acts as president, Donald Trump decreed via lame-duck executive order that federal architecture be “beautiful” in a neoclassical style, an edict that many Americans took as coded white supremacy. Certainly, it felt more in keeping with the tastes of the now-thwarted “Anglo-Saxon caucus” in Congress than any actual artistic movement. I Am Speaking asks the question of what a fine arts institution should do when it rejects those values yet embodies that very architecture.
“You cannot help but think about the ideological context in which this museum is positioned,” said the I Am Speaking curator, Claudia Schmuckli. “It has a completely different resonance when it is confronted with these sculptures. Look at the Mama Ray and Crocodylus in the courtyard. They appear as if they had emerged from the Bay and they’re roaring against the building.”
Mutu’s exhibition was conceived with San Francisco’s Legion of Honor in mind, and it can’t travel easily. Several of the pieces were placed in a particular gallery to give viewers the best sense of their one-on-one dialogues with the permanent collection. In Prayer, for example, three enormous strands of beads draped over the main Rodin gallery create a canopy, or “chapel within the chapel”, as Schmuckli puts it.
Prayer’s overall effect is one of reconsecration. In light of it, Rodin’s busts of Victor Hugo or the muscular American Athlete start to look hopelessly retrograde. Indeed, in I Am Speaking, Are You Listening? Mutu gets even The Thinker to think again.