This season, MOCA North Miami opened its doors to the touring exhibition of Wangechi Mutu’s first museum survey in the US. A Fantastic Journey, curated by Trevor Schoonmaker, Chief Curator and Patsy R. and Raymond D. Nasher Curator of Contemporary Art at the Nasher Museum of Art, features over fifty works across the artist's career from the 1990s to present. ArtSlant got a chance to sit down with Schoonmaker for the inside scoop on Mutu, the exhibition, and its impact on the contemporary arts.
Allyson Parker: A Fantastic Journey is Wangechi Mutu’s first survey in the US and has been exhibited at The Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, The Brooklyn Museum, and is now on display at MOCA North Miami. Have you found that the social context of each city has played a role in the viewer's experience or has the exhibition communicated a consistent message to its audience?
Trevor Schoonmaker: Context (social, cultural, political, environmental, etc.) influences the reading of any exhibition to some degree. I think the exhibition communicates the same messages at each venue, but the work will be read differently by different people, with different histories, in different contexts.
AP: When did you first become familiarized with Mutu’s work and what was the initial intrigue?
TS: I met Wangechi in 1999 when I lived in New York. She was then getting her MFA at Yale while I was working for Brent Sikkema Gallery in Chelsea. I curated a show at the gallery in the summer of 2000 called The Magic City, and included sculpture and video by Wangechi. At that time she was not yet working with collage, but I was drawn to her ideas and unique use of materials—physically, culturally and metaphorically. I worked with Wangechi again on a large traveling exhibition I curated for the New Museum called Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. We have known one another for a long time, as both colleagues and friends, and that has created a strong foundation for this exhibition.
Wangechi Mutu, A Fantastic Journey, Installation view at MOCA North Miami, 2014; Photo: Daniel Portnoy; Courtesy of the artist and Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami
AP: What was the original genesis for this exhibition and has it stayed true to its initial conception?
TS: We have had the opportunity to work together twice very early in our respective careers, so our relationship has been developing and building for over fifteen years. This was an opportunity to really do a major show together, which sheds new light on her practice.
AP: Mutu’s work is revered for its “cultural hybridization” of female forms and is often a composite of direct references to the artist's experience. From her childhood in Africa, to her Catholic school primary education, to her eventual migration to Brooklyn, the work tends to fuse otherwise disparate concepts into a centralized message. How has your role as a male curator influenced the trajectory of this exhibition?
TS: The female form and identity play a central role in Wangechi’s work. Females are the focal point of any story that she chooses to tell. I don’t think my gender has played a role.
AP: The narratives beneath Mutu’s work are so layered and compacted. What was your role unpacking these themes and how did your research influence the exhibition as an “outsider”?
TS: As curator it’s my role to present an artist’s work through a specific point of view. I presented a concept to Wangechi and we revised it together. The idea of the journey was central for us—like moving through a landscape in her collage, creating a fantastical world to be explored by the audience. It also alludes to her journey or evolution as an artist, as seen through the survey of work. Specific works were borrowed from museum and private collections in North America and Europe in order to draw out these concepts.
AP: The exhibition includes over fifty pieces from the artist's career, including early works from the 1990s to present. How would you categorize the artist's evolution and would you venture to speculate on the future of Mutu’s practice?
TS: Wangechi is very inventive and loves to experiment, so she is always trying new things. I think she’s one of the most significant artists of her generation.
Wangechi Mutu, The End of eating Everything (still), 2013, Animated video, color, sound, 8 min.; Courtesy of the artist; Commissioned by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. © Wangechi Mutu
AP: The exhibition features Mutu’s first ever animated work, a multimedia video collaboration with singer/songwriter Santigold. How would you say the two female artists have influenced each other and where does the work stand in context to the rest of the exhibition?
TS: The Nasher Museum commissioned Wangechi’s animation because it is an exciting new direction for the artist. It sets her collages in motion and brings them to life in a new way we haven’t seen before. It gives the audience another point of entry into the mind of the artist. Music has long been a muse for both Wangechi and myself, so a collaboration with Santigold made a lot of sense to us. Santigold and Wangechi are very like-minded collage artists, one working mostly with sonic structures and one working more with the visual, but they both are invested in similar concepts, issues and even styles. I know they really hit it off while working together and I would not be surprised if they work together again in the future.
AP: How hands-on was Mutu in the exhibitory practices of the installations?
TS: It was a great collaboration and Wangechi and her team were very involved with the installation and exhibition of her work. We intentionally planned the exhibition so that a certain amount of improvisation by the artist could occur at each venue. Every exhibition in some way must transform and be reconfigured to best fit into new spaces at travel venues. But for this show, Wangechi and I had exploration and discovery specifically in mind from the beginning. There are a number of site-specific elements in the show that are meant to transform in each of the new spaces, in some cases adding new elements, in others, reducing certain things.
AP: Will the exhibition be traveling to any additional locations?
TS: The next and final stop on the tour will be the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, in September 2014.
(Image on top: Wangechi Mutu, Once upon a time she said, I’m not afraid and her enemies began to fear her The End, 2013, Mixed media, dimensions variable; Courtesy of the artist. © Wangechi Mutu. Image courtesy of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina / Photo: Peter Paul Geoffrion)