Art and People
Looking back at Wangechi Mutu's Intertwined at New Museum with curator Vivian Crockett
Jun 14, 2023
Spread throughout all seven floors of the New Museum in New York, the recently closed major solo exhibition of Wangechi Mutu presented the dynamic and groundbreaking practice of the artist. Titled Intertwined (Mar 2 - Jun 4, 2023) the exhibition encompassed over 100 different paintings, drawings, sculptures, films, and performance pieces that have been created over the last 25 years. Mutu initially gained recognition for her innovative approach to collaging, a method exploring themes of camouflage, transformation, and mutation through the artist’s wide-ranging material interventions. With a fusion of mythical, folkloric narratives, and layered socio-historical references, Mutu’s Intertwined celebrated artworks that took on hybrid and fantastical forms driven by feminist perspectives, Afrofuturism, and the symbiotic interplay between different species. While rooted in specific cultural contexts, Mutu’s artistic vision transcends geographical boundaries, engages with pressing contemporary realities, and envisions new types of idealized, and transformed futures.
One of the show’s curators, Vivian Crockett, has a keen focus on African, Latinx, and American diasporas, and considers the criticality of race, gender, and queer theory in her curatorial research. It was through this lens that she embarked on a remarkable journey with Margot Norton to curate Intertwined. Reflecting on the exhibition, this article offers a retrospective insight from Crockett, including sharing the moment she first encountered Mutu's creations as an undergraduate at Stanford University. Although it was by chance that Crockett came across Mutu's work during a serendipitous visit to San Francisco in 2005, she vividly recalled the overwhelming sense of awe that washed over her upon entering the exhibition. Ever since, many of the artist's powerful installations such as her evocative Hangin' in Texas exhibition at Artpace (Nov 11, 2004 – Jan 23, 2005), or Sleeping Heads (2006), with its haunting “wounded wall,” have all resonated with Crockett deeply.
The magnitude of Intertwined cannot be understated, marking the first time in the New Museum's history that an artist has been granted the entire building for an exhibition. When asked if this had been simply an extension to accommodate all 113 artworks in the space, Crockett replied that it was a matter of balancing practical and conceptual considerations, involving an intertwining of many of the team’s decisions across each floor. Challenges posed by the large-scale pieces like Crocodylus (2020) which had to be expertly tilted into the museum's elevator, or the unconventional placement of Shavasana I (2021) in the Sky Room, installed on a mobile platform with wheels for easy portability, exemplified the delicate balance between adhering to the museum’s unique architecture, without jeopardizing the show’s artistic vision.
Among the many thought-provoking installations in the exhibition, one that particularly stood out was In Two Canoe (2022). This recent, monumental work found its home in the museum’s Lobby Gallery, serving as a perfect complement to the work For Whom the Bell Tolls (2019). The latter, a mangrove-like structure crafted from red soil, paper pulp, wood glue, and wood bells, sits atop a unique fabric cloth plinth, and remarks on the complexities of human roots, and our connection to the planet’s other inhabitants. Crockett explained how the juxtaposition of these two sculptures not only accentuated the exhibition's overarching themes beautifully, but also captured some of the essence of Mutu's material expansions. In Two Canoe had previously graced the awe-inspiring green landscape of the Storm King Art Center in New York, and having to adapt it to the New Museum’s urban context required careful contemplation. While the exhibition was being installed, passersby would often find themselves captivated by the sculpture through the museum's glass facade, igniting an abundant amount of public curiosity and peculiar reaction.
Crockett explained that her connections with artists often form through a profound and unforgettable experience in the presence of their creations. In Mutu's case, Crockett resonated with the artist having roots in multiple places, and what she described as her nimbleness as a migrant. With Tuan Andrew Nguyen, an artist she is currently working with, Crockett expressed how they had a shared understanding of the complexities of identity and existence. For both, being perceived as either "legible" and/or "non-legible" as people living away from their places of origin fuels their respective creative approaches.
Reflecting on her personal highlights of co-curating Mutu’s 25-year retrospective, Crockett conveyed her excitement around the idea that several works on display in Intertwined had never been exhibited prior. The trust that the artist had bestowed upon the curatorial team was highly appreciated and granting the museum access to her personal materials - even vulnerably unearthing early works - enabled the production of such a rich exhibition. The generosity and personal engagement of Mutu helped Crockett gain deeper insights into her current practice, which is an invaluable experience that she’ll always cherish.
Through this extraordinary exhibition at the New Museum, Vivian Crockett along with fellow curator Margot Norton celebrated the artist’s ability to challenge societal boundaries, evoke profound emotions and ignite dialogues around society's open wounds. Intertwined offered an immense sense of healing through the presence of Wangechi Mutu’s remarkably dramatic creations, and questioned what it means to be human, or complicit in a world as violent as today’s one.
Wangechi Mutu's Intertwined was on view between Mar 2 - Jun 4, 2023 at the New Museum in New York. For more information, please click here.
Intertwined was curated by Vivian Crockett, Curator, Margot Norton, Chief Curator, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (former Allen and Lola Goldring Senior Curator at the New Museum), with Ian Wallace, Curatorial Assistant.