Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tumors, Wangechi Mutu

We are delighted to announce that a major work of art by the internationally acclaimed artist, Wangechi Mutu, is the latest addition to our collection. We thank the Heinz Fund, a legacy made by Mrs Drue Heinz, and Art Fund, for helping us to acquire this stunning and important work. Find out more about this acquisition in Leila Riszko's blog below.

WANGECHI MUTU

Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tumors, 2004-5 Glitter, ink, collage on found medical illustration paper, in 12 parts 23 1/4 x 17 1/8 x 1 3/4 in. (59.1 x 43.5 x 4.4 cm.)

Made in 2004-5, Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tumors, comprises twelve mixed-media collages. Describing them as ‘the seedlings for so many other works and ideas’, for Mutu, these collages mark a significant moment in her practice.

Born in Nairobi, Kenya in 1972, Mutu was educated in the UK and America. She studied in Wales from 1989-1991, moving soon after to New York where she studied fine art and anthropology, before taking an MFA, specialising in sculpture, at Yale University in New Haven. After graduation, she focused her practice initially on collage – a decision driven in part by financial reasons, since magazines are easy and economical to source.

WANGECHI MUTU

Detail of Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tumors, 2004-5 Glitter, ink, collage on found medical illustration paper, in 12 parts 23 1/4 x 17 1/8 x 1 3/4 in. (59.1 x 43.5 x 4.4 cm.)

For Mutu, ideas become artworks through a process of intense investigation. She works by cutting up, drawing on, researching, and reinterpreting images that fascinate her and pique her critical interest. She uses material from a diverse range of sources including fashion and pornographic magazines, as well as ethnographic or scientific publications, such as National Geographic. She explains: ‘I go to these magazines for material and doing that allows me to critique them by breaking them apart and kind of vandalising and dissecting them. I pull apart their structure, literally and physically and conceptually, and then reinterpret it for my own purposes and my own interests.’

WANGECHI MUTU

Detail of Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tumors, 2004-5 Glitter, ink, collage on found medical illustration paper, in 12 parts 23 1/4 x 17 1/8 x 1 3/4 in. (59.1 x 43.5 x 4.4 cm.)

The twelve collages which make up Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tumors are composed on pages taken from a nineteenth-century medical folio illustrating, in graphic detail, different diseases of the female sexual organs. Mutu acquired these drawings from an artist friend with whom she had been exchanging ideas and studio materials. As the daughter of a nurse, Mutu had spent many hours in her youth poring over medical textbooks, fascinated and, in equal measure, horrified by images of disease. Naturally, then, the folio drawings rekindled that curiosity.

WANGECHI MUTU

Detail of Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tumors, 2004-5 Glitter, ink, collage on found medical illustration paper, in 12 parts 23 1/4 x 17 1/8 x 1 3/4 in. (59.1 x 43.5 x 4.4 cm.)

Unsure how to use them, though, the sheets sat untouched in Mutu’s studio for the next year or so, until one day, when working on a set of portraiture-based collages, the artist came to think about them in a different light. Unearthing them from a drawer in her studio, she took magazine cuttings and began slowly placing and rearranging them on top of the medical illustrations. Mutu notes that the folio sheets started to ‘accumulate in their meaning and their capacity to hold my eye literally and metaphorically by turning them into faces, by turning them into distorted character investigations of myself and of the human experience’. As these faces materialised, she worked into them with pencil drawing, completing their construction with torn bits of paper, strips of packing tape, fake fur, and dense areas of glitter. Recontextualising these contemporary materials and placing them in dialogue with the historical medical drawings underneath, she had composed a striking and eclectic set of hybrid figures that bristle with political resonance.

WANGECHI MUTU

Detail of Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tumors, 2004-5 Glitter, ink, collage on found medical illustration paper, in 12 parts 23 1/4 x 17 1/8 x 1 3/4 in. (59.1 x 43.5 x 4.4 cm.)

A recurrent theme in Mutu’s work is the cultural representation of women – particularly women of colour – as objectified, commodified, and eroticised. Her use of Victorian-era medical illustrations of the female body speaks of conventions of classification and control, offering a rich metaphor for the exercise of power by certain bodies over other bodies, both inside and out. Meanwhile her layered imagery of bodies of various ethnicities alludes to colonial thinking, complicating notions of racial categorisation and identity.

We managed to track down the original source of the medical illustrations used by Mutu. They are taken from J. A. Jeancon’s Diseases of the Sexual Organs dating from 1887. As a textbook, it was printed with the intended purpose that people could learn from it. By inviting her viewers to experience the remixed, alternative realities and figures that she creates, Mutu challenges us to reflect on accepted ways of seeing and structuring the world and its inhabitants. Through her deep investigation of the human experience, perhaps we can learn something about ourselves and those around us as we engage with Mutu’s transformed and transformative images.

Blog by Leila Riszko, Curatorial Assistant in Modern and Contemporary Art. 

Work cited: 'A Conversation: Wangechi Mutu and Trevor Schoonmaker’ in Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013).

1 September 2021