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Up on a hill on San Francisco’s northwestern end, flanked by fluorescent green golf courts, stands the Legion of Honor, deep in perennial ocean fog. En français, the words Honneur et Patrie welcome tourists and the odd city resident to this neoclassical pavilion’s rigid symmetry, rhythmically marked by an Ionic colonnade. A larger-than-life-size man in bronze, Rodin’s Thinker, governs the courtyard. Caught in internal struggle, he famously cogitates on a pedestal.
Installed throughout the museum’s permanent collection galleries is I Am Speaking, Are You Listening?, a solo exhibition of work by the acclaimed Kenyan American artist Wangechi Mutu. This show follows other recent commissions of the artist by major encyclopedic museums, such as The NewOnes, will free us at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (2019). In the Legion of Honor’s courtyard, under the Thinker’s introspection lay Shavasana I and Shavasana II (2019), two hyperrealistic bronze figures covered by woven blankets, arms and legs spread out. High-heeled sandals and manicured hands, in bright pink and red, contrast with their black bodies and the hovering detached man, embracing pop everydayness. They have cracked, summer-dry feet, veined wrists, hands barely open. The women lie in the shavasana yoga pose, by which one becomes a corpse, relinquishes reason, and transcends into dreamy suspended bliss.
Mutu’s exhibition comes as the Legion of Honor’s tacit answer to widespread calls to decolonize the art institution: that is, to remedy and repair, to the extent that might be possible, the Eurocentric bias of museums’ collections and institutional practices. Art museums’ Eurocentrism stems from the distinction of objects produced after aesthetic programs of European descent as “art,” excluding others from this coveted category and labeling them as ethnic, folklore, or anthropological objects. Throughout modernity this colonial framework has justified the theft of objects of non-European descent for display in imperial capitals, the imposition of European aesthetic programs throughout the world, and the consequential assertion of European superiority over non-European worldviews, an assertion that justified the mass genocide of non-European peoples. Historical as it may seem, this distinction is still with us. We see it today in museum practices that uphold modern European worldviews and their legacies over the many contemporaneous others. We see it too in museums’ unwillingness to reckon with the cultural repertoires of their non-elite local publics by longing, still, for uncanny imperial power. Yet some art institutions are responding to this legacy by undertaking structural reforms and investing in their relations with local audiences, repatriating stolen artifacts, correcting hiring policies, revising and diversifying their permanent collections, and investing in short- and long-term institutional change so that the museum might be, no longer, a temple to European glory. As I walked into the Legion of Honor’s courtyard I wondered: What would I see?
Still outdoors, two larger-than-human bronze sculptures introduce me to Mutu’s personal mythology: Mama Ray (2020) and Crocodylus (2020). They stand defiant, erect and proud, majestic deities of the fluid. The first evokes an ocean vessel. She is a glossy, sleek, female naval warlord with a triumphant gaze and cape. The second relives the protagonism of crocodiles in the cosmo-visions of ancient Egypt, Kenya, and Ethiopia. She is a woman-reptile, ready for battle. Their textured skin, fins, limbs, tails, and scales are equally suited for water, land, and air. Would they swim seamlessly between worldviews too, from the detached rationalism ordering the museum to the emancipatory sensuousness of Mutu’s universe? Between them, a Louvre-esque glass pyramid illuminates the basement. “Look, it’s like the Paris one,” a tourist declares.
As I enter the museum I am received by Water Woman (2017), a life-size bronze creature, half-woman, half-siren, with a strong long and forked tail curled behind her back. Reclined on a base, her arms end in robust webbed hands. Her open chest and fixed frontal gaze convey her powerful agency presiding over the museum’s central hall. Referencing the East African mythological creature Nguva, she captivates me as I walk into Mutu’s interventions in the museum’s permanent collection. I welcome the siren’s disruption of Rodin’s omnipresence and will keep returning to her to be refilled with her spell as the magic wanes touring the wings. I start on my right, in the Dutch Baroque art gallery, where the pair I Am Speaking, Can You Hear Me? (2020) engages in a dialogue silent to me but noticeably loaded. These two paper-pulp heads stand on metal legs that extend down from the torso. A shell and a jawbone replace their ears. Closed eyelids, sacrificially scarred skin. Around them, two Baroque globes display a spherical world in colonization. Painted vistas of stormy seas; still lifes rich with fruits and poultry; portraits of wealthy nobles; silks, pearls, precious stones, and gold. Material worlds collide. The colonizer’s epistemology maps and subjects the world, but the subaltern’s knowledge survives and circumnavigates domination, speaking in ways that I cannot hear.
Back at the entrance, I seek the siren’s gaze once again before diving into the eastern wing, where the museum’s collection takes me further back into European history. Starting with Rococo bronzes and curvy Venuses, I walk under polychrome Mudéjar wood ceilings, medieval tapestries, and golden annunciation scenes. An armored nude, Outstretched (2019), presides over the first section. She is reclined on a base, leaning on her right arm. Her knees bend slightly toward me. Feathers cover her face and genitals. Round protuberances on her skin mark her hybrid bird-likeness. “I see these and I see pain,” a visitor says. I see these and I see a mutant Venus owning the room in her amphibian appeal, exactly opposite to the one framed inside a painting on the wall, guarded by cherubs, of soft pale skin and pencil-drawn contours, under red velvet drapes. A clear contrast and, I would hope, a take-over. Next door, a trio of mirror-faced torsos reflect the ways of engaging with the world dismissed by the centrality of vision in European aesthetics. This is because Mirror Faced I, II, and III (2020) dissuade audiences from the art historical canon by redirecting our gazes throughout the room instead of to the objectified female body. Theirs is a gesture of denial toward us, as audiences in the Eurocentric museum tradition. We are left unacknowledged and unseen by Mutu’s sculptural figures; it is their right to our exclusion and their polyvocal secrecy.
The tension between Mutu’s and Rodin’s sculptural programs haunts me during my visit, never really letting me feel the bliss, as the museum’s original Eurocentrism pervades despite episodic encounters with Mutu’s awesome pieces. Mutu’s hint toward a new order and are successful as independent artworks but come across as contained and restrained within the surrounding Eurocentric order. This tense relationship between the two aesthetic programs begins to make sense when I enter darkness and sit before Mutu’s closing piece, the video My Cave Call (2019). The voice-over in this eleven-minute origin story takes me to a glimmering meadow with pasturing cows, scattered by signs of human fear and grief. Only those who witnessed the rampage imported with the so-called progress of colonizers, tells the voice, can perceive the signs. The narrator tells the tale of a large metal truck that severed forest and land. But its engineers were, alas, ultimately eaten alive, I learn. A woman falls asleep on the meadow, waking up in a cave with long arms like tentacles, in ceremonial white, dancing freely with the smoke, chased by butterflies. In this midsummer afternoon dream, I learn of colonial exploitation and raids, of pillage and rape, of whips and fires, as if they were no more.
But they are. As in other historical caves, Mutu’s cave images render illusions that confuse us. The cave is an allegory for the museum, a stage for appealing but misleading shadows. And I exit this screening room realizing that Mutu’s artistic intervention in the Legion of Honor is just another shadow because it is only temporal, and it too is suspended in the Eurocentric world order for which museums like this one were built. I see these objects that bring African cosmologies, real and fictional, into the museum, but I see very few people of African descent around me. I see plaques honoring the aspirational Frenchness of early twentieth-century San Francisco elites, but I see no efforts within the collection to honor the value of objects made by the Ohlone, the original inhabitants of this colonized land. In the central vaulted gallery, Sentinel IV (2019) stands larger than life. A fluid she-warrior vogueing for us, her moves are framed by three monumental chained sculptures titled Prayers (2019), which hang down from the ceiling like garlands. The set’s materiality (soil, wood, paper pulp, hair) reminds me of the tale of a decolonized meadow in Mutu’s video, where the fixed detachment of Rodin’s bronze casts would be out of place. I turn around and see, just opposite Sentinel IV, two massive flags honoring US and French fraternity. Despite the welcome presence of Mutu’s majestic art, the Thinker’s order still hovers over the mausoleum.
Assistant Professor of Art History, Swarthmore College