Wangechi Mutu: Water Woman
Permanent collection installation
The Baltimore Museum of Art
East African folklore warns of the nguva: captivating mermaids with webbed hands who lure unsuspecting mortals into the sea. Wangechi Mutu’s Water Woman is a cast bronze sculpture that depicts the enticing and hybrid form of one such being. In her practice, Mutu experiments with the ways in which the bodies of women—particularly black women—are portrayed in mythology, art, and popular media. Often erupting with monstrous mutations, the artist’s figures use their distorted bodies as an empowering armor that shields them against violence and objectification. Mutu casts Water Woman as assured and regal, countering tales of nimble sirens who tempt men to an ill fate and other stories that perpetuate damaging myths of the dangers of female sexuality.
Exhibited within The Baltimore Museum of Art’s permanent collection of European art, there is a visual comparison to be drawn between the nearby historic works and Mutu’s Water Woman. Her darkly patinated bronze form seems at first to be at home among the bronze sculptures in the surrounding galleries, but as a figure drawn from African mythology (rather than the biblical, classical, and socioeconomic narratives depicted in the Western tradition), the nguva stands distinct in her difference. Against this backdrop of Eurocentric art history, the sculpture claims space for the representation of black power and beauty.