Back in 1902, four arched facades of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City were left empty after completion. No doubt the then curators presumed they would be filled by great pieces of art created by great White men. One hundred and seventeen years later, renowned Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu was commissioned by the same museum to fill those voids, and she did— in her likeness.
The work, The NewOnes, will free Us, is a quartet of nearly seven-foot-tall female figures, each in a different regal pose, all with notable African features right down to the lip plates that Mutu says refer to women of status in Ethiopian and Sudanese cultures. Known for her large-scale mixed-media collages deconstructing traditional ideals of beauty and gender, Mutu, 47, decided to stage, in the words of the museum’s curators, “a feminist intervention.”
In a video about the work, the artist explains her inspiration. “When The Met approached, I was actually looking at caryatids,” she says. “Caryatids throughout history have carried these buildings to express the might and wealth of a particular place. In Greek architecture you see these women in beautiful robes, and in African sculpture across the continent, you see them either kneeling or sitting, as well as holding up the seat of the king.
I wanted to keep the DNA of woman in an active pose, but I didn’t want her to carry the weight of something or someone else. “How they look is very much about what they mean,” she adds. “These women…have the capacity, the freedom and the opportunity to be where they need to be, to say what they have to say. They are here, they are present and they have arrived.”
This interview originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of ESSENCE magazine, available on newsstands now.