The racist reckoning that hit the US last year has touched many institutions, high and low. But only now, when the country reopens, will the results be seen.
Art museums have grappled with issues of representation and cultural justice, as well as their historical role in imperialism and outright theft, and now their public programming reflects those discussions.
Shavasana I and Shavasana II are bronze figures of black women under woven yoga mats. Photo: Gary Sexton / Courtesy the San Francisco Art Museums
A new exhibition at the San Francisco Legion of Honor, Wangechi Mutu: I’m speaking, are you listening ?, speaks to this moment. As a concerted effort to decolonize the museum, which reopened this week after a Covid-induced hibernation, it consists of recent works by the Kenyan-American artist housed in the Legion’s galleries rather than in one or two rooms. There their works are in dialogue with the Legion’s Eurocentric permanent collection, which reflects the sensibility of the industrialists who founded them a century ago. Overall, I Am Speaking is an impulse of transgression in this solid secular temple.
The work of the French sculptor Auguste Rodin from the 19th century has a high priority in the entire museum, crowned by a cast of the thinker in the inner courtyard. Mutu’s large-format sculptures and mixed-media paintings complement the Rodins, even if they question Western art’s fascination with neoclassical aesthetics. From her choice of materials – paper pulp, wood, earth and hair, and bronze – to the mythical theme, her works evoke a kind of matriarchal divinity rooted in African myth.
“When I started working in the world, it was honestly still a little exotic to be a black artist and definitely an African artist,” Mutu told Interview magazine last year.
Mutu’s exhibition was designed with the San Francisco Legion of Honor in mind. Photo: Randy Dodson / Courtesy the San Francisco Art Museums
This is the origin of this exhibition. Mutu shows black women in all phases of life and gives them a raw presence.
Some sculptures may be assertive grotesque and always exude power. The boldest are Shavasana I and Shavasana II, bronze figures of black women under woven yoga mats – “Shivasana” is the posture of corpses – like corpses. They were lying on their backs in the courtyard, high-heeled shoes half over their feet, as if the thinker were thinking coldly about their fate.
“Given the current reckoning with systemic racism, I say: are you listening? is currently one of the most important exhibitions of all, ”said Thomas P Campbell, the museum’s director.
That I speak, are you listening? Exhibit. Photo: Randy Dodson / Courtesy the San Francisco Art Museums
It is certainly a demonstration of a museum’s longing to go beyond guilt with concrete measures. But that too is colored by other events. In one of his final acts as president, Donald Trump issued a lame duck executive order that federal architecture should be “beautiful” in a neoclassical style, an edict many Americans viewed as coded white supremacy. Surely it felt more to the taste of the now-foiled “Anglo-Saxon caucus” in Congress than any actual artistic movement. I Am Speaking asks what an art institution should do if it rejects these values and yet embodies precisely this architecture.
Prayer. Photo: Gary Sexton / Courtesy the San Francisco Art Museums
“You have to think about the ideological context this museum is in,” said I Am Speaking curator Claudia Schmuckli. “It has a completely different response when confronted with these sculptures. Look at Mama Ray and Crocodylus in the yard. They appear to have emerged from the bay and are roaring against the building. “
Mutu’s exhibit was designed with the San Francisco Legion of Honor in mind and cannot simply travel. Some of the pieces have been placed in a specific gallery to give viewers the best possible insight into their personal dialogues with the permanent collection. In prayer, for example, three huge strands of pearls hanging over Rodin’s main gallery form a canopy or “chapel within the chapel”, as Schmuckli puts it.
The overall effect of prayer is rededication. In light of this, Rodin’s busts of Victor Hugo or the muscular American athlete look hopelessly declining. Indeed, in I am speaking, are you listening? Mutu even makes the thinker think again.