Pairing Dominican-born artist Firelei Báez with Kenyan-born artist Wangechi Mutu, this article meditates on relational black and brown aesthetic strategies by reading femme gestures performatively across individual works, as well as the exhibition spaces within which the artists draft practices of informed and resistant engagement. Working with both theories of brownness that emerge from Latinx studies as well as scholarship of the black radical tradition, the author follows a sense of shared aesthetic gestures in Báez and Mutu’s work toward an indictment of pervasive Global North racial epistemologies. Focusing on the performative gesture as the basis for relation, this article ultimately hones in on the chimeric figures—amalgamations of flora and fauna—that both artists deploy, arguing that these present a model for imagining an otherwise arrangement of the social.
RESUMEN Poniendo en diálogo a Firelei Báez, una artista nacida en República Dominicana, con Wangechi Mutu, que nació en Kenia, este artículo invita a una meditación sobre las estrategias estéticas relacionales negras y morenas mediante una lectura en clave performativa de gestos femeninos en obras individuales y en aquellos espacios de exposición en que las artistas elaboran prácticas de participación política informada y de resistencia. Trabajando tanto con las teorías de lo moreno (brownness) que emergen de los estudios Latinx como con el trabajo académico de la tradición radical negra, la autora rastrea gestos estéticos presentes tanto en el trabajo de Báez como en el de Mutu para denunciar las omnipresentes epistemologías raciales del norte global. Centrándose en el gesto performativo como la base de la relación, este artículo se enfoca en última instancia en las figuras quiméricas – amalgamaciones de flora y fauna – que ambas artistas despliegan en su trabajo para sostener que estas presentan un modelo para imaginar otra manera de organizar lo social.
RESUMO Pareando Firelei Báez, artista nascida na República Dominicana, e Wangechi Mutu, artista nascida no Quênia, Este artigo elabora uma meditação sobre estratégias estéticas relacionais negras e marrons ao ler gestos femme performativamente através de trabalhos individuais, assim como aqueles espaços expositivos nos quais as artistas ensaiam práticas de engajamento informado e resistente. Trabalhando tanto com teorias de marronidade (brownness) que emergem dos estudos latinxs quanto com a produção acadêmica da tradição negra radical, a autora segue um senso de gestos estéticos compartilhados no trabalho de Báez e Mutu em direção a uma acusação de epistemologias raciais pervasivas provenientes do Norte global. Concentrando-se no gesto performativo como base para a relação, este artigo ultimamente enfoca as figuras quiméricas – amalgamações da flora e da fauna – que ambas artistas empregam em seu trabalho para argumentar que elas proporcionam um modelo para imaginar um arranjo do social de outra maneira.
AN OPENING VIGNETTE
Addressing the attendees of the 2007 symposium “The Feminist Future” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, artist Wangechi Mutu (b. 1972) shared, “I feel like I’m gatecrashing a reunion.” The artist—critically touted as an Afrofuturist executioner of the “postcolonial aesthetic of collage” and curated with enthusiasm by those seeking to illustrate post-structural hybridity—was the single black speaker at the event.1 Featured on a panel on the institutionalization of feminism, Mutu began by acknowledging the awkwardness of her presence, given “a lot of the issues that have been brought up,” underscoring the lingering “sense of inequity” in both the feminist movement and, she pointed out, the museum within which she was delivering her address. Having called out the institution in whose collection her work sits, Mutu then framed the symposium as a hopeful, if flawed, indicator of a commitment to “reignite” conversations.2 She framed the remainder of her talk as a seeming deviation from the conference theme: “I’m not going to speak about the institutionalization of feminism,” she told her audience; “I’m going to speak about my work.” In doing so, Mutu performed a gesture that simultaneously refused the strictures of institutionalization even while acknowledging the dynamic at work in her own cultural production, for to speak of the latter is to speak of the convergence of institutions in the creation and circulation of her work.
While chronicling her arrival to art making, in her presentation Mutu traced the presence and impact of several institutions, among them church, school, and home—distributors of impactful ideologies—as sites of rebellious habitation before homing in on the vibrancy of the protesting maternal body as the source of her feminism and pivot for her work. Mutu specifically cited the 1992 televised protest in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park, during which elderly women held a hunger strike for the release of their sons, political prisoners of President Daniel Toroitich arap Moi’s regime. During this protest, after being joined by the renowned (and Nobel Prize–winning) activist Wangari Maathai and the escalation of police violence, the protesters removed their clothing to “expose their worn, tired, and sagging bodies to the rampaging police, who fled, shamed by the extent of the older women’s desperation and vulnerability.”3 Mutu, then, locates her work within a politicized feminist genealogy that extends from the matriarchs of her family, through the engaged nuns of her schooling, to this performative site of resistance. This trajectory, charted through ideological conscription, comes to grapple with an altogether different hailing encountered through her US training (at the Parsons School of Design and eventually at the Cooper Union) and entry into US art markets. Participation in these spaces, Mutu shared, crystallized a certain racialized expectation for her work—a biographizing expectation that positions her as a tribal African, against the middle-class cosmopolitan “city girl” she identified herself as at the beginning of her talk.4 Part ethnographic, part pornographic, and entirely racialized, Mutu’s artworks stage the expectation to the furthest degree, melding these visual languages with the grammar of fashion and the detritus of development.5
Mutu’s body of work captures and responds to US-specific racial ideologies, notably emerging out of dominant paths of art circulation. Indeed, in an interview with the curator and critic Okwui Enwezor, Mutu shared, “Broaching the idea of race is very complicated because Africans have a different historical experience to those who were abducted and brought here to the USA. They’re equal senses of alienation and exile but the myth that’s loudest is the slave narrative, which doesn’t apply to a huge amount of Africans, myself included. I always say that I was racialised in America.”6 Mutu came to understand herself as racialized in the United States in part through training that made explicit the expected “aboutness” of black art.7 In her address at “The Feminist Future,” Mutu illustrated an understanding of the ways sites of aesthetic engagement, even (or especially) those cognizant of minoritizing ideologies, are tethered to institutionalized knowledge projects and the Bourdieuian fields of distinction whose bounds are strongly controlled by museums, their curators, and markets, prompting us to consider aesthetics and racial capitalism as entwined projects.8
A SECOND VIGNETTE
In Can I Pass? Introducing the Paper Bag Test to the Fan Test for the Month of June (2011, Figure 1) artist Firelei Báez (b. 1981) lays out a grid of quick-study self-portraits in which colorism tests meet: to the paper bag test of the US South, she introduces the fan test of the Dominican Republic.9 Bringing together thirty individual panels arranged to resemble a wall-size calendar, whitewashed backgrounds offset detailed articulations of the artist’s opaque bust in silhouette. The outlines of shoulders, head or face, and hair are executed with care, capturing an array of hairstyles and portrait orientations in relation to the spectator. The detailed outlines are filled with broad and quick brushstrokes of paint mixed daily over the span of the project to match the artist’s forearm.10 Each study prominently features a detailed set of eyes, by and large gazing out (a few up or down), rendered with realistic accuracy. In this work flesh and hair are scrutinized, by the inferred artist posing in front of a mirror as well as by the work’s audience, for the supposed biological facts of blackness—the dermal structuring of social hierarchy in one test, and the weight of hair texture determining status in the other. In these daily studies, Báez set out to try to understand compulsory racial identification: “If I have to lock myself down into something,” she tells us of the question undergirding the study, “if I have to see myself through a specific filter, as many people of color are forced to in the US, what would it be like?”11 Can I Pass? stages the clashing of racializing hails as those that organize race thinking in the United States encounter those of the Dominican Republic that travel with its diaspora. Like in Mutu’s narrative above, Báez here grapples with conscripting racializing ideologies.
But the structuring grid in Can I Pass? is also informed by distinct racial ontologies from those forged through the black-white binary cemented in US imaginaries. “There is a long tradition of disguise,” Báez has shared, “for people of color within the totalitarian narrative of identity in the United States. . . . Because we [Afro-Caribbean artists] come from places without fixed identities, we are often able to make connections to all kinds of different things and see ourselves as being part of a larger global diaspora.”12 Like Mutu’s experience of coming into US conceptions of blackness, in Can I Pass? Báez literalizes the racial structuring logics that will frame the reception of her practice within US-based markets—the conditioning required to endure an engagement of these logics, but also the possibility of imagining otherwise while addressing hegemonic racializing schemas. Indeed, of this work Báez has said: “In that series, I retained the gaze out of a need for personal agency, to act as a counterbalance to the inherent psychic violence in those two tests.”13 The detailed set of eyes anchoring each frame of the race-test grid, then, might be read as delivering an agential resistant gaze “in disguise,” knowledgeable of alternate racial formations. “Warm-ups” for the durational practice of sustained engagement in the art world, these daily portraits directed Báez’s facility with color and skill in drafting toward a practice navigating the entwinement of race, production, and circulation and their imbrication within hierarchies of race—those routes of racial capitalism called out by Mutu above.14
Rich in jewel-toned or earthen hues and haptic versatility, the artistic oeuvres of Dominican-born Firelei Báez and Kenyan-born Wangechi Mutu are punctuated by abstracted, multicolored verbs—punctured, gnashed, dismembered, held, caressed—that both index and generate movement (Figures 2, 3). Responding to racialized hailing from multiple nations and markets, as shown above, Báez’s and Mutu’s individual practices morph biological taxonomies—specifically by imagining flora and fauna otherwise—to train a critical lens on colonial encounters that surface through the imperial present. From viscous seepage and splatter to the lush upholstery of verdant and wooded landscapes, Báez and Mutu enact shared aesthetic gestures we might trace as indictments of pervasive Global North racial epistemologies as they travel through, abetted by, extra-national art circuits. In what follows, Báez and Mutu are held in relation through attention to their shared gestural aesthetic vocabulary as well as global art routes of circulation, accessed through elite gallery representation, through which their aesthetic gestures unfurl.
In pairing Báez and Mutu, I join a group of curators and scholars working beyond comparativist frameworks to instead center the relational in thinking through diaspora and displacement and what the aesthetic might offer us.15 Though Mutu has enjoyed critical success for a longer expanse of time, represented in a number of important group and solo exhibitions, their accompanying catalogues, and a robust body of critical scholarship, Báez has garnered significant critical attention since her solo show Bloodlines at the Pérez Art Museum Miami in 2015, which was quickly followed by participation in an escalating number of group and solo exhibitions as well as prestigious commissions.16 Bringing together scholarship in performance studies and affect theory and methodologies of visual culture studies, I take up Mutu and Báez’s shared privileging of female or feminine figuration, otherwise imagined, and femme gesture to reflect on Afro-diasporic historical and speculative reckoning and world making. Key to this article is the suturing of institutional critique to the otherwise imagined figures conjured in their works, marked as much by race and sexuality as they are by their inhumanity, to problematize hegemonic institutions of preservation, circulation, and display. Báez and Mutu cast their animated figures—amalgamations of organic matter—into scenes informed by official and unofficial archives—history and folklore—invoking genealogies of protection and hexes in equal measure (Figures 4, 5). These femme forms animate the visualscape with a performative charge I read in this essay within and beyond compositional frames. My focus on performative gesture reads the marks made by the artists themselves and follows the gestural sense provoked by the works which, I will argue, exceed their own bounds. Moving across individual pieces as well as those exhibition spaces within which the artists draft practices of informed and resistant engagement, in Mutu and Báez’s excessive and nonnormative femme gestures I will read relational black and brown aesthetic strategies to arrive at institutional critique of the hegemonic archive, museum, gallery, and institutions for the circulation and exhibition of art more broadly.
A relational pairing of these artists also offers us a dynamic map to think through differently occupied conditions of subjection and, with a focus on aesthetics, bring attention to the cultural systems that bolster racial capitalism. Within Latinx studies, the Afro-Latino project has long encouraged us to acknowledge and grapple with blackness within latinidad, while scholarship on brownness has pushed its disciplinary bounds not just to highlight black latinidad but, indeed, to engage non-Latinx blackness so as to arrive at a theorization of racialization that understands power as dispersed, operating across modes of difference.17 In pairing Báez with Mutu I engage in this expanding project, illuminating the proximity of blackness and brownness to bring into focus hermeneutics of expansive possibility. It is not my intent to supplant one episteme with the other, or elevate one at the cost of the other, but rather to hold them as concordant projects that, when regarded together, illuminate connectivity beyond fraught identitarian labels even while reflecting on the concretized social experiences of embodiment.
In invoking the heuristic of the relational, my thinking is indebted to scholarship on brownness, which for theorist José Esteban Muñoz was best accessed through sense—an “attunement toward seeing and feeling in common.” Drawing from “histories of theorizing blackness and queerness,” Muñoz offers us a capacious category meant to “stretch outside the confines of any group formation,” even “outside the limits of the human and the organic.” Such sharing out offers us a mode he called, after Jean-Luc Nancy, “being singular and plural.”18 This seemingly contradictory singular-plural pairing captures a mode of understanding the self that is always “in relation to the plurality of singularities that constitute the world,” a “commons of the incommensurate” in which difference—across vectors of race, gender, sex, and class, among other markers—is kept present even as commonality is sought.19 This is not, it is important to underscore, brownness as interpreted by projects that have defined browning as a consequence of racial mixture such that difference is ultimately of analytic irrelevance. Nor is it sympathetic to nationalist projects that parade unifying ideologies of mixture toward the invisibilizing of Indigenous and black communities and the stratified economic and social disparities these communities experience.20 Instead, this sense of brownness is distinctly attuned to difference, eager to foreground it as essential to thinking about the work of collective envisioning among those who experience subjection under power, seeking out habitation of a commons through which we might work to deepen our critical power. It is this commons I seek to locate in the shared, though distinct, gestural aesthetics in Báez and Mutu’s work, a pairing arrived at by a spectatorial observational sense of approximation and movement.
Reading the aesthetic as an extension of the social, as capturing shifting structures of feeling—“tropes of emotion and lived experience that are indeed material,” conveyed, translated, and engendered in art—I locate a relational sense in both the encounter with Báez and Mutu’s artwork as well as the sense of the otherwise in their aesthetic gestures that originate from within and extend beyond their compositions, in the worlds they conjure, the possibilities they offer.21 As Juana María Rodríguez tells us, “Gestures form part of the ongoing impossible and necessary work of transmitting meaning, a deeply social process that reaches for connection,” and applied here, through the oeuvres of Báez and Mutu, they “make public the imprint of our past.”22 The two artists share a focus on the African diaspora, but Mutu and Báez’s relationality is not just about ontology; it is about reading the aesthetic gesture of resistant connectivity across bodies of work (and, by extension, social bodies) performatively, attuning us to movement and exchange. It is not who they are, in other words, but what they do that I explore in order to elaborate a relational aesthetic practice.
To understand the relational, alongside non-identitarian disseminations of brownness and its rootedness in women of color feminism and queer of color critique, I build, too, on frameworks offered by scholarship on the black radical tradition. I understand both Báez and Mutu as engaged in what Christina Sharpe has called “enfleshed wake work” dedicated to “think[ing] through containment, regulation, punishment, capture, and captivity and the ways the manifold representations of blackness become the symbol, par excellence, for the less-than-human being condemned to death.”23 Their study prompts us to draw from heuristics originating within Latinx and black studies, but that seep beyond the boundaries of each, insisting that these discourses need be regarded alongside and in excess of one another. The affective currents in which Báez and Mutu wade call on us, too, to engage regional formulations we might know as the Caribbean or the Trans*Atlantic—those spaces of blackness and brownness described above by Báez as unfixed yet connected to a global diaspora, where borders are violently performed yet repeatedly overcome.24 Long a region of revolutionary imaginary, the Caribbean and more broadly the Trans*Atlantic in which it is anchored conjure concrete entanglement with ghosts of blood and bondage. Within this regional frame of animated currents and waterways, I follow Édouard Glissant’s provocation of the necessity of movement to a politics and aesthetics of relation.25 This movement allows for a tarrying between dynamics that exceed the nation, which can nonetheless reinforce those social projects that correspond with racial capitalism and the project of imagining and enacting in the aesthetic resistant modes of relationality. Following movement, it seems useful to pivot now to figures whose gestures index movement from a staid position of materiality: to ciguapas, tree women, and other forms.
In Dominican folklore, the ciguapa is a sensuous yet violent creature residing in the island’s high mountains, a rumored cannibal sheathed in lustrous floor-length locks whose body is propelled on backward-pointed feet. Gendered female, she is said to appear as either a beauty or a horror, a magical succubus who both draws and deters those eager to explore the island’s seemingly uninhabited terrain.26 In Báez’s Ciguapa series (2005–15), this figure is called forth to perform what Elizabeth Freeman calls queer asynchronies, for a re-charting of the past and thriving in the present.27 In Ciguapa Pantera (to all the goods and pleasures of this world) (2015, Figure 6), fur-covered mounds atop two leglike appendages—one shaped like a high heeled shoe, the other pedicured in a shade to match the heel’s cap—are topped by plumed foliage, achieving a disorientation of flora and fauna. The ciguapa is plant and animal but also neither, distinguished by femme decor we might recognize as human gesture. One can imagine a soft, bewildering trail left by the train of root/rope extruding from the ciguapa’s cystic bustle. Prominent amid the foliage atop the ciguapa is the leaf of the Monstera deliciosa.28 Replete with a literal delicious monster, a plant whose fruit thickens the air with sweetness when ripe, this ciguapa frightens and entices. Though rendered to appear stationary, feet planted in parallel repose, the ciguapa is in motion. Amid the Monstera prowls a green pantera, the racially coded panther of black militancy portrayed here as chimera. This fecund organism is active, unleashing a racially and politically coded plant-turned-animal in the pleasurable revelry indicated in the work’s title.
I follow this pleasure, gesturally, from the title that animates one ciguapa’s work to the arrangement of the figure in another untitled piece from the series (Figure 7). In this work, the ciguapa’s pointed leglike appendages are separated in an inviting splay of plush terrain, yet the surface obscures any potential orifices the splayed “legs” urge us to seek out. Upholstered and arranged in this way, the orientation of the ciguapa is difficult to discern: we are not sure what side or end of the creature we face. Additionally, seemingly human appendages, decoratively strung off bulbous strands from piled mossy boulders, transform bodily associations of function and productivity while imbuing the ciguapa with a threatening aura. We do not know by what means they were gathered, but plentiful and on display, the relative smallness of the disembodied feet dripping from a tilted pile of earth helps us imagine the ciguapa as looming, an impressive animate landmass, and ponder after the bodies severed from those decoratively strung feet. The consumption of human flesh is conjured as a vibrant possibility. These amalgamations of femme-ornamented organic materiality disturb the viewer’s relationship to land, interrupting gendered figurations of imperial infiltration of receptive environments often rendered female. This ciguapa intervenes, then, in colonial narratives that present the hemisphere’s landscape as penetrable—a narrative that is then used as an excuse to approach the subjects of these territories as penetrable themselves, regardless of consent. The ciguapa, in other words, is no Caribbean chingada, not a cursed mother of a colonized people, traitor and originator at once.29 Instead, in Báez’s rendition, the ciguapa offers a lineage of decolonial resistance.
Despite broad belief in the Taíno origins of the figure, the ciguapa is the late-1800s product of the literary imagination of Francisco Javier Angulo Guridi.30 For sociologist Ginetta Candelario, the ciguapa “can be understood as embodying the simultaneously progressive and regressive sovereignty strategies” Guridi wielded as a “nationalist navigating the Dominican Republic’s contradictory racial demographics, political economy and geopolitics.”31 Further, cultural theorist Dixa Ramírez understands the ciguapa as “a figure of contradiction and ambivalence [that] manages several ghostings, including the violent genocide of indigenous people on the island and the suppression of black freedom as it predominated in this territory.”32 As an artist with a clear facility in historical research, Báez rescripts the ciguapa’s signification to offer a feminist reckoning with nationalist mythos, with femme animality countering civilizing or domesticating majoritarian projects.
Performing further disruption, this time of hemispheric imperial narratives, in Ciguapa Habilis (after Carl Linnaeus) (2010, Figure 8) Báez presents an affront to systems of naming through which the world is hierarchized. In her title Báez calls out the father of modern taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus, and uses his system of binomial nomenclature to categorize the ciguapa in relation to the institutionally construed “human.” The habilis noted in the title implies a link to Homo habilis, one of the earliest known organisms with whom we share the genus Homo. But what Báez retains is the species assignation habilis, designating the genus Ciguapa as opposed to Homo, thereby creating a clear split from the taxonomical order.33 Báez has also supplanted the imperial Latin with Dominican folklore, a linguistic displacement that leaves us pondering the connective relation between species lineages.
Much has been written about the humanity denied black and brown bodies and the formation of modern subjectivity as reliant on the distinction between the human and the non- (or insufficiently) human.34 Here, instead of a project invested in equivalence on fraught terms, in the recuperation of a category applied to black and brown bodies only to signal its limits, Báez enacts a linguistic and discursive departure from the very category. We might think of this departure as enlivened by the queer animacy Mel Chen argues attaches to the inhuman. For Chen, animacy’s queerness “can work to blur the tenuous hierarchy of human-animal-vegetable-mineral with which it is associated” in a way that ultimately “tugs at the ontological cohesion of ‘the human.’”35 This unraveling tug underscores the other-reliant composition of the liberal enlightenment category of Human, but also illuminates modes of being beyond its structuring logic. As a linked but otherwise aligned organism, Báez’s ciguapa defies the organizational system through which the wilds became ordered, arrayed, studied, and hierarchized. Within this refusal, Báez also plants gestural potential.
In Ciguapa Habilis (after Carl Linnaeus) Báez renders the ciguapa’s mythically long hair as an extruded braid coiled in the corner of the compositional frame’s vacuous white space. Where it connects to the ciguapa, the braid is tense, animated with what I read as the capacity for movement and connectivity that indexes the possibility of exiting the boundedness of the frame through the coil’s implied potential for unfurlment as it appears in other iterations of the ciguapa-type figure. In one of the many vignettes that comprise Man without a Country (aka anthropophagist wading in the Artibonite River) (2014–15, Figure 9), for example, we see organisms connected by an unfurled braid across visual frames, indexing movement even while devoid of it. Movement is replicated throughout the larger piece, a composite of small vignettes spread across the expanse of a gallery wall, with ciguapa figures as well as severed limbs scattered across and between. This movement is then captured in the work’s title, not just through citation of the verb “wading” but also with and through the Artibonite River, which runs the span of the island of Hispaniola from the Dominican Republic to Haiti, and in whose waters femme figures wade.36 The appearance of maps beyond the geography of Hispaniola (many of the maps in the work are of the US state of Indiana) conveys a broader traversing, a wading, against colonized landscapes.37 Reading the potentiality of aesthetic gestures in this way offers a heuristic approach for an oeuvre that counters the boundedness of exhibitionary spaces but is cognizant of institutional flows one might activate as and through the ciguapa.
In the detail image under consideration, pink organic matter organized into what we might call habilis forms reveal themselves as hairless ciguapas with their long, uncoiled braids of sinewy strands. Layered atop an aged page torn out of a book, perforated on the left by now-missing binding stitches, one ciguapa is perched carefully on the bottom horizontal line of a rectangle that contains (the caption tells us) a bust of the chemist James Curtis Booth. One footlike appendage breaks the line on which she rests, entering or exiting the compositional frame created by the book’s producer. A parallel form occupies a similar position on the edge of the book page itself. A braid emits from between twin sets of parted legs as a connective appendage, a sensuous gesture. Linked in this way, the ciguapas raise mirrored limbs in a tight pink and red fist, one of which punctures the portrait-bust of a manipulator of the organic, invested in knowledge projects for organizing the unknown world. Notably, the gesture catalyzes in Booth a kind of brain fire that seeps out of the eyes: an overcoming of knowledge centers. The gesture also symbolically links our ciguapa to black and brown power revolts, for which the raised fist is emblematic of resistance, as well as invoking the broader protective gestures of the azabache, conventionally rendered as a black fist, a leitmotif of Báez’s work. This gesture of revolutionary connectivity performs a clear rupture of linear time in the archive as contemporary gestural symbology reaches to overwhelm the very genesis of desires past to order the wilds such that the ciguapa’s upturned azabache might indeed provide protection from the epistemic violence of knowledge projects.
Through the vignettes in Man without a Country (aka anthropophagist wading in the Artibonite River), a work created by marking pages of deaccessioned books from the Cooper Union’s library, Báez additionally counters historical amnesia with cannibalistic threat in palimpsest, layered atop official (if now out of favor) discourse (Figure 10). Wading across pages Báez describes as marked by “the patina of age” and content she describes as now recognized as “morally wrong” but once in keeping with the Cooper Union’s goal of “indoctrinating young immigrant men into American industry through science and architecture,” the anthropophagist of the title here denies the adventuring “Man” a country to know, consume, and occupy.38 Speaking directly to the linkage between projects of “science and architecture” but also the training of artists under a shared ideology, the ciguapa unfurls aesthetic gestures from within one episteme toward the unsettling of institutional stability, an all the more significant gesture given Báez’s (and Mutu’s) training at the Cooper Union. A cannibal who has littered the composite vignettes with severed limbs, the ciguapa activates the land we know her to embody in diverse amalgamations as itself an anti-imperial force. Destabilizing temporal frames, the ciguapa is the queer animality Chen argues could serve as a “site of investment, a commitment to queer, untraceable, animal futurities, morphing time and raciality.”39 With curled fist, from the present moment of spectator engagement she reaches back to historical figures and the systems they erected, whose organization of the present ensconced in most respected institutions is felt but whose future is waning.
In Báez’s own words, the Ciguapa series serves as a proposition “meant to create alternate pasts and potential futures, questioning history and culture in order provide a space for reassessing the present in ways similar to Octavia Butler’s science fiction.”40 Báez here narrates her work within a speculative, and specifically Afrofuturist, genealogy. Scholarship on Afrofuturism has tended to underscore “transformations that are the by-product of new media and information technology,” as Alondra Nelson tells us in her now-classic introductory essay to the special issue of Social Text dedicated to the subject.41 In Báez’s works, the technological isn’t always readily apparent through transformation and Afro-diasporic futurity.42 What is readily apparent, however, is the adoption of a characteristic engagement with a “history of racialization,” which it troubles “by working within it,” also one of Afrofuturism’s defining characteristics.43 Báez here elaborates a speculative “reassessment,” blurring the past, present, and future to underscore the long life of colonization and its violence, especially through the figure of the ciguapa.
Wangechi Mutu fills her visual world with analogous figures, animated by a similar orientation to time and projects of racialization. Organic amalgamations like the ciguapas, warrior tree women, and chimeras in active repose filled the gallery space in Mutu’s 2017 exhibition Ndoro Na Miti at Gladstone Gallery in New York (Figure 11). The show’s title, meaning “mud and trees” in the language of Mutu’s kin, the Gikuyu of Kenya, underscores both the material used and the subjects rendered in the exhibition toward Mutu’s stated goal of “inviting audiences ‘to enter a place and re-think themselves.’”44 In a muted color palette distinct from the collages that earned her star status in the art world, Mutu filled the white cube of the gallery with earthen vibrancy: rusty domes she calls viruses, clay- and branch-colored plant-human amalgamations marked by the dark umber of decay or petrification, and the obsidian gray of a smooth mer-creature, an nguva (a water woman of East African folklore).45 The material combinations resonate in the mouth as their configurations framed what has largely been read as a postapocalyptic hope, but also a noted shift in aesthetic mapped onto Mutu’s return, part time, to Nairobi when she is not in Brooklyn. For some, the shift in materiality and incorporation of figures important to the Gikuyu has led to dismissals of the new work as reverting to “the simplicity of ancient beliefs and practices that fail to entice.”46 What is for that critic a reversal and reductive simplification, I see as an amplification and augmentation of the Afrofuturist project that deploys femme gesture to reorient our consumptive experiences within institutions of display.
Of the evolution of Afrofuturism, Reynaldo Anderson and Charles E. Jones have written, “Afrofuturism 2.0 is the early twenty-first century technogenesis of black identity reflecting counter histories, . . . enhancement and augmentation, gender fluidity, posthuman possibility, the speculative sphere, with transdisciplinary applications and has grown into an important Diasporic technocultural ‘Pan-African’ movement.”47 Defining a project for which both Mutu and Báez are exemplary, the axis through which Ndoro Na Miti is a logical extension of Mutu’s practice, long-defined as Afrofuturist, becomes apparent. Additionally, “Beyond mud’s signification as that which sustains life forms,” as curator and scholar Adrienne Edwards says of Mutu’s turn to the medium in earlier performances, “the artist is cognisant of the ways in which the Western world is likely to analyse this material in the context of her identity as an African woman using it as a medium for her art.” Like in her earlier work, Mutu means to conjure the expected “aboutness” through her medium—primitivism, backwardness, ritual—but as Edwards reveals, “for Mutu, mud is also a geological force with immense potential to devastate.”48 There is, then, a cautionary invitation here to “re-think [our]selves,” that warns us of the Earth’s power, a reckoning with the Anthropocene.
The inclusion of “viruses”—basketball-size, textured spheres that resemble ocean mines—displaced among branches and suspended above pearl-encrusted forms in the exhibition, was perhaps the most revelatory of the cautions Mutu implied: the possibility of a near future in which advancement and destruction commingle to the point of “posthuman possibility.” But in this speculative vision Mutu paired the viruses with “enhanced” and “augmented” gender-fluid amalgamations that rearrange the ordering of the world. Though amalgamation has long characterized the subjects Mutu conjures, here the melding of animate matter continues to be anything but “simple.” As with Báez’s time-bending figures discussed above, an undeniable characteristic of these future survivors is their gestural femininity and ornamentation, which rejects a casting to a primitive past.
The warrior woman that Mutu centered in early collages is rendered here as a tree woman, shaped as much by grammars of fashion as by native Kenyan worldviews. About the significance of trees and landscape in her work, Mutu has shared: “There is the tree, an original holy tree. And in Kikuyu it’s actually the Mugumo tree, which is this big fig tree, and it’s the tree from which we were all birthed. You’re not supposed to cut it down or desecrate it. And the tree is female in my mind .... There’s something about trees that feels like they’re the original gallery space, the original place of worship and awe.” In addition to the tree’s cultural significance and the aesthetic reverence she acknowledges within it, Mutu also shares a revelatory warning: “Plants and animals are in our world, existing with us, and they have just as many rights to be here as we do.”49 Generally large, old trees with expansive branches, when a Mugumo tree falls, it often augurs change for the Kikuyu. In the context of her conscientious cultural production, Mutu’s Tree Woman (2016, Figure 12) renders a matriarchal force cognizant of surrounding environmental desecration, imbued with a sense of belonging that also challenges the exhibition space with her own demands for aesthetic awe and worship. Like Báez’s ciguapa, she is poised on organically heeled limbs in a display of “supreme ornamental feminism,” a mode of feminism theorized by Edwards that reads power in “feminine excess” instead of as capitulation to gendered norms.50 She stands erect, a more straightforward simulacrum of the female form than the ciguapa, in keeping with Mutu’s style of figuration, with one arm bent behind her head, and the other extended as a counterweight below. An Afrofuturist 2.0 vision, she is “enhanced,” “augmented” perhaps, strengthened behind the branch armature.
An entanglement of branches and earth, Mutu’s Tree Woman appears to reach behind her, perhaps to unfurl her branches (in a gesture akin to Báez’s ciguapa, with whom I hold her here in relation) diagonally toward the foliage-topped creature across the gallery space, in a gesture akin to the ciguapa’s unfurling of her braid. These less-amorphous amalgamations, which present flora and fauna otherwise, continue the work of Mutu’s earlier collages which, as critic Sean Gordon notes, “illustrate how the technologies of racism, nationalism, and sexism produce fully hybridized human subjects—focusing on black women—that refuse and exceed stale racial taxonomies, even as they register the ongoing violences of confinement and assault.”51 In an embrace of excess in general, and femme excess in particular, Tree Woman’s gestures exceed its form in reaching for connectivity, but also require an active shift in focus from her audience—a gesture resonant of performance.
As noted in this article’s opening vignette, performance is, and has always been, an important part of Mutu’s oeuvre.52 It informs her entire practice and process. Indeed, when considering the installation of her work in exhibition spaces Mutu aims for a performative intervention into art historical discourses. “For me,” she observes, “installation is where I most emphasize my understanding of art history. And by that I mean that installation is about art that actually belongs in a particular place and a particular time, that has to be looked at now, in this one room as opposed to anywhere else.”53 Mutu is highly aware of the ways her work is exhibited and circulated. She seeks to engage her audience in the (shifting) present as well as to intervene in the broader institutional structures whose establishment is very much linked to oppressive regimes by animating space, challenging the focus of revelry, and indicating another vision against the present destructive order. Ndoro Na Miti, a potent example, issued an urgent invitation and simultaneous warning through the performative deployment of femme gesture, animating form in order to conjure an otherwise, a sense of how we might be—a gesture not easily undone by the separation of works through exhibition and purchase, their dissemination along routes within which artists struggle.
In his recent elucidating essay on sense and relationality, Hentyle Yapp elaborates on the role of time: “Relationality requires a return to history and an ongoing revision of what binds us .... [It] requires us to pause and revise our approach to the question of how we relate to one another.” Yapp’s principal focus on return and revision through attention to “brief moments of encounter, expiration, and sense making” seeks to avoid the dangerous tendency “toward universalization in accounts of relationality.”54 In Mutu and Báez we see an oscillation across modalities, movement across time, a simultaneous lingering and expiration presenting a sense of otherwise across past, present, and future. In their gestures, in the movement we can sense from them, I read the very enactment of relation, inviting potentiality. The temporal limit of the sense or its congealment in two or three dimensions in the work under observation here has us hold in productive relation those social and political differences instrumental to understanding processes of structural subjugation while seeking out commonality that Muñoz tells us “nonetheless maintains the urgencies and intensities we experience as freedom and difference,” a freedom and difference we might call black and brown and those ambiguous spaces that are neither but both.55
In interviews, artist talks, and published writings, both Mutu and Báez issue strong critiques of power, of archives and history, museums, and the broader culture industry as instantiations of larger ideological dynamics. Reflecting on their countries of origin as linked to circuits that disrupt nation-bounded projects, they center the African diaspora and the distinct projects of racialization that shape them in relation to the category of the Human. Echoing Báez’s taxonomical refusal, Mutu rejects aims to create “something that is whole,” and instead aims at “remaking the world as we once all were/are, animal/human/multi-shaded”—indeed, the world as it could be, perhaps has been, and still is outside majoritarian schemes.56 Báez and Mutu offer us a relational rubric through which to regard contemporary routes of intimacy across regions, through imperial art markets within which they disidentify, seeking a space for survival between radicality and surrender, as Mutu has put it.57 Within this space, relational black and brown aesthetics can unfurl, following the gestures of these femme figures—ciguapas and tree women alike. The gestural aesthetic mark offers us a site to read shared strategy and visual language, but also relation through a sense of movement, generated within and across frames to other works, for a model of aesthetic connectivity that might capture or produce a shift in organizing ideologies.
In Ndoro Na Miti, across the gallery though facing away from Tree Woman, Mutu positioned Giver (2016, Figure 13). Sitting upright on folded legs, she balances with one arm reaching down aside her hip while the other is outstretched, palm up. A predominantly humanoid form made of red clay, her body is covered with raised marks evoking both scarification and textured plant skin. A short trunk atop her head supports earthen-hued leaves. A tree woman herself, an organic amalgamation of flora and fauna, she is animated despite her ostensible stillness. In her performative, open-palmed gesture of generosity I read Mutu’s stated invitation to enter and rethink ourselves. There are other ways, she seems to gesture, to be than human, where we might delight in “miniscule movements, glimmers of hope, scraps of food, the interrupted dreams of freedom found in those spaces deemed devoid of full human life,” ways within those spaces of blackness and brownness, and those that are neither but both we might regard in relation, to imagine, in the present moment, a future.58