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In the museum map for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Wangechi Mutu's work is listed as: "Site-specific gallery installation by up-and-coming artist. Visitors may find certain works in this exhibition challenging. Parents/guardians are advised to preview the exhibition before sharing it with children."

One might be forgiven for thinking that Mutu, born and raised in Kenya, now based in New York, has already "up and come". Her work resides in museums of modern and contemporary art in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco. It has been exhibited at prestigious art museums and galleries in London, Paris and Tokyo. It has received critical attention in numerous glossy journals and publications.

"Beauty" and "horror" are the two words most frequently used about the Mutu opus. She creates collaged images of women, using clippings from fashion magazines, news magazines, and porn magazines (which feature, she's asserted, the most realistic brown skin). Smooth shiny arms that end in manicured talons, sexy stiletto-shod legs, emerge from bodies which are continents of mineral, wood, plant, forest, flesh, rock, jewel, feather. Close up, we see that each of these bodies is mutilated in some way – amputated, pierced, shattered, bleeding.

"There are elements and references to violence, but my work is not about violence," says Mutu. "It concerns what brings about violence, and ideas of power – female power, how history is proscribed or worked out on the bodies of women."

The installation I viewed in San Francisco is entitled "The Chief's Lair is a Bloody Mess". One wall of the white box gallery space has been gouged with dozens of small holes, like gunshot wounds, tinged with red pigment. Three chairs dominate the center of the room, poised on extended spindly stilt legs. A bottle of wine hangs over each one, drips on the chair and spills on the floor, drying to sticky odorous bloodstains. These "thrones" are a satire on Western global hegemony: "A leader can sit on his seat and tell people to go out and fight the wars he has created." Yet the ease with which the same seats could be toppled, as they wobble on their perches, suggests the precarious base of military dominance.

In the collage "Bloody Old Head Games", a tiny figure, half-female, half-bird, perches on the elbow of a gigantic standing woman with scars and dark patches where we would expect to see breasts. A pistol in the hand of the avian woman points directly into the skull of the main figure, spews an explosion of red and brown particles. The eye moves down the picture to a girdle of pubic hair that morphs into long dangling strands of a grass skirt, over a leg raised as if to dance. Mutu plays a head game with the viewer, challenges our preconceptions, seduces and frightens, lures and repels.

The work of an African artist exhibited in the Western world is never free of imposed expectations of "authenticity". San Francisco museum curator, Tara McDowell, says of Mutu's work: "Born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya, she creates work that reflects her African identity and heritage as well as a politics of place with which she is deeply familiar, having spent years exposed to the mutilations that are common in parts of Africa debilitated by civil strife and the diamond trade."

Wangechi Mutu was a schoolmate of mine at Loreto Convent, a private Catholic girls' school in Nairobi. The mutilations referred to may be common in Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Congo – they did not figure in the experience of upper middle-class Nairobi schoolgirls in the 1980s. While Mutu admits to a "Catholic-obsessed mind", and clearly draws on the iconography of the ritualized sacrificial body, we see at work in McDowell's comments the unexamined racism of "collective representation". Anyone hailing from the African continent is assumed to have first-hand experience of every aspect of the social, political and economic history of every region of the continent. This is the only way their art can be legitimate. Unlike Western artists, Africans may not address a subject simply because it engages them – it must reflect some aspect of their own heritage.

If Mutu's work does indeed reflect a politics of place, it is a universal place she explicates herself: "I position myself as a violator, a person who destroys. There's something horribly satisfying about it. People have to clean up after you. Someone has to come around to heal the wall. And it takes a lot to repair. It's also about creating that cycle of responsibility that's part of the performance of this piece. Women's bodies […] are like sensitive charts - they indicate how a society feels about itself."

It takes creative courage to gouge out a white gallery wall. It takes intellectual and artistic courage to recontextualize mass-produced images of the female body in ways that may still be misinterpreted. Mutu's work has been reproduced on magazine covers with captions such as "Fashion and Art", or worse, "Sex Sells". But there is a deeply satisfying aesthetic fused with a radical politics here. A holy mess that draws us into the best kind of head game - one that forces us to re-examine our conditioned responses to the imagery that surrounds us.

* Visit for more information. Shailja Patel is a Kenyan Indian poet and spoken word artist. Visit

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