The Female Prototype: Formal Analysis of Wangechi Mutu’s Tiny Split Character As you walk up the cold, concrete steps, it looms above you, intimidating and inviting all at the same time. A wall of windows gives you an intimate peek before entering, without showing too much, heightening the anticipation. A pair of small, rotating doors, portal you into another world. The Museum of Contemporary Art’s interior is vast and simplistic, leaving a sense that the building itself is detached from the wonder it holds within its walls.
Winding up the stairs and through the showrooms, the pieces almost come to life against the stark white walls. Moving through Seeing Is a Kind of Thinking: A Jim Nutt Companion, each section displays a theme more controversial, and complex then the next. Wangechi Mutu’s Tiny Split Character, is modest, even beautiful, among the many grotesque images surrounding it. Dark, deformed bodies, riddled with sexual innuendo, sometimes subtle, more often blunt, line the walls. Although Tiny Split Character, portrays the same thing, it does so gracefully, as opposed to its counterparts.
Tiny Split Character depicts the figure of a woman, distorted, in an awkward, yet seductive pose. Off to her left, a tiny figure of a woman, who is distorted as well, is suspended in mid air, head bent back, leg extended. The face of the smaller woman has a masculine feel, with an eerily large smile slapped across it. Her pose and facial expression gives the sense of freedom, an almost carefree demeanor. Armless, breasts exposed, and stiletto heels complete this misshapen representation of female sexuality. The larger woman looks at the smaller one with big, beautiful, eyes almost longingly.
Perhaps the tiny woman is a representation of what, and who, the larger woman wants to be. Maybe even who she use to be, before she became a victim to the exploitation and misrepresentation of woman in society. Luscious lips are the only other human characteristic enhancing her face. The larger woman is contrived with more oddities then her ideological interpretation. Gears and mechanical parts comprise her shoulders and part of her chest, showing the machine she has become, but also showing strength, and her indestructible nature.
Flowers adorn her, softening her machinery and warped body while showing a soft, feminine side, without subjugating it. A tattered, purple garment is the only thing covering her lower half, purple being the color of royalty. Her body is nearly completely covered in holes. Maybe her facade is fading, or maybe she is literally falling apart, finally dissolving under the constant pressure and scrutiny. Her trunk is composed of a sickening green color, possibly representing the sickness at her core. A disease that is consuming her and other women alike.
Wangechi Mutu has said that, “Females carry the marks, language and nuances of their culture more than the male. Anything that is desired or despised is always placed on the female body,” (Kerr par. 4). A red streak washes over her side, cascading from her waist, down her hip, and on to her thigh, accentuating her curves, and again playing up her sexuality. The finishing touch, manicured hands and stiletto heels. All this against a simple white background, darkness encroaching the top center and corners. Wangechi Mutu uses, “magazine images of women and makes them almost monstrous.
Her figures boast transplanted eyes that seem too large, too small, too far apart or too close together to be human,” (Croal par. 1). Tiny Split Character is an abstract piece of art, representing the female form. She selected certain aspects she saw and either exaggerated or highlighted them to get her message across. Politi examines how her creative process begins “with accidental splattering” that eventually “build up layers of materials” (par. 3). The artist chooses to use sheets of cut Mylar, “a non-absorptive synthetic material” (Roach par. ) on which she is able to manipulate ink and acrylic paint into splotches and colliding pools. Mutu sorts through mass-produced images of women and cuts “them into fragments; eyes, lips, manicured nails, and stiletto-clad feet” (Roach par. 3) before she begins assembling her creations. Her cyborgs are finally able to come to life when she arranges them on the walls and floors of her studio. These painted forms usually depict the bodies, or body parts, of her abstract figures. After the bodies have been assembled Mutu accentuates this image with various elements such as “jewels and lush paint colors” (Macsweeney par. ). Mutu’s use of unlikely elements gives the women in the image the effect of a glamorous, yet barbaric centerfold. In fact, Mutu’s “gruesome gods and goddesses are born out of [her] chaotic process” (Politi par. 2). The black shading along the top of the picture almost gives the illusion of the women as a light source, as her grisly forms seem to be almost glowing against the darkness. This highlighting the stereotypes and criticism a woman must endure on a day to day basis. The artist’s inconsistent layering patterns further stress the conflicting factors of the so-called perfect body.
The use of a collage allows Mutu to intrigue the audience physically and conceptually by using layered depth within her artwork. She attempts “to trap her viewers with layers of visual metaphors that forc[e] them to question assumptions about race, gender, geography, history and beauty” (Croal par. 1). As an artist, she strives to break down the barriers that are meant to stifle the progress of women in society. Mutu’s obscure characters are composed of numerous elements that represent, overrule, and reconfigure “each potential weakness” that relate to the expected “role of women” (Murnik par. ). The artist decides to depict women in this manner in hopes of integrating strength and revision into her pieces of art so that the previous perception of women is no longer quintessential. Tiny Split Characters’ accent colors tie into the overall color scheme. Mutu’s visual elements which are mainly that of earth tones and complementary colors, as she uses yellow, purple, red, and green at different intensities. At the same time it can be considered somewhat analagous as the colors range from red-orange, to orange, to yellow-orange.
The same goes for her use ranging from green to purple. Her use of color gives the overall tone of a simple yet enchanting creature. Something that is both natural and manmade. This idea is supported by her insertion of gears and other machinery in the picture. It represents the contradiction and dualistic nature of women. On one hand there is our natural self. On the other there is what society says we should be and what society says we should look like. Women are torn, between who they really are, and who they are pressured to become.
Perhaps there is a way that the woman portrayed in Tiny Split Character can balance the two. What Mutu is trying to show is that there is a way, by expanding societies’ definition of beauty, so women can stay as pure and organic as they chose to be. In addition to color, Mutu uses texture through layering and collage in Tiny Split Character to create visual interest and depth. Pattern can be seen as well with the repetitive holes engrossing the larger woman’s body. Mutu uses the principle of asymmetrical balance to dramatize the opposition between who the woman has become and who the woman use to be.
However, despite the symmetry imbalance, they both seem to come together to make another separate whole. Insinuating a oneness between the two, that possibly the woman she was has never left, she has simply taken a back seat to the woman she is now. The blank background creates a lack of depth so that our sole focus is on the interpretation of the women in front of us. The hierarchal scale between the larger and smaller woman leads us to believe the smaller woman is a separate entity. One will naturally originally wonder who the smaller woman is in relation to the larger woman.
Her size suggests that she is of less importance then the larger woman. Perhaps she is her conscience, maybe even the representation of her basic, animalistic, desires that are taunting her to do the wrong thing. Upon further analysis of the picture, and taking account the title, Tiny Split Character, it is then that we realize that she is, in fact, a part of the larger woman. She is smaller because society has constantly belittled who she originally was, who she actually yearns to be. Media tells her that her former self is not as important as the public image she is trying to maintain.
Despite her downplay, without the smaller woman, the larger woman would not be whole. In conclusion, Wangechi Mutu’s Tiny Split Character, is an homage to women everywhere. It’s strikingly bizarre, and disgusting design, destroys ideals and makes a mockery of female stereotypes. The Museum of Contemporary Art has created a wonderful showcase with Seeing Is a Kind of Thinking, for it truly is. Mutu uses color, collage, balance, scale, texture, pattern, and depth that invokes wonder, amazement, and horror. Molds are broken, history and traditions evolve with Tiny Split Character.
Mutu’s aligned image capitalizes on the contradictions of role expectations: western media ideal, sex goddess, and natural woman. The images also allude to the repercussions of female exploitation. The longing to be who you truly are, along with the fact that women cannot mask their true selves forever are all elements of this beautiful masterpiece that so eloquently portrays a woman’s dilemma and strife. Bibliography “Biography. ” Saatachi Gallery: London Contemporary Art Gallery. 2 Mar. 2011. <http://www. saatchi gallery. co. k/ artists/ wangechi_mutu. htm> Croal, Ada. “The Africana QA: Artist Wangechi Mutu” Africana . 12 Feb. 2004. 8 March 2011. <www. africana. com/articles /qa/ar 20030305mutu. asp> Fong, P. “Wangechi Mutu”. Modern Painters Vol. 20 No. 4. May 2008. 12 March 2011 <http://vnweb. hwwilsonweb. com> Gladstone, Barbara. “Biography”. Gladstone Gallery. Unknown Date. 16 March 2011. <http://www. gladstone gallery. com/ mutu . asp? id=1730> Kerr, Merrily. “Wangechi Mutu’s Extreme Makeovers. ” Art on Paper, Vol. 8, No. 6.
July/ August 2004. 21 March 2011. < http://www. akrylic. com/contemporary_art_article73. htm> Macsweeney, Eve. “A Fertile Mind” Vogue. Apr. 2009: 190. Health Reference Center Academic. Web. 22 Mar. 2011. <http://find . galegroup. com> Politi, G. Wangechi Mutu [Exhibit]. Flash Art (International Edition) Vol. 41 March/April 2008. 22 March 2011. <http:// vnweb. hwwilsonweb. com> Roach, Jill. “Indepth Arts News”. Absolute Arts. 16 Dec. 2005. 14 April 2011. <http://www. absolutearts. com/artsnews/2005/ 12/19/33549. html>