Lesson: Looking Closer: The Artwork of Wangechi Mutu

  • Grade Level: High School (9-12 grade)
  • Subject Area: Global Studies, Social Studies, Literary Arts, and Studio Arts
  • "Perhaps the Moon Will Save Us," (detail of installation) 2008."Perhaps the Moon Will Save Us," (detail of installation) 2008.
  • "Perhaps the Moon Will Save Us," (detail of installation) 2008."Perhaps the Moon Will Save Us," (detail of installation) 2008.
  • "Perhaps the Moon Will Save Us," (detail of installation) 2008."Perhaps the Moon Will Save Us," (detail of installation) 2008.
  • "Perhaps the Moon Will Save Us," (detail) 2008."Perhaps the Moon Will Save Us," (detail) 2008.

Introduction

Written by Pace High School teacher, Tiffany Valo.
Wangechi Mutu is a Kenyan-born artist. Her collages deal with issues like women in society, especially in media. Many of her artworks solicit different extremes from their viewers, like disgust and appeal or appearing both ancient and futuristic. Mutu often creates her collages with clippings from National Geographic and fashion magazines. Through this juxtaposition her work also addresses colonial history, and her contemporary African experience living in the United States. Common themes found throughout her work include the female body, race, cosmetic surgery, and technology. Her art practice and techniques challenge current stereotypes about women and the body, particularly people of African descent. This lesson explores the artwork of Wangechi Mutu and investigates the issues that arise from it. This lesson asks what has to change for women to be viewed differently in society, especially viewed by the media?

Objectives

• Students will explore Mutu’s works with a focus on major themes.
• Students will define current political struggles.
• Students will question the role of gender in their everyday lives.

Vocabulary

Gender ishe condition of being female or male, sex.
Gender identity is the sense of identification with either the male or female sex, as manifested in appearance, behavior, and other aspects of a person’s life. Gender identity does not always coincide with biological sex.
Backlash is a strong or violent reaction, as to a social or political change.
Stereotype is a generalization, usually exaggerated or oversimplified and often offensive, that is used to describe or distinguish a group of people. Stereotypes can take many forms including race, gender, class, sexuality, age, and gender identity.
Masculine pertains to or characteristic of a man or the male gender.
Feminine pertains to or characteristic of a woman or the female gender.

Materials

Wangechi Mutu’s Backlash Blues, 2004. Ink, acrylic, photo-collage, contact paper, mylar. 78 × 47 inches.
Wangechi Mutu’s Perhaps the Moon Will Save Us in the Digital Archives.
Projector
Copy of poem by Langston Hughes, titled Backlash Blues
Copy of song, Backlash Blues, by Nina Simone
Backlash Blues assignment hand out
Index cards to specify roles that are defined by age, sex, and other indicators for Final activity

Lesson Strategy

Day 1
• Introduce the concepts of the lesson to the students and review vocabulary.
• Project Mutu’s Backlash Blues for students to discuss.
• Have students list what they can see in the artwork on a piece of paper (draw particular attention to the motorcycles and machinery).
• What words would you use to describe this piece?
• What elements draw you into this picture? Are there any elements that repulse you?
• How would you describe the figure’s pose?
• What does the pose remind you of?
• What gender is the figure? What makes you say that?
• What are markers of gender? How do you present your gender?
• What statement is the artist trying to make about how people are represented in society?
• The title of this piece is Backlash Blues. What do you think the artist means by choosing this title?

Hand out copies of the Langston Hughes poem Backlash Blues to students. Read it aloud and then play song by Nina Simone and have students follow along with the poem. Have student take five minutes and write a reaction to the poem and the song and discuss students’ responses. Be sure to clarify any confusion they might have.
• Did the song and the poem impact you differently? Did you think one was more effective? Why?
• Ask students what “backlashes” Hughes is referring to in his poem. Examples might include the civil rights movement and the assassination of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.
• Give examples from today’s society, like Bush’s attempt to pass an amendment defining marriage between a man and woman or an increase in violence against people assumed to be of Middle-Eastern descent after September 11th.
• Ask students if they can recall any other instances of backlash and list them on the board.

Activity
Alluding to current events, students will write their own version of “Backlash Blues.” The handout can be used as a worksheet for student to write their poems. (Refer to handout)

Assessment
Student version of “Backlash Blues.”

Day 2
Briefly review main ideas from the previous day’s lesson and vocabulary.

Have students respond to the following questions in their journals: “Can you remember a time in your life when you have felt discriminated against? Describe it. How did you handle it? Why were you targeted? What was the story?” Students can share their responses and experiences.

Project the image Perhaps the Moon Will Save Us and have the students discuss it.
Have students list what they can see in the artwork (draw attention to the pigs and items in the moon).

• Does the artist use traditional art-making supplies? What type of materials does the artist recycle?
• What type of environment has she created?
• Let’s examine her constructions. What objects make up the sphere? What does the round sphere signify?
• How do these objects in the moon speak to gender and femininity? How might gender be constructed?
• What type of environment did the artist create? How does the wrapping tape add to the piece?
• What references do the flying pigs have? What are they wrapped in? How does this speak to desire, violence, or hope?
• How does the title influence what we already know about the work?
• How does the title add meaning to the work?
• How do you think the moon might save us? What will it save us from?
• How does the moon impact the Earth? How does the sun impact the Earth? When you think of the moon and sun how are they different? Do we gender them? If so, how?

Activity
Break up students into groups of five. For each group have students pick a card. Each card has a different role on it including:

• a little girl
• a 40-year-old woman
• an elderly man
• a tomboy
• a drag queen

Each student will pick a card and be assigned gender roles that they will act out in their groups. Ask students to think about how they will communicate their assigned gender through their movement, posture, and performance. Ask students what characteristics define gender. What makes someone masculine or feminine? Students will be asked to perform their gender role without speaking. Discuss stereotypes concerning gender. How are women supposed to behave? How are men supposed to behave? Students should consider the following questions:

• How does this person walk down the street?
• How does he or she stand?
• How does he or she sit on the subway?
• What clothes does he or she wear?
• Do people on the street notice them? Why?

Within their group each student will perform their gendered role for two minutes. Remind students to take the activity seriously, but also have fun. Their performance must include a walk, a pose, and sitting in a chair. After the performances, have students reflect on and discuss the experience of acting out another gender. Below are some questions to help prompt discussion.

• Were there parts that made you feel uncomfortable? Why?
• Did you identify with any part of the character you performed?
• Did you use stereotypes during the performance to communicate your role? What were they? Why did you use them? How might we be critical of these stereotypes?
• Have you ever been aware of how you might “act out” your own gender every day? What do you do to communicate your gender?

Activity:

Have students write a short fiction piece about a day in the life of the character they portrayed in their performance. What does their character look like? How does he or she act? What are his or her interests? What is his or her story?