Tang Teaching Museum
Wangechi Mutu makes collages that explore issues around female identity, myth making, and the perception and representation of women throughout history. Mutu’s Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tumors (2006) comprises twelve portraits of black women’s faces. The faces have stereotypically feminine features—a finely tweezed brow, red lips, eyes made up with shimmery shadow and false lashes. But they are also distorted and diseased. Parts of the faces are scattered and reassembled like a Cubist painting. Fleshy forms tumble and bulge from all angles. Body parts are repurposed—a leg becomes a nose; a breast, a cheekbone or ear. These parts are from two seemingly disparate sources: magazine images of models and porn stars are grafted with clinical illustrations from nineteenth-century medical atlases.(1) The result is seductive yet frightening, beautiful yet repulsive.
What Mutu achieves in the Histology series is to show us how similar these two types of images are. Speaking about her work in an interview with curator Deborah Willis, Mutu states, “The [black female] body is put to work, devoured, tortured, broken, mutilated, and then prepared for display as an artifact, a totem, a specimen.”(2) In Primary Syphilitic Ulcers of the Cervix, a glistening red tongue extends suggestively from the right side of the face. Skinfolds at the top of the head and jawline evoke breasts or buttocks. Meanwhile, the placement of the facial features, the mismatched eyes, and the addition of non-facial elements from the nineteenth-century illustration—the speculum tool and disembodied hand—signal something frightening.
Primary Syphilitic Ulcers of the Cervix is one of three illustrations that originate in an 1851 medical atlas of venereal diseases published by French surgeon Philippe Ricord (1800–1889).(3) The images show the splayed thighs and genitals of women suffering from various ulcers or inflammation. A speculum device inserted into the vagina is depicted with great detail by the artist, who has rendered even the crosshatched pattern on the handle grips and the texture of the metal. Though the contents of Ricord’s book focus on the visible symptoms of each patient, it is clear that the images also promote the pictured apparatus, which Ricord invented a few years prior and sought to market for widespread use in the treatment of syphilis.(4) In addition to the emphasis on the specula, there is an overall aestheticization of the body in these images. The genitals have an airbrushed quality not unlike pornographic images: symmetrical vulvas, minimal pubic hair (and any existing hair looks neatly trimmed), evenly toned skin.
This aestheticizing of women’s bodies as a motive for someone else’s gain—whether Ricord’s sales and reputation as a leading physician or makers and financers of beauty products and pornographic magazines—is something Mutu subverts in the Histology series. The distinctions between beauty and grotesque, reality and fiction, past and present, Mutu shows us, are never things we should accept at face value.