Assistant Professor of Art History
Looking at Wangechi Mutu’s collage piece Ovarian Cysts from her series Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tumors (2006) is a visceral experience. A glittering black skull rides on two sets of decapitated women’s legs, which clamber toward the viewer atop a heap of misshapen, blistered ovaries. Between the shimmer of the glitter, the pornographic cutouts, and the detailed drawing of diseased human organs, I’m caught between my fascination and revulsion with the image. Mutu’s work unsettles me on a thematic level, too, because bodily symbols of life and death, found in the ovaries and the skull, respectively, intermingle and merge.
My emotional and cerebral reactions to this work are like those of many other scholars and art critics who encounter the series. The ways we turn living women into symbols of the most attractive and repulsive aspects of life is a central critique in Mutu’s work. Combining historical medical illustrations with pornographic imagery is the artist’s signature technique throughout the series and reveals how mass culture and scientific studies alike serve to define what is normal and valuable in women.
While it is true that representations of women often reflect the fears and desires of society at large, I ask, What about the men? What can images of men and our perceptions of manhood tell us about ourselves—about our fantasies and fears?
These questions might sound strange, if not offensive. Yet Mutu’s choice to incorporate a man’s body in Ovarian Cysts not only sets it apart within her Histology series, but it also delivers a more incisive critique of patriarchy. Partially hidden behind the glittering latticework of the skull’s cranium is a man studying several human skulls. He appears undisturbed by the glittery humanoid monstrosity that stares back at us, and, instead, turns away from the viewer in order to weigh two skulls in the palms of his hands.
Men, here, represent creators of scientific, if not sexual, knowledge about the world. The bits of text surrounding the man’s black-and-white figure suggest that Mutu extracted his image from a newspaper or magazine feature about the sciences, a set of fields that many people associate with truth and objectivity. The presumed authority of the male scientist and his supposed ability to reveal the origins and destiny of humankind seem out of place among the sparkle and saturated porn images, connecting the composite female creature with the superficial and tacky qualities of low-brow, popular culture.
Mutu inserted the man where the spider-woman’s “brain” might have been: if the feminine form is the site of examination and a carrier of diseases, then our scientist is the genius of a larger analytical enterprise. Although the massive spider-woman attracts the bulk of our scrutiny and lust, her image is a distraction from the construction of knowledge and its basis in men’s bodies, experiences, and behavior. Quietly visible and protected within the creature’s frame, the male scientist can continue, unquestioned, with his machinations on matters of life and death.
The cultural misogyny that Mutu exposes in her work is, therefore, not the goal of patriarchy. Rather, misogyny is a means to an end—to protecting men’s authority over knowledge about life and death, at all costs. Paying closer attention to representations of men and what they mean to us can help us demystify male supremacy and build a more equitable world.