Collected Works: Art
Cancer of the Uterus
by Wangechi Mutu
We see a face, distinguished by its plush lips and two melancholic eyes, positioned within a mass of black glitter. Horn-like organs sprout from the scalp, while the head is flanked by clumps of white fur. The human features seem to be lifted from a glossy fashion magazine, but the basis of the image is a medical diagram of a life-threatening illness. The figure staring forlornly out at us, as the title suggests, is a disturbing personification of cancer.
This artwork is one portrait of many by Wangechi Mutu on the same morbid theme, each of which seeks to depict what, for the artist, is a female condition. Women ‘carry the marks’ of their culture; anything that is ‘desired or despised’ is projected onto their bodies. The mutilations and tumours that recur throughout the series serve as a manifestation of gendered suffering and brutality. Patriarchal society, too, is understood as a devastating disease.
The use of collage gives the work a tactile sense of tangibility, as if inviting the viewer to reach out and touch its textured surface. Mutu’s application of glitter, a material associated with juvenile fun, is a somewhat incongruous choice to represent the decayed bodily matter. But it serves another, more allegorical, purpose: the dazzling material alludes to the illegal diamond trade in Africa. Whether jewels or skin, a striking sight hides a damaging malignance that rages beneath.
Here, the image encourages us to consider what light and dark have come to connote. The sparkling, jet-hued shimmer forms a stark contrast against the otherwise ivory head, drawing attention to the racial themes of the work, to the ‘exoticising and fearing of the black body’. An intimate and invasive study in identity politics, Cancer of the Uterus evokes the manifold ways in which a woman’s body, beautiful and dignified, can be marked by the ugly stain of violence.
Words by Sophia Martin-Pavlou