The Met acquires sculptures by Wangechi Mutu

Wangechi Mutu (Kenyan, b. 1972). ‘The Seated III,’ 2019. Bronze, 80¾ 3/4 x 31¾ x 37¼in. © Wangechi Mutu. Courtesy of the Artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Hazen Polsky Foundation Fund and Cynthia Hazen Polsky Gift, in celebration of the museum’s 150th Anniversary, 2020

NEW YORK – The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced Tuesday the acquisition of new works by Wangechi Mutu. Two sculptures, The Seated I (2019) and The Seated III (2019) have been acquired from Mutu’s series of four bronze sculptures collectively titled The NewOnes will free Us, originally created for the museum’s inaugural commission for The Met Fifth Avenue facade.

Mutu’s sculpture series for the facade was unveiled in September 2019, and the sculptures have continued to preside over the museum’s plaza throughout the pandemic-induced shutdown. They will remain on view until early November.

The Seated I (2019) has been acquired thanks to the generosity of museum trustee Cynthia Hazen Polsky and the Hazen Polsky Foundation Fund; the acquisition of The Seated III (2019) was supported by the Women and the Critical Eye Gifts and Janet Lee Kadesky Ruttenberg Fund, in memory of William S. Lieberman.

Max Hollein, director of the Met, said: “Wangechi Mutu’s sculptures for The Met’s facade have an extraordinary presence and poetic brilliance, and they offer an empowering statement as well as a critical institutional perspective for all to witness. In addition to the thousands who have experienced these outstanding works while entering and exiting the Museum, countless others have continued to enjoy the installation even after the Met temporarily closed its doors in March. Welcoming The Seated I and The Seated III into the Met’s collection allows us to continue to share these important works of art with visitors in many different contexts, creating new dialogues in the future.”

Sheena Wagstaff, chairman of modern and contemporary art at the Met, added, “Wangechi’s ingenious vision of powerful female figures based on historical and current African sources set against the Beaux-Arts facade in the Western tradition is what gives her sculptures magnificent impact. She literally redefines the threshold of this encyclopedic museum. We are so grateful that these works, born out of a commission initiated by the Met, will remain in the collection.”

With The NewOnes, will free Us, Mutu has reimagined a motif common to the history of both African and Western art: the caryatid, a sculpted figure, usually but not always female. Whether carved out of wood for the prestige stool of a West African king or chiseled out of marble for a building on the Athenian Acropolis, the caryatid has always been cast as a load bearer. In her approach, Mutu stages a feminist intervention, liberating the caryatid from her traditional duties and reimagining her as an independent force, a queen in her own right. Mutu does so, moreover, in the context of a neo-classical facade whose original architects sought to convey a far more conservative set of values.

Mutu’s bronze sculptures—known individually as The Seated I, II, III, and IV—depict four otherworldly female figures. Simultaneously celestial and humanoid, each sculpture is unique, with individualized hands, facial features, ornamentation and patination. In designing their embellishments, Mutu found inspiration in customs practiced by specific groups of high-ranking African women. The horizontal and vertical coils that sheathe the figures’ bodies reference beaded bodices and circular necklaces, while the polished discs set into different parts of their heads allude to lip plates. These same discs reflect light and images from the surrounding environment, beckoning to viewers. Sentinels, protectors and messengers all in one, Mutu’s sculptures affirm the liberating power of new ideas, new people, new forms of knowledge and new ways of living.