Exploring Wangechi Mutu’s “Preying Mantra”
“Preying Mantra,” created by international artist Wangechi Mutu in 2006, is a mixed media collage constructed on Mylar. It is a colorful and abstract piece, featuring a woman sitting underneath a tree completely nude. Like Mutu’s other work, which includes sculpture and videography, “Preying Mantra” examines different ideas of identity, …
“Preying Mantra,” created by international artist Wangechi Mutu in 2006, is a mixed media collage constructed on Mylar. It is a colorful and abstract piece, featuring a woman sitting underneath a tree completely nude. Like Mutu’s other work, which includes sculpture and videography, “Preying Mantra” examines different ideas of identity, such as cultural, sexual, and gender. Through her use of subject matter and imagery, Wangechi Mutu explores different facets of identity that are often otherwise stigmatized.
To begin, it’s important to take Mutu’s background into context when studying her work. She was born in Kenya but studied in both Europe and the United States, thusly giving her perspective from both sides. Europe has a history with colonization in Africa, and many of Mutu’s work seeks to explore Western views on African culture, or the fusion of these cultures. The content of this piece is a young woman, presumably African, locking eyes with the viewer, interpreted either suggestively or as an establishment of her dominance. She is underneath a tree with a green serpent in one hand, both references to the Garden of Eden.
Additionally, she is resting on a black and gold blanket that resembles traditional African textiles, a similar vibe to Gustav Kilmt’s aesthetic. The saturated colors, stark contrast, and visual Biblical references all suggest that this woman may be “sinning” because she is comfortable with her sexuality and gender identity. Perhaps Mutu is trying to convey that this is how Westerners view African woman, in an objectifying nature, or maybe how we as a society view women in general.
Next, the title “Preying Mantra” is a reference to the praying mantis, an insect that lures in its prey slowly and calculatedly. Female praying mantises cannibalize the males after mating, a very powerful act of dominance. By naming her piece this title, it could suggest female empowerment, that women are gaining a higher social standing than they had had before, or perhaps it means that women are prey—-prey to others’ “mantras” and expectations.
In brief, Wangechi Mutu’s “Preying Mantra” explores sexual, cultural, and gender identity with its colorful and beautiful imagery, with different ideologies juxtaposed to each other. Is this empowering, or does it represent the injustices that minorities like women, Africans, or other colonized cultures face? Just like the woman locking eyes with the viewer can be interpreted as sensual or empowering, many other aspects of this piece make the viewer think about not only this woman’s identity, but also their own identity.
All Images © 2021 Wangechi Mutu