New York real estate is a rare and pricey commodity. Even in a space as big as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, unused corners are wasted opportunities. For nearly 117 years, this thought has troubled the museum: When architect Richard Morris Hunt designed the building’s Beaux Arts façade, he flanked the front entrance with four niches, replete with pedestals, in anticipation of a series of commissioned figures from artist Karl Bitter. But the statues were never completed. Funding ran low, and the work was abandoned. The museum façade was finished in 1902, but the niches have remained empty ever since, largely unnoticed by museum visitors and passersby—until now.
On ViewMetropolitan Museum of Art
September 9 – January 12, 2019
This fall, Kenyan-American artist Wangechi Mutu fills the spaces with statues of Afro-futuristic women who employ the pedestals as thrones, inaugurating what will be an annual commission for The Met’s façade. As with the rooftop commission, the museum hopes the façade installations will further the dialogue between an encyclopedic collection of artworks dating back as far as 5,000 years ago with those being made today. The NewOnes, will free Us (2019), Mutu’s site-specific installation, rises to the challenge as her tranquil yet stately figures breathe life into the overlooked front of the building, updating it with the freshness of contemporary global work the institution seeks to cultivate.
Mutu synthesizes both European and African traditions in the statues, drawing inspiration from the caryatid, a sculpted female figure employed as a load-bearing support. In African art, caryatids are used in staffs or the base of a seat, not only holding up leader or king, but the power his presence represents as well. Caryatids have populated European architecture for centuries, literally standing in place of support columns (perfect examples have always been present on the façade of The Met; made by Karl Bitter, they stand in a row towards the top of the building, delivered before funding ran out). In his Ten Books on Architecture, Vitruvius refers to caryatids as women condemned to slavery, an association that has persisted, but in Mutu’s work these women are freed from their supportive role, alleviated of their burdens. Instead, the artist gives them a new purpose, positioning her women as a magisterial face of the museum, gatekeepers to all that lies within. It’s quite a reversal of fortune, not only for an architectural brace, but for women in general, who often bear the weight of family, jobs and other people’s burdens, frequently going unnoticed. Mutu elevates her women to a position of power, imbuing them with an infectious confidence in who they are.
They women perch serenely above the sidewalk, as if meditating. Long-fingered hands rest in their laps, their eyes seem half-shut, their attention turned within. Mutu drapes them in body-conscious robes fabricated from bronze coils that reach from ankle to throat, enhancing their regal air. Individually titled The Seated I, II, III, and IV, each figure in the series is unique, with a distinct patina application coloring their faces, lips, gown, and limbs. Recalling the circular lip plates worn by tribal woman in Chad, Mozambique, and Sudan, Mutu adorns each of The Seated with a polished bronze disc. The disc emerges from the mouth of The Seated I’s face, contorting her face as it silences her. On The Seated II, it hovers above her forehead, a manifestation of her tranquil thoughts. It covers the eyes of The Seated IV, shielding her from her surroundings. For The Seated III, Mutu places the plate at the back of her head, like hair gathered in a coiled knot giving her an air so dignified, she becomes the presumed leader of the quartet. The discs serve as mirrors, reflecting sunlight, making it seem as if the women project some other-worldly radiance out to the world. Collectively, the women provide a transitional experience for museum-goers: their serene aura encourages viewers to slow their pace and to cultivate a more introspective mood in anticipation of the collection they are about to engage with, even as they mount the Fifth Avenue steps to get in line for tickets.
The idea of a museum turned inside-out is especially intriguing now that the Met has recently instituted entrance fees of 12 to 25 dollars for visitors who live outside of the New York area. Mutu’s work can be seen by anyone loitering on the steps or in the plaza below, functioning as a free offering to the public as well as a lure into the museum. Welcomed by an institution that houses centuries of work made primarily by white, male artists, The NewOnes, will free Us does not back down from challenging long-standing hierarchies of race and gender in the art world. In the same way the caryatids are given new status, a Black woman contemporary artist is as well, bringing the invisibility of women into the light of day.