Kenyan American Wangechi Mutu has become the first artist to fill Metropolitan Museum of Arts alcoves with four eye-catching female sculptures

If youre standing outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, theres one small detail thats often overlooked in the buildings grand architecture: the four alcoves that crown its entranceway.

These alcoves have been left empty since the museum was built over a century ago, but thats about to change.

Kenyan American Wangechi Mutu has become the first artist to fill them with four bronze sculptures for a project called The NewOnes, will free Us, which is on view until 12 January.

The sculptures of women here look like confident African queens, staring ahead. One is bald, while another has a lip plate. Theyre all draped in spaghettilike garments, while some have pointed fingers, like celestial beings.

They draw from the artists research in women and power, especially African traditions with adornments that if a woman is wealthy or high ranking, she wears heavier and larger objects.

What do high ranking women in leadership, and leadership women who have wisdom, wear? asks Mutu. I took from these traditions and have elongated, accentuated or heightened them in certain ways so they look and feel like the women who are leaders of that society.

Installation
Photograph: Courtesy of the Artist and Gladstone Gallery

The symbolism here is more than just decorative. They wear adornments and incredible objects and jewelry with pride because they mean so much, she says. You can pull and push the body to read in specific ways that describe the role youre playing in that society.

Lip plates are a custom tradition with tribes in Africa, South America and North America, where clay or wooden plates are worn in a pierced hole in the upper or lower lip.

When these women wear lip plates, theyre wearing facial instruments that heighten them, that make them standout like a crown or a helmet, says Mutu. These women are walking museums; theyre living archives of entire communities and cultures. This isnt tattooing or trendy ear piercing or ear stretching business. This is the business of history carrying.

Portrait
Wangechi Mutu. Photograph: Photo by Eileen Travell

Theyre that much more beautiful, strong and powerful, resilient and capable of stretching their lips, arms and necks, so it has much different resonance to wear this adornment in this culture, she adds.

This new work also fights against the tradition of caryatids, where the female form is used as part of columns in Greek architecture, holding the weight of rooftops on their heads and hands. This age-old symbolism is apt for the contemporary woman, too.

It ties into the idea of the caryatids, and how the female figure is often carrying other people or some big weight, explains Mutu, citing motherhood, family and day jobs contribute to a womans work. That has always been a representative of how women move through the world they work more than theyre recognized and compensated for.

Mutus sculptures show four women sitting in a relaxed position. Remove this obscene weight off these women, have them seated with their arms and hands empty, without the weight and the load-bearing responsibility of their arms, she says.

She shows the women independent from the weight of men, too. Release these women from their strenuous responsibilities and give them the respect that they are owed, says Mutu.

The Mets commission is also part of a larger shift in the US. The Natural History Museum is re-examining their Theodore Roosevelt statue, which some think should be torn down, as Roosevelt was racist towards Native Americans and African Americans. The museum has added a video and website called Addressing the Statue, which hopes to welcome dialogue, rather than cover up the past.

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Photograph: Courtesy of the Artist and Gladstone Gallery

Another initiative is a public arts campaign called She Built NYC, which is working on getting more female monuments up in a city which has 150 statues of men, but only a handful of women (a statue honoring Shirley Chisholm will soon be raised).

I believe that there are moments where the writers of history cannot see their own mistakes and misconceptions, their biases, says Mutu. Youre living within your time. They must have seemed like heroes and must have ignored the things they did that were unjust.

Mutus artwork at the Met looks to the future. The works represent a new era, she says. Im always looking to tell the truth and persuade humanity to look forward and see our way through all the complicated political ineptitude and human misery we have put ourselves in.

I have an enormous amount of hope, she adds, but I know it needs to address the injustice of misinformation.

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