For the first time in 117 years, sculptures occupy the erstwhile empty niches of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exterior. Wangechi Mutu has introduced her quartet of magisterial bronze statues to the museum’s austere Beaux-Arts entrance. These impressive representations of African women inaugurate the Met’s annual façade commission, which seeks to bring contemporary art to the front of an institution whose collection spans more than 5,000 years of history.
While most commissions of this scale and importance would take a few years to complete, the Met approached Mutu with the offer nine months ago. What she has delivered in that short timeframe is beyond expectation: an elegant synthesis of Western and African art styles that index objects in the museum’s own collection for inspiration. Cumulatively titled, The NewOnes, will free Us, the statues address the rote transformation of women into ornamentation in veiled references to the column-like caryatids sculpted from marble in Greece and wood in West Africa. In both cases, women are portrayed as load-bearers — structural supports for masculine architecture and ideals.
Accordingly, “The Seated,” as they are individually called, balance their roles as emblems and avatars of female empowerment. Compared to the massive scale of the Met’s façade, they are relatively small and overshadowed by the pair of columns surrounding each niche. If Mutu’s sculptures weren’t of such exceptional quality, one might worry about the artworks being swallowed whole by the museum’s mammoth exterior. Fortunately, the brilliant details of each statue attract the eye. Each statue followed a prescribed pattern, with minor variations between them. All include a polished disk placed somewhere on the figure’s head, which is reminiscent of the circular lip plates traditionally worn by peoples in Ethiopia, Sudan, and the Americas. Each also wears a garment inspired by the neck rings found in some African and Asian cultures where such jewelry amplifies the wearer’s majesty and might.
Like any good public artist, Mutu excels in her appreciation for the context of her commission; she recognizes that most viewers will see The NewOnes, will free Us from far below it. Consequently, she has contoured details of the women’s facial features and fabric folds into the bronze by polishing it, highlighting these elements to legibility from across Fifth Avenue.
The inclusion of Mutu’s women helps to spark new ideas about how the public might enter the museum’s near-encyclopedic collection of civilization from a non-patriarchal, non-white perspective. While the contents and curation of the building remain the same, one’s frame of mind is inexorably altered when passing by the Kenyan-born artist’s queenly guardians.
The NewOnes, will free Us continues through January 12, 2020 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan). The commission was curated by Kelly Baum.