Twisted water-filled pipes strung with see-through high heel lady sandals, snaking on the floor against the backdrop of a seductive curtain, which is spotlessly clean and glistens with an aura of its own. The water being siphoned off from a sink well is not disinfected or purified.
The two images of impure water and a shining curtain - a juxtaposition of the dirty with the clean - catch your fancy with the sheer novelty of the concept. It looks like a piece of live theatre.
“Dirty women, dirty water, dirty thoughts, dirty songs, dirty games, dirty mind, dirty war…Things called ‘dirty’ are defined primarily by the juxtaposition to what they are expected to be and are not their exact opposite: The uncontaminated, clean, pristine form of themselves,” says Wangenchi Mutu, the Kenyan-born, New York-based artist, sculptor and anthropologist who has put up her installation, ‘Dutty Water’, at Aspinwall House.
‘Dutty Water’ is a work that expresses the artist’s thoughts on how the idea of a clean and pure space is only a heavily guarded fiction, conveniently invented and deliberately fostered.
“In my mind there is no such thing as intrinsic purity; purity is rather our attempt to sterilise a space or a thing to make it more digestible to our minds,” contends the 1972-born artist, the recipient of Deutsche Bank’s 2010 Artist of the Year award. Women, in particular, find themselves intrinsically linked to this inflated idea of purity and cleanliness.
“The idea of desecrating a gallery space isn’t mine alone; however, the concept of merging the idea of dirtiness and femaleness and turning them into a kind of sick dreamlike frontier and place of pilgrimage was what I was hoping for. ‘Dutty Water’ is a metaphor for a place where worship and desecration are happening simultaneously,” says Wangechi, a participant in the 2004 Gwangju Biennale in South Korea and the 2008 Prospect1 Biennial in New Orleans.
These contradictory impulses are prevalent within the confines of extreme Patriarchy and Misogyny, she points out. “A sort of violent twisting and combining together of the image of woman and filth. This dehumanising of the female body at the exact same moment as it is deemed delectable is what allows and normalises the abuse, the rape and destruction played out on women. Dutty Water is an altar and a libation in honour of the end of the destruction of the female body consciously or unwittingly.”
By juxtaposing various images and objects and, most importantly, by siphoning water from the sink well without any attempt to purify or disinfect it, “I am both metaphorically and actually pouring vital material and meaning into a space (the Art viewing environment) that thus begins to act as a theater for truths,” she explains.
The see-through lucite high heel sandals represent femaleness together with sexiness; they also represent an imposed hyper-sexualisation of women, and they represent women in sex-work.
“The curtain and the shiny lights draw the viewer in from a distance. This see-through cloth represents a veil where a kind of violence is encouraged and ignored to the point that in its repetitiveness it becomes an embellishment,” says the artist, whose work has been exhibited at major institutions, including The Royal Academy, London; Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art; Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin; and Tate Modern in London.
Dutty Water is the artist’s aesthetic assault on archetypal images, preconceived notions and entrenched stereotypes. Wangechi’s work explores the female body as a site of engagement and provocation, and this she does by using samples from a multitude of image sources such as medical diagrams, glossy magazines, anthropology and pornographic materials.
“My sources for pictures are numerous but consistent with my interest in the female body and how it is represented, the perception of African women/brown skinned women in Art, media and literature,” she says.
About India’s first biennale, Wangechi notes that it will go a long way to open up the necessary channels for artistic events like it to occur in the future. “There are an astounding amount of complex components involved in putting on a major exhibition and we often take for granted the speed and ease with which they can come together in countries with great financial resources. The Kochi Muzuris Biennale presented many obstacles, but was ultimately more impactful because of what it overcame.”