Mwangi Hut­ter chan­nels Dante in per­for­mance art

The Washington Post Sunday - - THEATER - BY CELIA WREN style@wash­ Wren is a free­lance writer.

There is hope in hell — or so it seems, given the up­com­ing pre­miere of “Burn­ing De­sire to Be Touched,” a per­for­mance-art piece by the artis­tic duo known as Mwangi Hut­ter. The work is set to de­but July 18 at the Smith­so­nian’s Na­tional Mu­seum of African Art in con­junc­tion with the ex­hi­bi­tion “The Di­vine Com­edy: Heaven, Pur­ga­tory, and Hell Re­vis­ited by Con­tem­po­rary African Artists.”

Mwangi Hut­ter’s mul­ti­me­dia in­stal­la­tion “In a Pure Land” now ap­pears in the “Hell” sec­tion of the ex­hi­bi­tion, and “Burn­ing De­sire” will echo mo­tifs from that piece. But the new work will give the themes a more pos­i­tive spin, said In­grid Mwangi, a na­tive of Kenya who col­lab­o­rates with her hus­band, Robert Hut­ter, who was born in Ger­many.

“A lot of our work has had, in the past, to deal with the prob­lem­atic as­pects of hu­man ex­is­tence,” such as vi­o­lence, racism and gaps of un­der­stand­ing be­tween peo­ple, Mwangi said by Skype from south­west Ger­many. Those con­cerns con­tinue to be of in­ter­est, she said, but now Mwangi Hut­ter is tak­ing a dif­fer­ent ap­proach — “still look­ing at the dif­fer­ences or con­trasts be­tween peo­ple, but try­ing to think about how these dif­fer­ences are ul­ti­mately su­per­fi­cial.”

The theme of dif­fer­ence res­onates through­out “In a Pure Land,” which is dom­i­nated by video of three fig­ures in suc­ces­sion, each iso­lated against a black back­ground. A full-body, solid-color cos­tume con­ceals each fig­ure’s hands and face. An all-black fig­ure flails men­ac­ingly; a red fig­ure is more play­ful; a white fig­ure is rel­a­tively serene. Be­low the video, words made out of fist­fuls of dough de­scribe a mys­te­ri­ous land­scape.

The red, white and black pres­ences in “In a Pure Land” do not in­ter­act. But in­ter­ac­tion will be cen­tral to “Burn­ing De­sire to Be Touched.” One com­po­nent of the piece will fea­ture two hu­man fig­ures (Mwangi and Hut­ter) in full­body, solid-color cos­tumes. “We re­ally want the two fig­ures to reach out to each other and to leave traces,” Mwangi said. “We’re go­ing to work with black paint to show how this in­ter­min­gling leaves an im­print and a mark that is last­ing.” The work also will in­cor­po­rate video and a sound­scape.

Mwangi said the body-con­ceal­ing at­tire in “In a Pure Land” and “Burn­ing De­sire” is a way to keep hu­man fig­ures from look­ing too spe­cific. A glimpse of a par­tic­u­lar skin color or hair type might dis­tance a viewer who doesn’t share that trait, whereas an en­tirely cloth-swad­dled fig­ure will spark the same recog­ni­tion in ev­ery­one.

The cos­tumes also give the hu­man body an in­ter­est­ing “sculp­tural” as­pect, Mwangi said. “‘Burn­ing De­sire,’ ” she said, “will be work­ing a lit­tle bit with the idea of liv­ing sculp­ture — some­thing which doesn’t have so much nar­ra­tive but the nar­ra­tive is cre­ated in the mind of the viewer.”

Honor­ing an Ira­nian poet

Sus­san Dey­him, an Ira­nian Amer­i­can com­poser, singer and per­for­mance artist, has col­lab­o­rated with mu­si­cians and other artists in­clud­ing Or­nette Coleman, Peter Gabriel and Shirin Ne­shat, cre­at­ing edgy op­eras and con­tribut­ing to the sound­tracks of movies in­clud­ing “Argo.” Now Dey­him is aim­ing to raise aware­ness of the work of Forugh Farrokhzad, a dar­ing Ira­nian poet and film­maker who died in a car ac­ci­dent in 1967 at age 32.

Farrokhzad’s po­etry seems pro­gres­sive even by to­day’s stan­dards, Dey­him said by phone from her home in Los An­ge­les. “She was an ex­is­ten­tial­ist, an eroti­cist, an ac­tivist, a fem­i­nist ... a real mod­ernist,” Dey­him said. On the level of lan­guage, more­over, Farrokhzad’s verse “com­pletely tran­scended the tra­di­tion of Ira­nian Farsi at that time,” Dey­him said. “It lit­er­ally cre­ated a new lin­guis­tic land­scape for po­etry.”

Dey­him, who fell in love with Farrokhzad’s work grow­ing up in Iran, has been work­ing on two projects inspired by the poet — a stage pro­duc­tion and an art in­stal­la­tion. She will present ex­cerpts from both at the Freer Gallery of Art’s Meyer Au­di­to­rium on July 18 as part of “Con­tem­po­rary Iran Through Film,” a se­ries be­ing pre­sented in con­junc­tion with the ex­hi­bi­tion “Shirin Ne­shat: Fac­ing History” at the Hir­sh­horn Mu­seum.

The July 18 pro­gram will in­clude a screen­ing of “The House Is Black,” Farrokhzad’s 1962 doc­u­men­tary about a leper colony. The film, said Carol Huh, an as­sis­tant cu­ra­tor at the Freer and Sackler gal­leries, is con­sid­ered by some as the be­gin­ning of Ira­nian new wave cin­ema.

Farrokhzad may have died young, Dey­him said, but her art reaches to­ward the fu­ture. It is the kind of work that can “cre­ate a bridge be­tween what we have been and what we will be,” she said.


Hus­band and wife In­grid Mwangi and Robert Hut­ter pre­miere a per­for­mance-art piece at the­Mu­seum of African Art on July 18.

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