Mwangi Hutter channels Dante in performance art
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.