A FEW MINUTES into my wandering around the Wangechi Mutu exhibit at Drexel University, I was stopped in my tracks at the sight of the artist doing what looked to me like the desecration of a perfectly good chocolate cake.
Mutu, in a videotaped performance-art piece at the newly expanded Leonard Pearlstein Gallery, can be seen smooshing her hands around in the cake and even walking on it while wearing a pair of Lucite platform shoes.
In the center of the gallery, there's a hanging collection of what appear to be makeshift soccer balls suspended from the ceiling with twine.
But the hands-down most arresting parts of Mutu's show are the collages, which I discovered, once I got close enough, are crafted from pornographic and fashion-magazine images mixed with everything from black glitter to clippings from medical books.
Seeing them, I was repelled - but also intrigued. And confused. I wasn't sure what to make of it until Joseph Gregory, the exhibit's curator, patiently walked me through it, explaining Mutu's ideas about black female identity.
"These things are so unbelievably grotesque and startling," agreed Gregory, also an associate professor at Drexel. "It's kind of like, 'OK, you want to stereotype me? How about this?' It's really in your face."
Yes, those are images of the female reproductive system - but they're medical illustrations, he pointed out.
"So they're intended as Western science, but they really represent the idea of Western objectification of women and, in particular, African women," Gregory said. "And, so, that's why she makes them scream out at you and become horrific, you see."
At this point, we were standing in front of a collection of Mutu collages called "The Histology of the Different Tumors of the Uterus," bizarre images of fibroids fashioned into women's faces. One face sits upon a neck fashioned out of an illustration of a vaginal canal. The face has exaggerated racial characteristics such as oversized pink lips.
"It's very aggressive. It's kind of angry. And it's seizing control over determining who and what you are as an African woman - 'I won't be objectified any more,' " Gregory said, describing the images as "ferocious masks of some self that's going to present itself and not be objectified by you."
Mutu, whose work has been shown in London, Paris and Ontario, was born in Kenya and schooled there and in Great Britain. She has a master's degree in fine arts from Yale and is based in Brooklyn.
"She's the most original artist, woman artist, that I know of," said Gregory, who came up with the idea of inviting her to Drexel. "I was in MOMA [New York's Museum of Modern Art] several years ago . . . and I saw a collage by her, and I was just knocked out. . . . Just the energy of it. The imagination unleashed, it's so impressive. It really sticks in your mind."
He arranged an introduction with Sonia Sanchez, Philadelphia's first poet laureate, and "it was love at first sight. It was mutual respect and admiration. . . . I knew Wangechi would say yes to us because of Sonia, and sure enough, she did. So, we're really fortunate."
Sanchez has written some original poetry inspired by Mutu's art that she'll perform Friday night during the opening reception.