The niches on the facade of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, empty for the institution’s 117-year history, are now filled with artwork. On Monday, the museum unveiled the four bronze sculptures by Nairobi-born and Brooklyn-based artist Wangechi Mutu for the building’s exterior fronting Fifth Avenue. The work, collectively titled The NewOnes, will free Us, is the first of The Met’s annual commissions intended to not only enliven the structure’s historic Beaux Arts exterior but to affirm the museum’s commitment to showcasing a more contemporary and diverse repertoire.
The sculptures represent four seated or kneeling figures with reflective golden disks (configured as a coiffure in one instance) bearing down on a head or covering a mouth and eyes in others. These disks show both a weighty burden, as well as a display of status and nobility inspired by the traditional dress of African women. Mutu’s sculptures reference the canonical figure of the caryatid, a prevalent theme in both classical and African art. Whereas the caryatid has traditionally been a sculpted female form acting as structural support or embellishment, Mutu has brought her own mediation on the trope. Instead, her sculptures carry their own weight and emanate autonomy and regality.
The facade commission presents an opportunity for the historic art institution to grapple with its place in the contemporary art world and shift away from its Eurocentric past. “What I am most grateful to Wangechi Mutu for is how this grand, temporary installation enables the Museum to continue our momentum on the important path of rethinking what an encyclopedic museum can and should provide, and how it can engage with the important notion of contemporaneity in a meaningful way,” said Max Hollein, the Met’s director, in a statement about the inaugural commission. Mutu’s sculptures will be on-view on Fifth Avenue until January 12, 2020.