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Wangechi Mutu: Piling on

The Cinderella Curse explores an African muse

The chatter of visitors and the sunlight spilling into the ACA Gallery of SCAD has never been as distracting as it is in Wangechi Mutu's The Cinderella Curse. Mutu's is the kind of installation that implores you to enter the artist's head space for a time, and give oneself completely over to her haunting evocation of the connections between labor and violence. It's a challenge in the keyed-up buzz of a Friday afternoon at the Woodruff Arts Center.

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Perhaps it's the aura of trauma and pain that makes one long for privacy and space. Bouncing off from the ancient folktale popularized by the Brothers Grimm, Mutu's Cinderella is, in deference to the artist's Kenyan origins, revisited as an African muse. And her scrubbing, shown in a 25-minute DVD featuring Mutu performing a futile gesture of "Cleaning Earth" projected onto a charcoal-gray felt wall in the gallery, is not just the temporary purgatory before the prince arrives. Labor is grueling, endless and, from the pile of clothes heaped on a table in the gallery, appears to have no end in sight.

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It is hard to look at that clothing mountain and not think of genocide. The discarded black and navy garments feel like stand-ins for the bodies that wore them. For an extra traumatic jolt, bottles of wine hang upside down over the clothes, slowly dripping their contents onto the clothes, creating more labor for our heroine and the suggestion of an endlessly bleeding wound.

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If the pile of clothes weren't evocative enough of some grand-scale trauma, the New York-based artist has created unsettling, visceral wall pieces in the gallery. It's evident in the pearl-like pustules that erupt from mounds in the wall, like some elusive treasure. And then, as you go deeper into the gallery space, raw, pitted pink wounds dug into the wall suggesting scars or bullet wounds, or the violence required to get at those pearls.

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There is an intimation of violence, too, in Mutu's signature collages that blend disturbingly clashing images from fashion magazines and other sources into Frankenstein, hybrid women with hands clutched tightly around their throats or stuffed in their mouths, suggestive blood splatters of red and wounds erupting from their heads.

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Is there genocide on Mutu's mind, perhaps inspired by the multiple ones that have unfolded in Darfur or Rwanda, or simply a suitably scathing African revision to what has become the ultimate white-girl fantasy of marrying up?

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Either way, no prince waits in the wings for this Cinderella, though the suggestion of dashed dreams in that endlessly scrubbing woman, a single "slipper" (platform heel on a pile of artificial sand) and that mountain of wine-stained clothes is clear.

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Wangechi Mutu: The Cinderella Curse. Through June 24. Tues., Wed., Sat., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thurs.-Fri., 10 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Sun., noon-5 p.m. ACA Gallery of SCAD, 1280 Peachtree St. 404-815-2931. www.acagallery.org.



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